Emissions from international aviation must be included in a UK net-zero by 2050 target, says government advisors
(photo: Heathrow Airport)
Thu 2 May 2019 – The UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which advises the government on climate policy and action, has recommended that to be line with the goals of the Paris Agreement, the UK should set a 2050 net-zero target to cover all greenhouse gases and all sectors, including international aviation and shipping. The body says the target must be met without recourse to carbon offsetting. In a major report released today, it says increased ambition and stronger levers over and above present ICAO targets will be required in the long run and it will advise the government later in the year on its approach to aviation. The CCC says ICAO’s CORSIA scheme is not compatible with achieving net-zero globally and the UN agency should set a long-term objective consistent with Paris. The report comes a day after a High Court ruling against legal action brought by groups opposed to Heathrow expansion.
The UK current 2050 target, set in 2008, is to reduce emissions by 80% compared to 1990 levels but the temperature ambitions of Paris have led the CCC to review the target and advise the government on how net-zero could be achieved. In order to map a pathway to reach its long-term target, the government sets five-year carbon budget periods, the latest in preparation being the sixth carbon budget that will cover the years 2033-2037. Until now, emissions from international aviation and shipping have been left out of the carbon budgets (domestic flights are covered) but included in the 80% target, although the two sectors were omitted from UK climate change legislation. The CCC subsequently recommended the target be legislated as “at least 80%” to cover the possibility that other sectors may need to compensate for lower reductions in emissions from international aviation and shipping.
“Net-zero is a more fundamental aim than previous targets,” says CCC Chairman Lord Deben in the foreword to the 277-page report, ‘Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming’. “By reducing emissions produced in the UK to zero, we also end our contribution to rising global temperatures. That this outcome is now within reach is testament to the UK’s progress – deploying new solutions, learning by doing, driving costs down, as required by the Climate Change Act. The Act was the world’s first legally-binding framework for tackling climate change and it remains one of the strongest in the world to this day. Committing to net-zero will reaffirm the Act’s strength, but it is essential that the commitment is comprehensive, achieved without use of international credits and covering international aviation and shipping.
“All of this rests, however, on more than a new target. Our advice is offered with the proviso that net-zero is only credible if policies are introduced to match. Existing ambitions must be delivered in full, challenges that have so far been out of scope must now be confronted. There is a manageable cost to tackling these challenges, and the lesson of the last decade is that costs fall when there is a concerted effort to act.”
He called for UK governments (to include Scotland and Wales) to legislate for the new target as swiftly as possible. “We must now increase our ambition to tackle climate change. The science demands it; the evidence is before you; we must start at once; there is no time to lose,” he concludes.
The report includes emissions from international aviation as one of those challenges that must be confronted and “cannot be ignored”. The net-zero target should be legislated as a 100% reduction in GHGs from 1990 levels and cover all sectors of the economy, including international aviation and shipping, advises the report.
Setting and pursuing a UK net-zero GHG target for 2050 would confirm the nation as a leader among the developed countries on climate action, believes the CCC.
“It demonstrates important principles of including emissions from all greenhouse gases and all sources, including international aviation and shipping, not relying on international offsetting and targeting highest possible ambition,” says the report. Pursuing a later date or weaker target would undermine discussions with other climate leading governments such as Sweden, France, California and the EU, in particular the latter, argues the CCC, with which the UK is aiming to reach an agreement on the net-zero target in 2020. It adds that setting an earlier target date is not credible at this time.
The report lays out a number of scenarios involving technologies and behaviours that could best meet the net-zero challenge, which it says taken together would reduce UK emissions by 95-96% from the 1990 baseline by 2050.
“Tackling the remaining 4-5% would require some use of options that currently appear more speculative,” it continues. “That could involve greater shifts in diet and land use alongside more limited aviation demand growth, a large contribution from emerging technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, or successful development of a major supply of carbon-neutral synthetic fuels.
“Updated evidence for aviation points to greater potential to reduce emissions, although we still expect the sector to emit more than any other in 2050.
“Part of the challenge in shifting to a net-zero target is that there is less flexibility and less scope for under-delivery in areas that prove difficult to change. This adds to the importance of developing currently speculative options, given that these may be needed to meet the target in full domestically.”
Efficiency improvements have barriers to uptake and upfront costs but sectors like aviation can often recoup these costs through fuel savings, it says, and costs can similarly also be saved by shifting consumer choices towards, for example, reduced flying.
One of the report’s scenarios is removing emissions from the atmosphere through, for example, direct air capture but the CCC estimates annual costs at around £10 billion ($13bn) in 2050, possibly as high as £20 billion.
