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Aviation Growth and Decarbonisation: A Circle You Can’t Square

A new report casts further doubt over the Government’s Jet Zero strategy and its inherent contradictions, reports Andrew Taylor-Dawson

Then Prime Minister Boris Johnson departs Munich after a G7 summit in June 2022. Photo: Reuters/Alamy

Aviation Growth and DecarbonisationA Circle You Can’t Square

A new report casts further doubt over the Government’s Jet Zero strategy and its inherent contradictions, reports Andrew Taylor-Dawson

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When  the Government published its Jet Zero strategy for decarbonising aviation last year, it dangled the carrot of ‘guilt-free flying’.

Its approach offered growth in flying at the same time as moving to zero, or at least near zero, emissions from the sector using a combination of emerging technologies. Sounds too good to be true? That’s because, right now, it is. 

This week, a major report by the Royal Society outlined the challenges for reaching net zero for aviation – casting doubt over the idea of continued aviation growth and meeting these targets.

Graham Hutchings, Regius Professor of Chemistry at the University of Cardiff, who led the study, has said that of the four jet fuel alternatives the report considered, “there is no clear winner” and that “each has their advantages and their disadvantages”. He added: “Some of the science exists some of it doesn’t. So, a lot of research still needs to be done.” 

The four fuels considered by the report are hydrogen, ammonia, biofuels and synthetic e-fuels. Each was analysed in terms of the resources required to produce them and what the collateral environmental impacts might be, their costs and whether they can be used with existing aircraft and infrastructure. 

As with decarbonising other areas of our economy, the considerations are complex.

Producing enough biofuels for the aviation industry would require half of the UK’s available agricultural land. While making enough green hydrogen or ammonia would need well over double our current renewable energy generation. When looking at synthetic e-fuels, the requirement jumps to five times what is currently produced. 

The report makes clear that, while there isn’t one obvious successor to today’s jet fuel, the alternatives being considered can make inroads into aviation emissions – but it casts doubt on the Government’s aim to keep achieving significant growth. 

Growth vs Sustainability

Apart from a small dip during the pandemic, aviation continues to grow, and the Government is determined to encourage further growth, while stating that it is dedicated to achieving net zero flying. 

While there may be space for some optimism, it is clear that banking on continued growth and being able to address the multiple logistical, economic and environmental challenges of scaling up any or all of the possible alternatives is a risky strategy. 

The approach is predicated on technology that has not been proven at this scale. The drive towards it has echoes of the Labour Government’s plan to introduce a new era of coal fired power stations in the mid-2000s, relying on carbon capture of and storage technology, which at the time was unproven. 

In the midst of a climate crisis, it is incredibly risky to bank on not only being able to sustainably produce enough alternative fuels for the current industry, but to keep growing it – a fact that hasn’t escaped climate groups and grassroots campaigners against aviation growth. 

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The Government is now facing two legal challenges to its aviation plans. One is from the campaign group Possible (formerly 10:10) and the other is from the Group for Action on Leeds Bradford Airport (GALBA). The publication of the Royal Society’s report only adds further weight to the criticism of the approach. 

When the strategy was originally published, the New Economics Foundation think tank called it “an abdication of responsibility to the planet and future generations”, while Carbon Brief highlighted that it would “allow demand for flying to soar 70%”.

Possible has said that a major reason for its legal action against Jet Zero is that “the strategy breaches the Climate Change Act as the Secretary of State failed to ensure that the strategy would enable the UK’s carbon budgets to be met and, as a result, its policies risk failing to deliver net zero”. It believes “there was also a failure to take account of the need to reduce emissions other than CO2 that are produced by flights, which, altogether, cause roughly twice the amount of heating”.

As the Government comes under increasing pressure over these plans – from the scientific community and campaigners alike – the arguments for a rethink are only likely to grow. 

Banking On Unproven Technology

As the Group for Action on Leeds Bradford Airport (GALBA) has stated, Jet Zero has “unbelievably given the green light to huge expansion of flying and airports”. With the path to net zero aviation unproven using the mooted technologies, this does appear to be a risk too far.  

While the available technologies do show promise, with the current Jet Zero strategy the Government wants to have its cake an eat it. At this stage, with so much around the emerging technologies unproven, no serious approach for achieving net zero aviation can also be aiming for growth. 

In response to the Royal Society’s report, a Department for Transport spokesperson said that the Government’s Jet Zero strategy “sets out how we can achieve net zero emissions from UK aviation by 2050, without directly limiting demand for aviation” and that “sustainable aviation fuels and hydrogen are key elements of this, and we will ensure that there is no impact on food crops”. 

For the time being at least, the evidence points to the aims of Jet Zero being in direct conflict with each other – an uncomfortable truth the Government will have to face. 

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