What is the UK doing towards sustainable aviation?

In June 2019, the UK Government said it was the first major economy to pass legislation that commits the country to net zero emissions by 2050 (in other words, the amount of carbon the country adds to the atmosphere will be no more than the amount it removes).

The Government’s November 2019 policy paper, ‘Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’, said it would “make the UK the home of green ships and planes”. It also announced a Jet Zero Council, subsequently established in 2020, to work with the aviation industry towards achieving net zero in aviation and developing sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) facilities in the UK.

In April 2021, the Government further announced that it would reduce emissions by 78% by 2035, compared to 1990 levels. The target would be set in law for the first time and would also formally incorporate the UK’s share of international aviation and shipping emissions. This followed a recommendation by the independent Climate Change Committee (CCC) in its December 2020 report, ‘Sixth Carbon Budget: the UK’s Path to Net Zero’, covering the 5-year period from 2033 to 2037.

Jet Zero

The government published its Jet Zero consultation paper in July 2021. The consultation paper outlined the need to “decarbonise the aviation sector whilst continuing to benefit from the connectivity, jobs and economic benefits it provides” and to achieve net zero aviation—or ‘Jet Zero’—by 2050. The aviation industry accounts for approximately 2.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions.

The consultation closed on 8 September 2021. The government is currently analysing the responses and is due to publish a ‘Jet Zero Strategy’ early in 2022.

In October 2021, the Government’s ‘Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener’ document announced that it would “accelerate the commercialisation” of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) in the UK and aim to deliver 10% SAF by 2030. In addition, it said the Government would provide £180m funding to support the development of SAF plants and establish a ‘SAF clearing house’ to certify new fuels.

Alternative low-carbon fuels

In March 2021, the UK Government announced its ‘Green Fuels, Green Skies’ (GFGS) competition, to help companies develop new technologies for converting household rubbish, waste wood and excess electricity into SAF. In July, it revealed that eight companies had been shortlisted to share funding worth £15 million. It also launched a consultation on a UK sustainable aviation fuels mandate.

In addition, Airbus has set out its ambition to introduce the world’s first net zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035, to fly short-haul routes using green hydrogen technology.

Decarbonising aviation

In June 2021, Sustainable Aviation, a UK association of key business partners including airlines, airports and manufacturers, announced new interim decarbonization targets, including: a reduction of 15% in net emissions relative to 2019 by 2030, and a 40% net reduction by 2040. It also highlighted the need for developing hybrid, electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft, with its chair, Adam Morton, stating that progress “requires meaningful cooperation between industry and Government”.

Airport expansion

In December 2020, the CCC’s sixth carbon budget warned that, in the context of net zero, the UK government would have to assess its airport capacity, recommending:

There should be no net expansion of UK airport capacity unless the sector is assessed as being on track to sufficiently outperform a net emissions trajectory that is compatible with achieving net zero alongside the rest of the economy.

In a Commons debate on ‘Decarbonising Aviation’ on 21 September 2021, MP John McDonnell described the third runway expansion at Heathrow as “the iconic battleground in this country […] for tackling climate change”. He and several other members called for the expansion to be halted.

Replying for the Government, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport, Robert Courts, said that Heathrow was a “private sector project, which has to meet strict criteria on air quality, noise and climate change”.

Demand management

The Government published a consultation paper on aviation tax reform in March 2021, including Air Passenger Duty (APD), a duty charged per passenger flying from UK airports to domestic and international destinations.

In the October 2021 budget and spending review, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced that, from April 2023 APD for domestic flights would be reduced but that it would be raised for international flights. This included a new ‘international distance’ APD band for flights of more than 5,500 miles.

On 28 October, the Chancellor stated on BBC Breakfast that the new higher rate of APD for long-haul travel was “consistent with our environmental objectives […]” and that the independent watchdog had said that “our plans in the round will reduce carbon emission and move us further along the path to net zero”.

COP26 and aviation

At the conclusion of the COP26 Conference in Glasgow, UN Secretary General António Guterres warned that “our fragile planet is hanging by a thread. We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe”, reminding countries to “accelerate action to keep the 1.5 degree goal alive”.

In the Glasgow Climate Pact agreed by the conference, member states recognised aviation’s CO2 emissions contribution to climate change. They committed “to advance ambitious actions to reduce aviation CO2 emissions at a rate consistent with efforts to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5°C”.

Following the conclusion of COP26, on 16 November 2021 the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Lee Rowley, reiterated the Government’s “ambition for 10% of the UK’s aviation fuel to be SAF by 2030”.

Cover image by Ross Parmly on Unsplash.