“These could be paid by industries, like aviation, that have not reduced their own emissions to zero,” it argues. “That would imply increasing costs, for example for flights, from 2035, as emission removals scale up in our scenarios.”
The report notes that if aviation GHG emissions were left to increase, by 2050 they would constitute around 10% of the global cumulative carbon budget compatible with limiting temperature increase to 1.5°C or below. While ICAO’s CORSIA scheme offers a route to limit post-2020 aviation emissions and can provide an interim measure to allow new solutions to become available, “its emission cap at 2020 levels, committed until 2035 only, is not compatible with achieving net-zero emissions globally,” says the report. “ICAO should set a long-term objective for aviation emissions consistent with the Paris Agreement and align CORSIA to this.”
A CO2 road-map published in 2016 by UK aviation industry coalition group Sustainable Aviation set out to demonstrate that the UK could accommodate a significant growth in passenger numbers (around 60%) to 2050 and still maintain emissions at 2005 levels of 37.5 MtCO2, a view currently aligned with the UK government’s objective.
Reacting to the CCC’s report, the group’s Chair, Neil Robinson, said: “The UK aviation industry shares the Committee on Climate Change’s ambition to bring emissions into line with the Paris Agreement. We look forward to studying the CCC’s recommendations and working with the government on how we work together to rise to this challenge, while enabling the many positive benefits aviation brings by connecting people across the world.
“Since 2010, UK aviation has successfully decoupled growth in CO2 emissions from growth in passengers, freight and flights. We expect this to continue, as set out in the CO2 Road-Map. For instance, we believe there are exciting opportunities to further reduce emissions through the development of hybrid electric aircraft, use of sustainable aviation fuels and modernisation of UK airspace.
“Aviation is by its very nature a global industry, and like the government, we back an international approach to limiting greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft. That is why we have signed up to emissions limits via the world’s first industry-specific global agreement, CORSIA, which will drive investment in the new, cleaner aircraft of tomorrow.”
Under its Further Ambition scenario setting a pathway to net-zero, the CCC anticipates the aviation sector will still be emitting 31 MtCO2 in 2050, which would require a combination of passenger demand constraint, a 10% biofuel contribution and aircraft fuel efficiency improvements of 1.4% per year for the next few decades. Pressure group Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) says this is highly speculative.
Commenting on the report, AEF Deputy Director Cait Hewitt said: “The CCC’s recommendations set out a world-leading pathway for the UK to stop contributing to climate change in the future. It’s essential that government recognises the need for commitments that cover all sectors, including aviation, and that don’t rely on international offsets.
“Reducing aviation emissions to 31 MtCO2 by 2050, 25% less than the level currently predicted by the Department for Transport even after accounting for more sustainable fuels and likely technological improvements, will be extremely challenging. While technological improvements will be vital, we also need to think seriously about how to manage growth in the future, starting with saying no to unsustainable airport expansions.”
Meanwhile, campaigners against Heathrow Airport expansion, which included local councils, the Mayor of London and environmental groups, have lost their legal challenge against the government’s decision to approve the plan. They claimed the government had failed to deal properly with the project’s impact on air quality, climate change, noise and congestion.
AEF was an expert witness for one of the groups, Friends of the Earth, that argued expansion was not consistent with the UK’s climate obligations.
“The government’s plans for expansion at Heathrow, already the UK’s largest single source of carbon emissions, look increasingly difficult to justify,” said Hewitt on the High Court ruling. “While yesterday’s court judgement rejected the climate challenges to the plans, the court made clear that an eventual decision on Heathrow’s third runway, expected around 2022, will need to be made in relation to the climate legislation and policy in force at the time. Given the growing public and political sense of a climate emergency, that legislation is very likely to put increasing pressure on the aviation sector.”
Tim Crosland, Director of Plan B, which also mounted a legal challenge, and who is also a legal adviser to Extinction Rebellion, said: “This is a disappointing judgement by the court, but it is increasingly difficult to see how the government’s reckless plans to expand Heathrow Airport can proceed. Following the recent Extinction Rebellion protests there is widespread recognition that we are in a state of climate and ecological emergency.
“Non-violent civil disobedience is an urgent and necessary response and can already be seen to be working.”
A spokesperson for Heathrow Airport commented: “We are delighted with the ruling, which is a further demonstration that the debate on Heathrow expansion has been had and won, not only in Parliament, but in the courts also. We are getting on with delivering the once-in-a-generation project that will connect Britain to global growth, providing thousands of new jobs and an economic boost for this country and its future generations.”