The UK government has opened a public consultation on an action plan for the UK aviation sector to reach its net zero emissions by 2050 target, which it calls ‘Jet Zero’. Its draft strategy relies on a combination of five different measures: making airspace system efficiencies, building a sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) industry, developing zero emission aircraft technology, using cost-effective market-based measures and working to influence the behaviour of air travellers. Decarbonising will not be easy, acknowledges the government, and aviation is expected to be one of the few residual emitting sectors in 2050. As many of the technologies are in their infancy and need time to develop, it says the route to net zero will require flexibility over the pathway with multiple solutions to achieve the goal. With 96% of UK aviation emissions attributed to international flights, global agreement and UK leadership will be required, says the government, along with all parts of the sector working together. The eight-week consultation seeks views on cutting aviation CO2 emissions as well as achieving other environmental benefits such as reducing non-CO2 impacts and noise, and improving air quality.
“Decarbonising whilst retaining the connectivity we cherish and preserving our aviation sector means we must act quickly to revolutionise the technologies needed across the aviation industry: develop cleaner aircraft, produce and use more sustainable fuels, and make our airspace and airports more efficient,” write Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Aviation Minister Robert Courts in the foreword to the consultation, which runs until 8 September 2021.
Adds the document: “The aim of our strategy is for aviation to decarbonise in a way that preserves the benefits of air travel and delivers clean growth of the UK sector by maximising the opportunities that decarbonisation can bring.”
The government believes that despite being at the early stage of development or commercialisation, sustainable aviation fuels, zero emission aircraft and GHG removal technologies “are hugely promising and exciting”. However, it says, it is too early to specify the optimal mix, and the focus had to be to accelerate all these technologies so that by 2030 a clearer picture had emerged to achieve ‘Jet Zero’. A CO2 emissions reduction trajectory for aviation will be set from 2025 to 2050 in order to monitor progress, with the strategy reviewed every five years and the approach adapted based on progress made.
Four scenarios have been modelled to achieve the UK net zero by 2050 goal based on a continuation of current trends, high ambition, high ambition with a breakthrough on SAF and high ambition with a breakthrough on zero emissions aircraft. The ‘high ambition’ scenario, which allows for uncertainty regarding the future technological mix, would see annual in-sector CO2 emissions of 39 million tonnes (Mt) in 2030, 31 Mt in 2040 and 21 Mt in 2050, with any residual emissions in 2050 offset by GHG removal methods. An alternative trajectory based on net CO2 emissions, where offsetting and removals are considered part of the target, would see CO2 emissions of 23-32 Mt in 2030, 12-19 Mt in 2040 and 0 Mt in 2050.
As an island nation dependent on overseas air travel, the government says the best way to reach the net zero goal is to work with other countries and to reduce the risk of adding regulation or cost only to the UK’s international aviation sector, which “could be challenging to implement, damage the UK’s competitiveness or risk carbon leakage.” It aims to work with other states through ICAO to secure an agreement on a long-term goal for international aviation CO2 emissions that is consistent with the Paris Agreement, negotiate for the strengthening of the ICAO CORSIA offsetting scheme and the adoption of policies that support the use of “truly” sustainable aviation fuels.
“Given the global nature of both the aviation sector and of climate change, and with global demand for aviation expected to continue to grow, the UK’s leadership in tackling aviation emissions can play a crucial role in the race to net zero,” says the government, which holds the COP26 Presidency.
Domestically, it pledges to work with a range of partners and stakeholders, including through the government/industry Jet Zero Council established in 2020, the Aerospace Technology Institute and the Aerospace Growth Partnership, as well as the Airspace Change Organising Group that is leading on modernising UK airspace. It also says it will work closely with industry through the Sustainable Aviation group.
New government proposals include that all airport operations in England should be zero emission by 2040 (scope 1 and 2) and it will seek a voluntary agreement from all airlines to avoid tankering where there is no practical reason to carry additional fuel, such as immovable turnaround times or fuel supply issues. It also welcomes views on other policy changes that might incentivise improved efficiencies, including:
- The possible use of landing fees to charge for CO2 (in addition to NOx and noise) and/or consideration of environmental performance when allocating slots at constrained airports where new slots become available;
- Making provision for air navigation service providers (ANSPs) to implement differential charging based on environmental performance within their controlled airspace;
- Identifying where changes to regulations may be needed to implement new CO2 emissions saving operations, for example formation flight; and
- Whether there are other ways to stimulate investment in greater operational efficiencies across the aviation system.
