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  1. Spotlight on Policy
8 October 2023

Net zero aviation: the sky’s the limit

Britain should be leading the sector towards a more sustainable and prosperous future.

By Matthew Gorman

The past two years have seen the climate crisis come home. In 2022 there were record temperatures across the country, and this year wildfires affecting UK holiday-makers and other extreme weather events have given us further insight into what will happen more often and with greater intensity unless we reduce greenhouse gas emissions urgently. 

Today, while aviation accounts for around 2.5 per cent of global carbon emissions, it is one of the more visible industries when it comes to the climate crisis, and for some the answer to tackling aviation’s impact can only be for us as a society to fly less. 

But should that be the choice? Today, more than a million jobs in the UK depend on our aviation sector. These are people employed by airlines and at airports across the UK. They are the hundreds of thousands of people employed in wellpaid, skilled jobs in our world-leading aerospace sector, mostly outside the south-east. They are the huge numbers of people in hospitality, catering for the millions of tourists who fly to the UK each year from around the world. Alongside these jobs, around 40 per cent of the value of our global trade outside of the EU is carried by aircraft, mostly in the cargo area of a passenger plane full of families going on holidays, alongside business travellers. 

Flying is, therefore, not just about a city break abroad. International connectivity is vital for our businesses and exporters, and as we continually seek to explore new trading relationships to grow the economy, it will only become more important. Apart from all that, it is seen as essential by the many millions of UK nationals with friends and family overseas, and the more than half of UK adults that typically take at least one flight each year, usually as a holiday with the family. People want to fly, and most do not consider it a luxury. But they do want to fly sustainably.

Make no mistake, the aviation industry is under no illusions that whatever the benefits of aviation, the need to address the climate crisis is not up for debate. We must act decisively to reduce our climate impact, as a national and global industry. This is why the UK’s aviation industry set up Sustainable Aviation (SA), a coalition representing the whole of the UK’s aviation sector – our major airlines, airports, aerospace manufacturers, air traffic control providers, sustainable fuel manufacturers and other business partners – a coalition dedicated to the task of delivering net zero carbon aviation by 2050. SA was formed in 2005 under the last Labour government and has grown in strength over the intervening 18 years. In 2020, the UK aviation industry was the first anywhere in the world to commit to net zero 2050. This showed how the sector can continue to grow to meet increasing demand, while still reaching net zero and playing our full part in the UK’s overall net zero transition. 

We don’t shy away from difficult issues and take a leading role in inspiring the global net zero commitment for aviation. These commitments are obviously one thing, but the question often asked of the aviation industry is how can it be done, and how quickly. The very good news is that we have a clear plan and many of the tools needed to make a difference now. The single-most impactful technology is sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). There are several different types of SAF but essentially today’s SAFs take waste and convert it into aviation fuel, with carbon savings of 70-80 per cent compared with using normal, fossil-based jet fuel. In future, “synthetic” SAFs promise 100 per cent carbon reductions. Critically, this technology can be used in existing aircraft. The RAF conducted a world-first 100 per cent SAF flight last November, and Virgin Atlantic plans the first transatlantic 100 per cent SAF flight later this year. In fact, thousands of flights using SAF have been completed already, and the UK has sufficient feedstocks to make SAF and support other industries to decarbonise too. The issue is not one of solutions but of commercialisation and scale. 

This is where a major opportunity for the UK comes in. Our focus is on accelerating delivery, which is only possible by working with others and the government through bodies like the Jet Zero Council and the Aerospace Technology Institute. By working together, we know the UK can be home to a thriving new SAF industry – supplying most of our aviation fuel demand and much of the 10 per cent SAF that will be mandated in the fuel-mix by 2030. SAF plants in the UK’s industrial heartlands could create ten thousand new jobs by 2030 and billions of pounds for local economies in the Humber, the north-east, Scotland, South Wales and Teesside. But these need the right policy support and we look towards how vehicles like the proposed National Wealth Fund could help drive private investment into these exciting new industries, which will power global aviation for decades to come. 

The last few years have also seen the first test flights of a passenger plane powered by hydrogen, increasing our confidence in the potential for zero carbon emission flights for shorter journeys too. Much of this progress is down to the hugely positive impact of the Aerospace Technology Institute, funded jointly by industry and government, which gives the UK the edge and is helping make zero-emission flight technology a reality. Some of the other measures to cut emissions – such as modernising our airspace or using more fuel-efficient aircraft – are cutting carbon as we speak, already making a difference. And not just that, a huge amount of work is going on to address the non-CO2 effects of aviation (things like contrails). A lot still needs to be learned about these, but indicators suggest a majority of the effect comes from a minority of flights – with prospects to mitigate the impact through better flight planning using technology to understand atmospheric conditions. 

The UK’s SAF potential and aerospace prowess are strengths we should be doubling down on in a competitive world economy, where others are standing in the wings or increasingly taking world-leading positions in the green transition – such as the US through its Inflation Reduction Act. This is ultimately the goal the sector has set itself: to protect and grow the existing benefits for the UK of our international connectivity, by achieving net zero carbon aviation by 2050. The UK should be leading the pack, not just towards a more sustainable future, but a more prosperous one as well. The UK aviation industry stands ready to achieve net zero, working in partnership with government – so this critical decade is remembered as a real turning point to a permanently sustainable future for flight.

[See also: Rosebank has exposed contradictions on the centre left]

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