UK public wrestles with environmental impact of aviation in face of mid-century net zero emissions target
(photo: Heathrow Airport)
Thu 30 Jan 2020 – A survey conducted by UK air navigation service provider NATS in conjunction with research consultancy ComRes shows that a large majority of the British public – 81% – have a positive view of aviation to them personally and to the UK economy as a whole. However, the annual tracking survey also showed a growing public consciousness over aviation’s environmental impact. Six select committees of the House of Commons have commissioned a citizens’ assembly, called Climate Assembly UK, to give the public an informed say on how the UK should meet its net zero GHG emissions target by 2050, which will include deliberations on travel and aviation. To help achieve net zero through changes to land use, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change has suggested a levy on the aviation sector to help fund a substantial increase in tree planting.
The NATS survey found that although two thirds (67%) of those interviewed believed the benefits of aviation outweighed the drawbacks, this is down by five percentage points compared to the previous year. Despite the increasing environmental concerns, NATS says the survey also shows the British public do not want to be penalised for flying, with only 34% agreeing that people should be discouraged from flying and just 37% willing to pay an environmental levy. However, nearly all respondents expect the aviation industry to act on reducing the sector’s environmental impact and 93% agreeing fuel and emissions savings are the biggest benefits of airspace modernisation.
“It is encouraging to see the positive views about aviation, but the figures also tell us that we clearly need to communicate our plans to modernise airspace and increase our engagement with the public on the changes that are coming so that they can get involved in the process,” said Jane Johnston, Head of Corporate & Community Affairs at NATS.
“The environment is a priority as we look at redesigning our skies over the next few years. However, the results also show that the British public hold different priorities for the environment, with differing views over the importance given to reducing carbon emissions, shrinking noise profiles and routing flights over Areas of Outstanding National Beauty (AONBs). This demonstrates some of the challenges we have as we modernise flight paths and routes, but it is a challenge we need to deal with urgently if we want to secure a sustainable future for aviation.”
Climate Assembly UK comprises 110 members intended to be representative of the UK population across demographics and views on climate change. The assembly takes place over four weekends from January to March 2020, with evidence presented by a range of expert speakers and advisors including academics and stakeholders. A group of members on the second weekend (February 7-9) will hear detailed evidence on the subject of “How we travel”, covering personal transport use, including surface transport and aviation. The members will discuss what the UK could do to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and how it should achieve it, for example, whose role it is and who should bear any costs. Climate Assembly UK weekends are being live-streamed on its website.
To ensure information provided to the Assembly is balanced, accurate and comprehensive, ‘Expert Leads’ have been appointed, who include Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the Committee on Climate Change, and Jim Watson, Professor of Energy Policy and Research Director at the University College London Institute of Sustainable Resources.
The results of the Assembly will be made public in April 2020 and will be used by the select committees to inform their future scrutiny work in Parliament and a debate in the House of Commons will follow.
The UK government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change (CCC) said in a report last week that meeting the UK net zero goal will require a transformation in land use across the nation. In 2017, land use – including agriculture, forestry and peatland – accounted for 12% of total UK GHG emissions. CCC analysis shows that these emissions can be reduced by 64% to around 21 MtCO2e by 2050 through increased tree planting, encouraging low-carbon farming practices, restoring peatlands, encouraging bioenergy crops and reducing food waste and consumption of the most carbon-intensive foods.
An objective, the CCC recommends, should be to increase UK forestry cover from 13% to at least 17% by 2050 by planting around 30,000 hectares – between 90 to 120 million trees – of broadleaf and conifer woodland each year. It proposes a new market-based measure to promote tree planting, either through auctioned contracts similar to those offered for renewable electricity or with the inclusion of forestry in a carbon trading scheme. This should be funded by a levy on GHG emitting industries like aviation, it says, but must not offset emissions reductions needed to meet net zero in other parts of the economy.
Next week, cross-industry group Sustainable Aviation will unveil a new CO2 roadmap to demonstrate how the UK aviation sector can decarbonise in line with the government’s net zero ambitions. It will also launch an updated version of its sustainable aviation fuels roadmap.