The UK’s aviation industry has set new interim decarbonisation targets on its way to a goal of net zero emissions by 2050. The sector’s Sustainable Aviation group, with members from airlines, airports, manufacturers and air navigation service providers, has announced a minimum overall 15% reduction in net emissions by 2030 and 40% by 2040 relative to 2019. The industry estimates gross emissions from UK aviation totalled 37.4 million tonnes (Mt) in 2019 but reduced to a net 31.4 Mt through market-based measures such as the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS). UK aviation emissions fell to around 9.1 Mt in 2020 as a result of Covid but a traffic rebound is expected to see gross emissions from unabated traffic growth accelerate past 2019 levels by 2024 to reach 41.5 Mt by 2030. In addition to in-sector technology, sustainable fuel and operational efficiency developments, reaching the 2030 and 2040 targets will rely heavily on the industry funding carbon removals elsewhere through emissions trading, offsetting and carbon capture.
However, the industry is confident the ramping up of “game-changing” sustainable aviation fuel production and use, along with emerging low and zero carbon technologies such as electric and hydrogen powered aircraft, will become mainstream in the 2030s and increase the pace of decarbonisation. In view of this, Sustainable Aviation has started to update the sector’s Decarbonisation Road Map, first published in 2020, which the group expects to demonstrate even faster potential to reduce emissions through technology innovation.
“UK aviation led the world last year by being the first national aviation body in the world to commit to net zero by 2050. We are now raising the bar by committing to additional interim milestones to hold ourselves accountable on this journey to ‘Jet Zero’,” said Adam Morton, Chair of Sustainable Aviation (SA).
However, decarbonising the sector is a huge challenge, with significant technology and policy barriers to be overcome this decade, acknowledges SA. It believes the UK risks falling behind other countries, such as the United States, which it says are putting in enhanced policies to support innovation and new fuel technologies.
Morton said the targets were ambitious but achievable though required “meaningful cooperation” between industry and government, together with the necessary policies and funding. SA has laid out five areas that it sees as critical to reaching the net zero goal:
- Key policies this year to deliver a commercial UK sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) industry by providing an urgent demand signal and price support. This could deliver up to 14 UK plants generating SAF from household and industrial waste by the middle 2030s and supporting at least a 32% reduction in emissions from UK aviation by 2050.
- A positive, long-term signal for investment in aerospace technology and the development of hybrid, electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft through increased and extended funding for the Aerospace Technology Institute.
- The completion of airspace modernisation that would generate significant carbon savings.
- Policies that incentivise the commercialisation of carbon removal technologies that enable carbon neutral or carbon negative aviation fuel, allowing the aviation industry to address any remaining residual emissions.
- The UK government “to seek a more robust international commitment for aviation carbon reduction at the ICAO Assembly in 2022, ensuring emissions are reduced across the globe and not exported from the UK.”
With the right support, says SA, the major economic and social benefits of the UK’s air links to the world can be maintained and generate highly skilled green aviation jobs.
Responding to the SA interim targets, the UK’s Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, said: “Working with industry through our Jet Zero Council, we are putting the decarbonisation of the aviation sector at the centre of our plans to build back greener from the pandemic and this industry roadmap complements our vision perfectly.”
The infographic released by SA (see below) to show the milestones on the path to net zero emissions by 2050 indicates that 7.2 Mt of emissions could be saved from technology, SAF and operational efficiency innovation in 2030 to bring UK aviation emissions below the 2019 peak. However, to reach the 15% net reduction target, 9.3 Mt will have to come from offsetting, emissions trading or funding carbon removal technologies. To reach the 2040 interim target of a 40% net emissions reduction will require the UK aviation sector to fund 16.7 Mt of carbon removals.
SA’s projections – based on government traffic forecasts, Heathrow expansion after 2030 and allowing for the effect of Covid-19 – show emissions climbing to 62.2 Mt by 2050 with unabated traffic demand. This could be reduced by 37.3 Mt through SAF usage, aerospace technology innovation and operational efficiency improvements, leaving a sizeable 24.9 Mt of CO2 to be funded by out-of-sector carbon removals in order to reach the net zero target.
Prices in the European carbon markets (the EU ETS and UK ETS) have already traded this year above the €50/£50 ($60-70) per tonne mark and analysts including BloombergNEF (BNEF) are predicting the price to reach €100/tonne by 2030, which potentially leaves the industry with a hefty carbon bill. BNEF also estimates the price would have to rise to at least €252/tonne for even the cheapest SAF to become price competitive with fossil jet fuel.
However, without a significant contribution to in-sector emission reductions from sustainable aviation fuels, Tim Alderslade, Chief Executive for trade body Airlines UK, told an ICF webinar this week that not only would it be impossible to meet the net zero commitment but demand constraints on air travel could “potentially come into the equation”.
SA is now working to publish its updated decarbonisation roadmap by the middle of next year. “We will be capturing the latest knowledge across industry on technologies like hydrogen and electric, and how far SAF will get us to our target,” Andy Jefferson, SA’s Programme Director, told GreenAir. “We will also consider why the EU and the global aviation industries are showing lower and different levels of MBMs in their Destination 2050 and Waypoint 2050 roadmaps.”
He said announcing an update to the roadmap and setting interim targets now was intended to provide an opportunity to restate the industry’s commitment to net zero and also provide confidence to government ahead of a net zero aviation consultation to take place shortly. However, he said, government needed to understand the industry had been severely hit financially by the pandemic and help would be needed in putting the right policy solutions and incentives in place to help achieve its ambitions.
Responding to the interim targets, UK-based Aviation Environment Federation said: “Unless and until airlines start paying for and delivering carbon capture technology, the only way to avoid aviation emissions is not to fly. The government’s net zero aviation consultation will need to recognise the need to go beyond technology, including measures to limit aviation demand and airport capacity. It will not be OK to allow aviation demand and emissions to grow as we come out of the pandemic in the hope that future fuels and technologies will save the day.”
Top photo: Heathrow Airport