UK climate change watchdog warns of tough options ahead on aviation growth if national carbon targets are to be met

UK climate change watchdog warns of tough options ahead on aviation growth if national carbon targets are to be met | Committee on Climate Change,CCC
Wed 9 Dec 2009 – The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which advises the UK Government on carbon targets, says that future aviation policy must be based on restricting a ‘business as usual’ growth in air passenger numbers if national reduction targets in CO2 emissions to 2050 are to be met. Instead of a forecasted growth of 200 percent, the figure must be kept to below 60 percent if the UK is to meet the Government’s target that aviation emissions in 2050 must not exceed 2005 levels. The CCC report finds that the aviation industry’s technological and operational fuel efficiency gains are unlikely to average more than 0.8 percent a year until 2050, a less optimistic viewpoint than that forecasted by the industry itself, and foresees a only a 10 percent take-up of sustainable aviation biofuels in 2050.
The 150-page report, ‘Meeting the UK aviation target – options for reducing emissions to 2050’, sets out advice to the Government on the implications of its own carbon reduction targets for aviation. It analyses the potential to reduce the carbon intensity of air travel through technological improvements in airframe and engine design, through operational improvements and through the use of sustainable biofuels. The report also explores the likely impact of an increasing carbon price on demand and the potential for high-speed rail and the use of teleconferencing in reducing air travel habits.
The CCC’s analysis is that improvements in fleet fuel efficiency of 30% (0.8% annual average) to 2050 together with 10% biofuels penetration – implying a carbon intensity reduction of around 35% relative to 2005 – is the ‘likely’ future scenario. As a result, an increase in air traffic movements (ATMs) of around 55% relative to 2005 levels would be compatible with the target of ensuring that 2050 CO2 emissions did not exceed the UK’s 2005 level of 37.5 MtCO2.
Given increasing load factors over time – with the introduction of larger capacity aircraft such as the A380 – an increase in passengers of around 60% on 2005 levels would be possible, says the Committee, taking total annual passenger numbers from 230 million to around 370 million.
The CCC notes, however, that as the combination of the anticipated carbon price and modal shift to high-speed train and videoconferencing in business is unlikely to constrain demand growth to 60%, “clear additional policies beyond the introduction of a carbon price at this level” will be required. This has already been interpreted by many in the mainstream media as a signal that additional carbon taxes will be required, with an impact on air fares.
The report has achieved, though, the rare distinction of being largely welcomed by both the aviation industry and environmental organizations, providing ammunition for both pro- and anti-third Heathrow runway lobbyists. As it was beyond its remit, the CCC offers no advice or opinion on how and where airport expansion should take place in the UK to handle those 140 million passengers, and has therefore avoided stepping into the political and environmental Heathrow minefield.
According to Government figures, an expanded Heathrow with a third runway could handle a further 68 million passengers a year – double its present capacity – and still fit comfortably within the CCC’s allowed additional 140 million.
Colin Matthews, CEO of airport operator BAA called it “a serious report on a serious subject.” He said: “It’s great to have the debate moved away from a propagandist position to one where we are talking about a balanced outcome. It’s down to the industry to demonstrate it can reduce emissions and that is clearly a challenge we face. The good thing about the report is that it recognizes the importance and the possibility of the industry growing, both to satisfy the social desire to travel and the needs of the economy to be connected to global markets.
“What we need to make clear in the debate about a third runway at Heathrow is the importance to the UK of having a hub.”
Matthews was a member of a panel session held yesterday during the UK Airport Operators Association Annual Conference to react to the CCC report and other wider associated issues.
British Airways CEO Willie Walsh, another panel member, commented: “What is positive about the report is that it recognizes that growth is important and that it can be facilitated. I think the issue, though, is not capping the number of passengers – it’s capping emissions. I think the focus should be more on the emissions from the industry rather than the number of passengers it can handle.
“There is a balance to be made between the economic contribution we make, which is very significant, and our environmental and climate change impact. I think our economic contribution is taken very much for granted in this country and politicians expect that to continue – the evidence being that they have continued to tax an industry that is in severe financial distress.”
