Boris Johnson’s hope for a zero carbon transatlantic flight dismissed as a gimmick – at best a one-off
Boris Johnson’s “jet zero” goal of a commercial transatlantic flight producing no carbon emissions by 2025 is a “gimmick”, according to experts, who say technology alone cannot solve the impact of global aviation on the climate crisis. Such a flight could only be a one-off and would encourage the view that other measures such as taxing jet fuel and frequent fliers were not needed to tackle aviation’s carbon problem. The aviation industry says more fuel efficient planes and buying millions of tonnes of carbon offsets can compensate for big future increases in passenger numbers and carbon emissions. Instead independent experts say new taxes to deter flying are vital, to reduce demand. There may be a very small contribution from alternative fuels, made using surplus renewable energy (not competing with land needed for agriculture or causing deforestation) in future decades, but that is speculative. Long-haul electric or hydrogen planes are unlikely before the middle of the century, if ever, by which time emissions should already have been cut to zero. Tim Johnsons, from AEF, said as well as taxes, regulation was needed, and the inclusion of international aviation emissions in countries’ national carbon plans submitted to the UN. Currently they are exempt.
Boris Johnson’s ‘jet zero’ carbon flight goal dismissed as a gimmick
Experts says technology alone will not get close to solving aviation’s emissions problems
Independent experts say new taxes to deter flying are vital, but agree with the aviation industry that green jet fuels are needed too.
By Damian Carrington (Environment editor, The Guardian) @dpcarrington
Wed 25 Nov 2020
Boris Johnson’s “jet zero” goal of a commercial transatlantic flight producing no carbon emissions by 2025 is a “gimmick”, according to experts, who say technology alone cannot solve the impact of global aviation on the climate crisis.
Such a flight would not be impossible, the experts said, but could only be a one-off and would encourage the view that other measures such as taxing jet fuel and frequent fliers were not needed to tackle aviation’s carbon problem.
The jet zero technology idea was part of Bois Johnson’s 10-point “green industrial revolution” plan launched last week. But experts called jet zero “severely underfunded”, and pointed out that the government would not begin consulting on a strategy to decarbonise aviation until next year.
The UK has also not demanded green action from airlines in return for coronavirus bailouts, unlike France. The pandemic has halved passenger numbers but the industry expects them to recover by 2024. However, the experts also praised the UK for taking some action, given that only a few countries are even beginning to tackle an issue seen as one of the most difficult climate challenges.
The aviation industry says more efficient planes and buying millions of tonnes of carbon offsets can compensate for big future increases in passenger numbers.
Independent experts say new taxes to deter flying are vital, and agree with the aviation industry that green jet fuels are needed too. These exist and could power long-haul flights, but are currently expensive. Long-haul electric or hydrogen planes are unlikely before the middle of the century, if ever, by which time emissions should already have been cut to zero.
The jet zero council, which brings together ministers and industry chief executives, has met once, in July. The prime minister told the group he wanted “ambitious goals for aviation, such as the first zero-emission commercial transatlantic passenger flight by 2025”, according to published minutes.
Johnson’s green plan said a £15m competition to support the production of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) in the UK would be held in 2021, alongside a consultation on introducing a requirement to blend green fuels into kerosene, “possibly starting in 2025”. Another £15m is to be spent on a 12-month “fly zero” study examining zero-emission aircraft that could fly from 2030.
“I guess enough [SAF] could be produced to fuel a single, oneoff operation in 2025 but that would of course just be a gimmick – anything beyond that would be very much unrealistic,” said Chris Lyle, the chief executive of the Air Transport Economics consultancy and former official at the International Civil Aviation Organization, a UN agency. Regulations would also have to be changed to allow 100% SAF to be used.
Dan Rutherford, a programme director the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), said: “It would be like a crash space programme to plant a flag on the moon, without knowing when you’d go back again.”
Stefan Gössling, a professor at Linnaeus University in Sweden, said such a flight may even be technically feasible by 2022, but would reinforce the industry’s suggestion that “we will resolve the problem [with technology] – keep flying”.
