In its latest progress report to Parliament, the UK’s independent advisory Climate Change Committee says continued unconstrained capacity expansion at UK airports is putting at risk the government’s net zero emissions target. The Committee has previously recommended there should be no net airport expansion across the UK but notes UK airports have increased their capacities and continue to develop expansion proposals. Unless aviation’s carbon intensity is outperforming the government’s pathway and can accommodate this additional demand, it says, no airport expansions should proceed until a UK-wide capacity management framework is in place to annually assess and, if required, control sector CO2 emissions and non-CO2 effects. Making up 7% of all UK emissions, estimated aviation emissions in 2022 were 29 MtCO2e, up 95% from 2021, but still 25% below 2019 levels.
The longer term historical trend shows a gradual increase in emissions due to rising demand for long-haul flights only partly being compensated for by improved efficiencies. “Overall, our aviation indicators are not showing progress that can be attributed to policy implementation,” says the Committee’s report.
The UK government’s Jet Zero Strategy for achieving net zero emissions from UK aviation by 2050, published in July 2022, recommitted to 70% passenger demand growth by 2050 on 2018 levels. However, its reliance on nascent technology, especially rapid SAF uptake and aircraft, is a high-risk approach, warns the Committee.
“The government does not have a policy framework in place to ensure that emissions reductions in the aviation sector occur if these technologies are not delivered on time and at sufficient scale,” it points out and says demand management is the most effective way of reducing aviation CO2 and non-CO2 emissions. The range of options to manage demand available to the government, it suggests, include digital technologies, addressing private flying and providing lower-cost domestic rail travel.
“The government should develop a suite of policy and technology options to address aviation demand,” it advises. The capacity management framework should be developed by the Department for Transport in cooperation with the devolved UK administrations over the next 12 months “and should be operational by the end of 2024 at the latest.”
The Committee’s own forecasts assume a 2-3% uptake of sustainable aviation fuel by 2030, while the government is expected to adopt a much more ambitious 10% target under its SAF mandate, which the Committee says is both delayed and dependent on an uncertain domestic and global feedstock supply.
“The government must build in contingency and risk management into the SAF mandate to prepare for the possibility of constrained domestic and global SAF supply throughout the 2020s and 2030s,” it states, and also recommends the government commits to a minimum goal of no further additional warming after 2050 from non-CO2 effects.
Commenting on the report, the Committee’s outgoing Chairman, Lord Deben, said: “In present circumstances, there can be no question of allowing unconstrained airport expansion. The government has placed all the emphasis on new technologies, but we must not forget aviation demand. I’d urge the government to reconsider its recent Jet Zero Strategy.”
In a briefing to journalists, he added: “We have to make it quite clear to government that you cannot allow emissions growth from aviation beyond what we have already said. At the moment, it seems open ended in that capacity can be expanded at one airport but nothing done to reduce it elsewhere. There needs to be a clear statement from government about what it means in practical terms, rather than the present situation.”
Responding to the report, Cait Hewitt, Policy Director of UK campaign group Aviation Environment Federation, said: “This is the Committee’s strongest ever advice on airport expansion. But in fact they’ve been telling the government for years to get a grip on aviation demand. Instead, the official strategy allows unlimited growth in flying in the hope that new technologies and fuels will save the day.
“We can’t sit back and wait to see if these magic planes will appear on the market while building in expansions that will allow for more and more fossil-powered flying. The government’s ‘jet zero’ plans are already falling apart – it’s recently had to admit that it has no idea how to get enough sustainable feedstock to meet its targets to make aircraft fuel out of wastes and we’ve yet to see any proposals for ramping up aircraft efficiency improvements.
“The government needs to stop giving in to the aviation industry’s insatiable demands for growth and recognise that in a climate emergency, all sectors of the economy need to start doing things differently.”
The Airport Operators Association, which represents 40 UK airports, said it disagreed with the Committee’s recommendation on airport expansion.
“The aviation industry and the UK government both have a plan in place for UK aviation to achieve net-zero by 2050 while still accommodating growth in air travel in that same time frame. Banning airport expansion now, in the way suggested would damage the UK’s economic future and deter investment from the UK,” said Chief Executive Karen Dee.
“What is needed, rather than focusing on preventing people flying, is policies and measures which enable change: for example through modernising airspace, supporting and requiring the use of sustainable aviation fuel, and supporting the development and deployment of hydrogen and electric flight. By adopting this approach, we can deliver our net-zero ambitions while also ensuring people can continue to enjoy the many and varied benefits that aviation delivers.”
Previous recommendations from the Committee that have been adopted by the government include aviation emissions from international flights being included in the UK’s net zero target and, from 2033, included in the legally-binding UK carbon budgets.
Photo: London Gatwick Airport is preparing a planning application to bring its northern runway into regular use, for departures, alongside its main runway