The government sees SAF playing a key role in decarbonising aviation as well as representing an industrial leadership opportunity for the nation. A UK SAF industry could generate between £700 million and £1.6 billion ($950m – $2.2bn) in gross value added (GVA) per year and create 5,000 to 11,000 green jobs, as well as the UK relying less on imported oil. The government plans five-year reviews of its SAF strategy, with a SAF-specific review by 2030, once the supportive policy framework is in place and SAF production is being scaled up in order to confirm a SAF trajectory to 2050.
SAF supply is already rewarded through the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation and the government has provided grant funding through green fuel competitions. It reports it is continuing to develop plans for a SAF clearing house and will shortly consult on a SAF blending mandate. It is also looking at the feasibility of using SAF on UK Public Service Obligation (PSO) routes.
“We are keen to maximise the environmental and industrial opportunities that SAF offers and, in the upcoming months, we will also consider whether further innovative policy mechanisms are needed to provide greater confidence to UK SAF producers,” it adds.
“At the time of writing, there is currently no comprehensive global regulatory standard for SAF sustainability. The UK is therefore active at ICAO in negotiating for a full set of sustainability criteria for SAF that will underpin its global deployment. At the same time, we recognise that a global ambition for future SAF deployment may help to give certainty to the global industry and avoid some of the challenges associated with states acting alone. Any such goal would need to be underpinned by strong sustainability criteria.”
The government has a strong ambition the UK develops and deploys zero emission aircraft, and has an aspiration to have zero emission routes connecting the UK by 2030.
The implementation of carbon markets and GHG removal technologies is vital to achieving Jet Zero, it says. The UK Emissions Trading Scheme that started this year, replaces the UK’s participation in the EU ETS and currently covers around a third of all UK emissions, including domestic flights, flights from the UK to the European Economic Area and flights between the UK and Gibraltar. The government claims the UK scheme is more ambitious than the EU ETS and has already reduced the cap on total emissions. It is due to consult later this year on how to align the cap with a net zero trajectory and seeks views on whether the scheme could be expanded to cover other aviation non-CO2 gases.
Even if the sector returns to an assumed pre-Covid demand trajectory, it currently believes aviation can achieve net zero without government needing to intervene directly to limit growth. It sees the industry’s need to rebuild from a lower base is likely to mean that plans for airport expansion will be slower to come forward. However, it adds: “We must ensure that any growth in aviation is compatible with our emissions reduction commitments.”
While prioritising in-sector emission reductions, “We expect the approach set out in this draft strategy could impact demand for aviation indirectly,” says the government. “Where new fuels and technologies are more expensive than their fossil-fuel equivalents, and where the cost of CO2 emissions are correctly priced into business models, we expect, as with any price rise, a moderation of demand growth.”
It also considering a potential increase to the number of distance bands as part of changes to Air Passenger Duty, “in order to align the tax more closely with our environmental objectives. Airlines ordinarily pass the cost of APD onto the passenger and therefore those passengers who fly more will pay more tax.”
Lastly, the government is keen that the ability for people to fly is preserved, yet supporting them to make sustainable, informed travel choices by providing them with better information on the climate impacts of travelling on different routes or on different airlines, which in turn, it argues, incentivises the industry to decarbonise. It reports the UK CAA is planning to consult on environmental information provisions later this year.
“We intend to work with them to explore whether mandating the provision of such information to passengers at the time of booking could enable better progress in this area,” it says. “We will also work with the CAA to ensure that any future requirements for environmental information provision does not have any unintended consequences such as distorting competition.”
The government says it will develop a final ‘Jet Zero Strategy’ later this year.
In June, the UK aviation industry, through the Sustainable Aviation group, set its own interim decarbonisation targets to achieve the sector’s net zero emissions by 2050 goal (see article).
Photo: London Gatwick Airport