UK aviation industry commits to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 despite a 70% growth in passengers
(photo: Heathrow Airport)
Wed 5 Feb 2020 – The UK industry coalition Sustainable Aviation (SA), which represents airlines, airports and manufacturers, has pledged to collectively achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The group believes the goal can be met while still enabling a 70% growth in passenger numbers by mid-century. It forecasts that under a ‘do nothing’ scenario, UK aviation activity emissions could rise from 37 million tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) in 2016 to 71 MtCO2 in 2050. SA has released a roadmap to show that 41 Mt could be reduced annually through in-sector gains from new and future aircraft technology, improvements in operational and air traffic procedures, and the use of sustainable fuels. To reach net zero would require an escalating price on carbon and market-based measures developed internationally that obligate airlines to mitigate the remaining emissions by investing in carbon reductions from outside of the sector.
In previous versions of its carbon roadmap, Sustainable Aviation demonstrated a pathway to achieving the same level of emissions in 2050 as was the case in 2005, around 37.5 MtCO2 (based on emissions from flights from UK airports), which was in line with then UK government policy. However, the climate warnings in last year’s landmark IPCC 1.5 degree report, the move by the UK government to set a national net zero target for emissions by 2050 and an assessment by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) that aviation is likely to be the largest carbon emitter by 2050 has forced more ambition from the sector.
SA’s new carbon roadmap, ‘Decarbonisation Road-Map: A path to Net Zero’, says the ‘no improvement’ scenario of 71 MtCO2 per year in 2050 is the equivalent to the emissions of all cars on the road in the UK today. The roadmap sets out to demonstrate how the UK sector can still achieve a net zero target and outstrip the current global aviation industry's long-term goal, although SA points out that this requires international agreement and progress on decarbonisation of the sector to ensure the goal can be met.
“Our commitment is a considerable step forward from the existing global industry target to halve net emissions by 2050, and recognises the need for aviation to go further, faster in reducing our carbon footprint,” says the industry group in the foreword to its carbon roadmap. “We call on the international bodies to build on the achievements that have been made to date by establishing a new long-term target, which is led by climate science and consistent with the Paris Agreement.”
SA members want ICAO to set a long-term target for global aviation at its next Assembly in 2022 and to develop a framework to deliver it.
The latest figures from the UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) show UK aviation’s gross emissions account for 7% of the nation’s total. In 2017 gross emissions from UK flights was around 37 MtCO2, with domestic flights accounting for around 1.5 Mt, which is 20 Mt more than in 1990, so more than double. However, UK aviation emissions are about the same as ten years previously in 2007, despite the DfT reporting an average 4.2% per annum increase in passenger demand since 2011. The industry says this is indicative of the decoupling of growth in activity from carbon emissions, which is largely due to significant airline fleet upgrades.
SA has estimated that as a result of market-based measures, namely the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), there was a net reduction of CO2 emissions in 2017 of 5.2 Mt, so overall net emissions for UK flights were about 32 Mt.
The UK government forecasts a 90% growth in aviation activity to 2050 under a ‘do nothing’ scenario with no carbon pricing built in. Based on this approach, gross emissions would rise to 71 Mt in 2050 but a progressively applied carbon price to all UK aviation emissions rising to £220 ($290) per tonne by 2050 would dampen demand by around 30 million passengers per year, around 6% lower, and so reduce emissions to around 67 Mt in 2050. Sustainable Aviation has built this forecast into its baseline, which assumes a growth in activity to 462 million passengers and 3.2 million air transport movements per year by 2050. Passenger numbers are therefore expected to grow by 73% by 2050 relative to 2016.
The SA roadmap shows new and future aircraft technology offer the greatest in-sector opportunity to reduce CO2 emissions. Known aircraft technology is forecast to deliver a 17% fuel efficiency improvement by 2050 and for future aircraft technology, the figure is 24% compared to 2016. This, says SA, results in a combined potential reduction in UK aviation CO2 emissions of 37% by 2050 from aircraft technology and savings of 23.5 MtCO2.
Air traffic management and operational improvements are likely to reduce UK aviation CO2 emissions by 4.6% by 2050 relative to 2016, or around 3.1 Mt. Potentially greater savings could be made, it contends, but conversely improvements could be negated or even deteriorate significantly without airspace efficiency changes to deal with forecasted increases in air traffic.
