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Jet Zero: Decarbonising the aviation sector

September 9th 2022

Tagged: climate change, Environment, Ethical Tourism, Sustainable Travel, Travel

Aviation accounts for 2.1% of the world’s entire CO2 emissions, although due to radiative forcing and contrails, new research suggests this number could be higher than 4%. Decarbonising the aviation industry is vital to achieving net zero. 

Additionally, despite the global pandemic grounding planes for two years, the industry is set to make a full recovery by 2024 and even see a 5% growth. The government’s Jet Zero strategy aims to curb these emissions before this growth drives up annual greenhouse gases. 

The plan is to allow the aviation industry to grow whilst at the same time meeting climate goals. The UK’s Jet Zero strategy shows leadership in an area relatively untouched by climate commitments ahead of COP27 (more on COP27 here). While it does provide a detailed plan for a more sustainable aviation sector, with the industry missing all but one climate target, is the proposal unrealistic?

Jet Zero Commitments

In July of this year the Department of Transport, headed by Grant Shapps, published a plan, Jet Zero, to reach carbon neutral air travel by 2050. It is centred around six policy measures:

  • Improving the current aviation system’s efficiency; 
  • Incorporating sustainable aviation fuel (SAF);
  • Developing zero-emissions flight (ZEF);
  • Creating carbon markets and encouraging carbon offsetting;
  • Influencing consumers to make sustainable choices; and 
  • Researching and mitigating non-CO2 impacts. 

Through these actions the government expects aviation emissions to have peaked in 2019 at 38.2 MtCO2e and set 19.3 MtCO2e in 2050 as its target. The roadmap to achieve this starts this year with strategy reviews every 5 years until 2050. This year will see the provision of £9.2m in funding for aviation decarbonisation. By 2025 at least five UK SAF plants will be under construction, with an outlook of at least 10% of UK jet fuel coming from SAF by 2030. By 2040, all domestic flights will be carbon neutral, provided targets are met. 

Problems with Jet Zero

While Jet Zero is undoubtedly paving the way in regard to a greener future for the aviation industry, there are some issues concerning the method by which Jet Zero will be achieved. 

The main flaw is the reliance on technological advances and SAF. By relying heavily on technological developments, the potential of a carbon-neutral aviation sector could be jeopardised. It means that the success of the strategy is determined by advances in areas such as aviation fuel, efficiency, and the understanding of non-CO2 impacts. If all these technological advances are unsuccessful, then the sector could reach 52 MtCO2e by 2050

Transitioning away from jet fuel could see the rise of any of four fuel possibilities – electricity, liquid hydrogen, biofuel, or synthetic fuel. All these sources require significant developments. Electric and hydrogen-powered flights are far from being ready for widespread commercial use. For example, Europe’s entire liquid hydrogen production would only fuel one flight a day from London to New York. Similarly, biofuel and synthetic fuel are simply not scalable using current production methods. For instance, if the current aviation industry used only synthetic fuel, it would require 40% of the world’s electricity.

Alternatively, a more realistic and dependable solution would be for the strategy to focus more on consumers flying less. A tax on jet fuel or plane tickets, such as a frequent flyer levy, would ensure demand for air travel is reduced but remains accessible. If the government implemented a simple tax on jet fuel it could see an increase in tax revenue of £10 billion

Silurian research boat in the hebridesOur Low Carbon Manifesto 

Jet Zero does briefly address changing consumer behaviour, but we, as consumers, can catalyse the decarbonisation of travel simply by changing our relationship with air travel. 

WorkingAbroad recognised the negative impact of frequent flying on the environment, and so launched its Low Carbon Manifesto. Not only can WorkingAbroad volunteers choose their method of travel when going to their destination, but also the idea of Snail Travel is actively encouraged. 

Snail Travel is the practice of adopting methods of transportation with lower carbon emissions. While the journey is usually longer, using modes such as bus, boat, or train, allows the passenger to interact with the environment and local communities. The movement was inspired by the Slow Food organisation, which began in 1986 and aims to ‘counteract the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat’. WorkingAbroad believes this philosophy should be applied to travel, and guidance is available here.

Even where flights are unavoidable there are ways to reduce the carbon footprint of the journey. Choosing the most environmentally friendly airline, taking only short-haul flights, or travelling less frequently are all ways to reduce the impact of these inevitable flights. 

Written by WorkingAbroad Blogger Edward Forman

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