UK transport decarbonisation strategy – impact for aviation sector

United Kingdom

On 14 July 2021, the UK Department for Transport (“DfT”) published a wide-reaching policy plan on decarbonising transport and the targets and ambitions required to meet the UK’s net-zero targets (the “Decarbonisation Plan”). In this part of the series of CMS analyses of the Decarbonisation Plan (and associated consultation policy papers, we  focus on the proposals set out in the Decarbonisation Plan for the decarbonisation of the aviation, maritime and rail sectors. This is one of a number of CMS papers providing analysis and comment on other aspects of the Decarbonisation Plan: please see here in relation to the rail sector, here in relation to highways, and here in relation to EV charging and hydrogen fuelling.

Jet Zero

The aviation sector has been one of the fastest growing polluters of all transport sectors and contributes annually to 3% of all global greenhouse gas emissions (“GHG”) (2020/21 excepted due to COVID-19). With passenger numbers projected to continue rising, it is clear that long term efforts will be required to decarbonise the sector.

The Decarbonisation Plan commits to align the aviation sector with net zero or “Jet Zero” by 2050. Commitments to achieve this largely mirror the UK Sustainable Aviation coalition’s targets to reduce GHGs by a minimum of 15% by 2030 and 40% by 2040 which are set out in their road map to net zero (published in 2020 and updated in June 2021).

Building on the launch of the Jet Zero Council in 2020 (a partnership between the UK Government and the aviation sector and academia to fast-track zero emission flight and the production of sustainable aviation fuels (“SAF”)) and as part of the Decarbonisation Plan, the DfT has published a consultation that will run until 8 September 2021 on the UK aviation sector reaching net zero by 2050, with an earlier target for UK domestic aviation to reach net zero by 2040 (the “Jet Zero Consultation”). The strategy is underpinned by three key principles:

  1. Clear goal, multiple solutions – highlights that many of the technologies required to achieve “Jet Zero” are in their infancy and will take time to develop therefore, flexibility will be required;

  2. International leadership – acknowledges that the majority of UK aviation emissions are as a result of international flights and that global agreement will be required to tackle the problem; and

  3. Delivered in partnership – recognises that achieving Jet Zero will require all stakeholders in the aviation sector to work together to develop, test and implement the required solutions.

Together with the above principles and ambitious commitments in the Decarbonisation Plan, the Jet Zero Consultation sets out five proposed action measures:

  1. System efficiencies – improving the efficiency of aircraft, changing how our airports operate, and optimising the use of our airspace as best opportunities for short- to medium-term reductions in CO2 emissions. The Government is working through International Civil Aviation Organization (“ICAO”) to advocate for stringent international standards for aircraft emissions as technology improves.

  2. SAF – SAF is seen as the only alternative option for long haul flights. SAF is already supported through the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation and grant funding for research. The Government wishes to develop plans for a SAF clearing house which would be a central point to support producers with fuel testing. On 23 July 2021, the DfT launched a public consultation regarding a proposal which would mandate fuel suppliers to reduce the carbon footprint of jet fuel used in the UK from 2025 through increasing the proportion of SAF.

  3. Zero emission flight – an aspiration to have zero emission routes across the UK by the end of the decade. The regional services in the Scottish islands, have been one of the early rollouts for such aircraft, as these isolated communities benefit from a Public Service Obligation (“PSO), which is an obligation to provide a vital service for the general interest of the public.

  4. Markets and removals – The UK has implemented its own UK Emissions Trading Scheme from the start of 2021. The Government will consult on how to align the cap on total emissions with net zero ambitions this year. The Government will continue to advocate for carbon pricing to be maintained and strengthened in the international aviation sector, including aligning the ambition of measures such as Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation with any long-term goal adopted by ICAO.

  5. Influencing consumers – research project to explore the feasibility and utility of sharing carbon information with consumers, to enable them to choose the most sustainable routes and travel providers when planning their journeys.

An early criticism of these commitments is that they do not require existing passenger or aviation ways of doing business to change. Arguably, the Government is relying too heavily on future technological innovation rather than measures that would achieve the same emissions cuts if the advances don’t materialise (such as changing public attitude towards air travel or capping passenger numbers and flights, as recommended by the by the Climate Change Committee (the UK’s independent climate chance adviser)). The Decarbonisation Plan and Jet Zero Consultation offer commitments to achieve climate targets however provides little by way of any current viable solutions. 

Comment

The Decarbonisation Plan and associated policy consultations at best plot a course to achieving net zero. However,  the details and the strategies for implementing these proposals, including the infrastructure investment that would be needed in connection with the proposals, have not been included in this plan. As has been seen in other industries, clarity is needed for the industries to galvanise their efforts in changing existing practices. Instead, with the heavy reliance on future technologies which are currently in their infancies, it is likely that the  course charted by the Decarbonisation Plan will have to be altered to account for obstacles along the way and further questions will need to be answered before the UK can truly be on the way to decarbonisation.

Co-authored by Alex Gradinaru