By 2050, SA believes that with the appropriate level of government investment and policy support, the UK could be producing around 4.5 million tonnes of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) per year, delivering a reduction in emissions of around 32%, so saving 14.4 MtCO2.
As well as the decarbonisation roadmap, SA has also published an updated SAF Road-Map, which calls for joint private-public investment of £1 billion to support commercial SAF plants across the UK, as well as a ‘centre of excellence’ for SAF development and deployment, and a cross-government ‘Office for Sustainable Aviation Fuels’. It also wants the government to incorporate recycled carbon fuels into the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) scheme and apply a 1.2x multiplier for SAF within the RTFO to encourage investment in SAF production.
The decarbonisation roadmap forecasts a reduction of 25.8 MtCO2 by 2050 from “effective” carbon market-based measures (MBMs) but says the level required will depend on the rate of take-up of other technology solutions that can be achieved cost-effectively over the period.
“While in-sector emission reductions are initially expected to be more expensive than offsets in the early technology development phase, over time we expect costs to drop significantly,” anticipates SA. “Higher carbon prices will also drive investment into in-sector reductions. SA believes there is an imperative for the aviation sector to aim for as much carbon reduction within the sector as possible.
“To avoid competitive distortion and carbon leakage, and ensure effective and efficient emission reductions, international solutions established via UN and country-agreed policies such as CORSIA are essential as unilateral action could simply move the carbon emissions away from the UK to another country.”
Commented Neil Robinson, Chair of Sustainable Aviation: “Climate change is a clear and pressing issue for people, businesses and governments across the world. We know aviation emissions will increase if decisive action is not taken, and that’s why UK aviation today commits to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, through an international approach, working with governments around the world and through the UN.”
SA calls on the UK government to transition from the current ETS model to a policy aligned with the ICAO CORSIA framework. It foresees the EU ETS being continued for domestic and European flights up to 2025 with CORSIA applying to international flights from 2021. In the period after 2025, it calls for further development of carbon MBMs and carbon reduction options such as carbon sinks and removal solutions.
It also asks the government to explore the opportunity for UK and other airlines to be allowed to spend some of their CORSIA funds on UK projects “as a matter of priority”. These should include both nature and technology-based carbon reduction and removal solutions.
Speaking at an event in London yesterday to launch SA’s roadmaps, Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport, welcomed the sector’s net zero commitment
He told UK aviation leaders: “I really love the industry but I know it must change and if you don’t then you simply won’t have permission to carry on operating in the years and decades to come. We have legally bound ourselves in the UK to net zero by 2050 but there is an enormous distance to go when it comes to aviation.
“There can’t be many areas of transport where it will be harder to reach net carbon than aviation so we have an enormous challenge on our hands. But it is a challenge we can meet and here in the UK we can lead that charge without leaving us at a competitive disadvantage. We want to work hand in glove with you to ensure we are delivering the technology of tomorrow.
“The government shares your ambition to work with ICAO and others on the [long-term] goal for the 41st Assembly in 2022 and to get the world on the UK route to cleaner skies.”
SA member British Airways has already committed to reaching net zero emissions by 2050 and last month began offsetting the emissions from all its domestic flights.
“Solving the complex issue of climate change requires a multi-faceted response and we welcome the Sustainable Aviation commitment, which unites the UK aviation industry and outlines our collective pledge to a sustainable future,” said CEO Alex Cruz.
Virgin Atlantic and other airline members of Sustainable Aviation – easyJet, Tui and Jet2 – have also committed to the net zero target, as well as the UK’s largest airports.
“Climate change is one of the biggest challenges we all face and progress at the pace and scale required can only happen through deep collaboration across industry advanced by groups like Sustainable Aviation,” said Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss.
Tim Johnson, Director of the Aviation Environment Federation, said that while the industry had set the right level of ambition, the UK government must take steps to ensure it delivers.
“The aviation industry likes to set targets but so far has successfully resisted being held to account for delivering them,” he said. “To make sure this net zero goal translates into action, UK aviation and aerospace companies should now support the CCC’s recommendation to the government that it should legislate to include international aviation emissions in the UK’s net zero law.
“The roadmap should not give the industry a green light to grow without a government plan in place to limit emissions. To date, industry goals have failed to prevent absolute aviation emissions from increasing.”