He said other European governments had recognized this and cited the example of the Netherlands that had removed its environmental passenger tax because of the negative impact it was having on its economy.
“The right way to incentivize this industry is to give it a challenge around emissions – our record on reducing emissions, I think, has been excellent and the industry is committed to continuing to do so.”
Walsh said the CCC’s forecast of a 0.8% annual efficiency improvement was very low, however, based on the industry’s track record. “I think we can do better than that and the industry has already committed to a 1.5% improvement, with ICAO targeting 2%.” He added that the 10% usage of jet biofuels by 2050 forecasted by the CCC was also very conservative.
Steve Ridgeway, CEO of Virgin Atlantic, said the report laid down a challenge and suggested the industry could not do as well as it claimed on reducing its environmental impact. “I do not believe that is the case. I think there is a huge will by the whole industry, and particularly the airlines, to control and reduce emissions. I don’t agree with the Luddite response of stopping people flying.”
He pointed to the technology advances coming on-stream with new aircraft like the Boeing 787 and agreed with Walsh that the CCC’s forecast on biofuels use was too pessimistic. “We are responsible enough to know that the issue of biofuels has to be done right and the industry is up for a bigger efficiency drive than the Committee believes, which if we can do that will allow the industry to keep on growing. The objective should be on reducing emissions, not passengers.”
As well as a ‘likely’ scenario, the report also examines ‘optimistic’ and ‘speculative’ scenarios. The former would require, it says, a significant shift from current policy – for example, in respect of high-speed rail – and an increase in the level of investment in new aircraft technologies and/or in the pace of fleet renewal, as well as improvements in ATM and operations so as to make a 1.0% per annum improvement in carbon efficiency attainable. It would also require “progress of biofuel technologies which would make it reasonable to assume that a 20% penetration was compatible with sustainability”. This, says the CCC, would imply a carbon intensity reduction of around 45% in 2050.
If this optimistic scenario could be achieved, the report says it would be possible to increase ATMs by around 80% and passenger numbers by around 85% and still meet the emissions target in 2050.
The CCC’s report states it is based on the assumption that UK action is in the context of an international agreement which limits aviation emissions in all countries, so that leakage from UK airports to hubs in other EU countries is avoided and that action at a global level on constraining aviation emissions is consistent with broader climate change objectives.
Jeff Gazzard of environmental NGO the Aviation Environment Federation said: “The Committee on Climate Change has placed once-and-for-all limits on aviation expansion and the onus is now firmly on the industry to deliver actual low carbon growth, not just talk about it. Passenger and flight limits plus demand management in the form of realistic carbon pricing are long overdue.”
Lord Smith, Chairman of the UK’s Environment Agency, commented: “The report by the Committee on Climate Change makes a clear case for slowing the growth in aviation to prevent an unsustainable rise in emissions that contribute to climate change.
“This is a conclusion that we welcome. Aviation has a significant impact on carbon emissions and can affect air quality around airports. That is why current plans for airport expansion, including Heathrow, must be revisited – and there is the opportunity for Government to do just that in a new National Policy Statement on airports, which could be brought forward from 2011.
“Ultimately aviation must play its role in reducing CO2 emissions. That will mean better planning for aviation use as well as a drive for cleaner jet engines. It is important that people are still able to fly abroad on holiday, but we also need more high-speed rail networks in the UK and Europe to make low carbon travel quicker and cheaper.”
Lord Turner, Chair of the Committee on Climate Change, said: “Aviation emissions must be included within our strategy to tackle climate change. We have set out options for achieving the Government’s target that aviation emissions in 2050 should not exceed 2005 levels. Given the likely pace of technological progress a demand increase of up to 60% but no more could be compatible with the Government’s target. Aviation policies should be consistent with this overall limit on demand growth, unless and until more rapid technological progress than currently anticipated makes any greater increase compatible with the target.”
Climate Change Committee (report can be downloaded here)



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