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CCC warns without a ‘true zero-carbon plane’ demand for aviation may have to be curbed

Business Green, 14 February 2019

UK’s climate body confirms net zero target assessment will be published in May, stressing greater effort will be needed to cut aviation emissions

Adopting a net zero climate target in the UK would require greater effort to cut emissions from aviation, particularly through developing clean technologies and limiting growth in flight demand, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has told the government.

In a letter to the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, CCC chairman Lord Deben stressed that limiting emissions from UK aviation would require contributions from all parts of the aviation sector, and that the government should avoid relying on biofuels or international carbon offset credits to do the necessary heavy lifting.

Deben welcomed the government’s commitment to keeping UK aviation emissions at 2005 levels by 2050, as advised by the CCC, and to ask the National Infrastructure Commission to scrutinise the case for further airport expansion with consideration of the potential climate impacts.

However, Deben reiterated the CCC’s view that the government should not plan for significant use of biofuels to power planes, due to uncertainty surrounding sustainable biomass supplies and costs.
Instead, he said the government and industry should focus on developing new low emission aircraft designs, improved air space management, and the use of more sustainable fuels in the coming years.

The letter also predicted brokering a long-term climate target for aviation at an international level would help incentivise investment in new, cleaner technologies, but emphasised technologies alone were unlikely to be enough to stem the climate impact of aviation.

“In the absence of a true zero-carbon plane, demand cannot continue to grow unfettered in the long-term,” the letter states.

Deben’s letter on Wednesday comes in response to the government’s Aviation 2050 strategy, which was launched for consultation in December. That draft strategy insisted the UK’s aviation sector could grow to meet rapidly increasing demand for air travel over the next three decades, while at the same time limiting emissions at 2005 levels by the middle of the century.

The strategy attracted criticism from green campaigners who highlighted the lack of detail on exactly how the government plans to limit the climate impact of growing demand for air travel over the next three decades.
Aviation is widely seen as one of the most challenging sectors of the economy to decarbonise, with emissions from the industry having more than doubled since 1990, in contrast to emissions for the economy as a whole having fallen by around 40 per cent.

The Department for Transport, however, has said it is currently developing a long-term policy framework with industry that will address how to ensure sustainable growth, and that it plans to update the aviation strategy at regular intervals. It has also pledged to work at an international level through ICAO to negotiate a long-term global goal for aviation emissions that would be consistent with the Paris Agreement.

The latest developments came as the CCC today confirmed its assessment of the UK’s potential to set a net zero emissions target for the middle of the century would be published on May 2nd 2019, conceding the publication date was “later than requested – a reflection of the scope and importance of the task”.

The UK currently has a legal requirement to achieve an 80 per cent cut in emissions by 2050 against a 1990 baseline, but the government last year asked the CCC to look at whether this should be replaced with a more ambitious goal.

In light of current work to develop both a UK aviation strategy as well as a potential net zero emissions target for the whole economy, CCC chief executive Chris Stark said there was therefore now a “clear opportunity” to clarify the role of aviation in the UK’s long-term climate ambitions.

However, campaigners remain sceptical about the government’s abilit to seize that opportunity. Grayling has faced fierce criticism over his support for aviation expansion and his limited engagement with climate change issues. When announcing the government’s backing for a third runway at Heathrow Airport last summer, the Transport Secretary made no mention of the potential impact the decision could have on the UK’s climate targets, prompting Lord Deben to express “surprise” in another letter from the CCC last year.

The CCC’s latest intervention will therefore ramp up pressure on the government to ensure its aviation ambitions come alongside robust plans to ensure any growth in UK airport capacity does not blow a hole in domestic carbon budgets.

The move also came ahead of Airbus’s shock announcement today that following a review of its operations it will stop making its huge A380 planes by 2021, potentially putting thousands of UK jobs at risk. The plane manufacturing giant said it was also reducing its A380 output in the meantime due to a lack of order backlog with airlines “and in light of developments in aircraft engine technologies”.

The move could have an important impact on emissions scenario planning for the UK and international aviation sector, commentators have pointed out. The huge A380 planes – first launched as a rival to Boeing’s 747s in 2007 – have four engines, while much of the sector has shifted over the past decade towards smaller, more fuel efficient aircraft.

With the CCC planning to publish its net zero emissions assessment in May, this week’s letter suggests the UK’s independent climate body is keen to ensure there is a robust long term plan in place to ensure sustainable growth of the domestic aviation sector in line with the UK’s carbon targets. The pressure is now on the government and aviation sector to set out in much more detail how it foresees an increase in flights in a net zero carbon world.