“Technology alone can in no way get close to solving aviation’s emissions problems,” said Lyle. The omission in UK plans of other measures such as taxes was “emphatically a mistake”, he said The lack of tax on jet fuel gives aviation an unfair advantage against train and coach travel, Lyle added.
Gössling said: “The challenge of greening aviation is massive. I cannot see any other option than non-biogenic synthetic fuels.” These are fuels made using green electricity to combine CO2 and hydrogen. Biofuels made from crops can have large carbon footprints and compete with food. Producing jet fuel from non-recyclable waste is another possibility.
Gössling said a carbon tax on kerosene was needed to pay for the climate damage it causes and deter the growth in air travel, adding that such a tax would also make green synthetic fuels more cost-competitive.
He said a frequent flier tax was unlikely to curb demand among the wealthy “super-emitters” who cause half of all emissions, but could help fund synthetic fuel development and other research.
According to Rutherford, the UK’s jet Zero goals are “aggressive” but also “severely underfunded”. He said the latest research estimated commercial SAF plants were likely to cost £600m–£700m while new conventional aircraft cost at least $10bn (£7.5bn) to develop. “£15m investments are something that could excite academics but aren’t going to move the needle in any significant way on electric or hydrogen aircraft, for example,” Rutherford said,
Tim Johnson, the director of the Aviation Environment Federation who sits on the jet zero council, said: “A few funding initiatives plus lots of ambition won’t get the industry anywhere near net zero.” He said regulation and taxes were needed, as well as the inclusion of international aviation emissions in the national carbon plans submitted to the UN. Currently they are exempt.
Removing the exemption, said Lyle, “would give individual countries more incentive to do something about them”.
Lyle was dismissive of the UN aviation body’s efforts to cut emissions, saying: “The ICAO is still studying the ‘feasibility’ of an aspirational long-term emissions goal for aviation, which it was given a mandate for by its assembly in 2010.”
Gössling said the UK’s aviation goals placed it among the leading nations, but only because ambition was absent in most countries. A spokesman for Iata, which represents the airlines industry, said: “The UK is a leading country when it comes to action on emissions.”
Gössling said rather than a single transatlantic zero emissions flight in 2025, a better UK goal “would be that, by 2025, 10% of all fuels used will come from renewable sources, or better, will be non-biogenic synthetic fuels”.
A few other nations including France already have such fuel mandates. Norway’s is the most ambitious, requiring 30% from renewable sources by 2030. But airlines, such as those in the US, oppose SAF mandate proposals.
“The timing needs to be realistic,” said the Iata spokesman. “It will take time to scale up production. It usually takes three to four years to build a plant, so I think a five-year window [to 2025] to get supply up and running is necessary.”
Sustainable Aviation, a UK industry [lobby] group, has set out a road map to net zero emissions that allows for a 70% growth in passengers by 2050 and relies heavily on buying carbon offsets elsewhere.
Andy Jefferson, the group’s programme director, said there was no “silver bullet” to tackling aviation carbon emissions but said there was clear evidence that taxes had no environmental benefits and were the least effective way to reduce carbon emissions. “With the right [government] support as we do not see the need to impose additional demand reduction measures,” he said.
Tim Johnson said any financial assistance to aviation from taxpayers should come with the requirement of action: “Talk of incentives and funding is misplaced when the industry is only offering voluntary commitments in return. Technology aspirations shouldn’t provide continued cover for the industry to get away with no effective accountability, tax or regulation on its emissions.”
“Jet zero isn’t a substitute for the government setting out the policies required to set the UK aviation sector on a trajectory to net zero emissions,” said Tim Johnson. “A cleaner and leaner air travel sector will mean we need to fly less, and we shouldn’t be expanding our airports.”
£200 million from government for research into lower carbon planes
The UK government has unveiled £400m in private and public sector funding for technologies and research aimed at cutting aviation CO2 emissions. BEIS has announced that projects aiming to develop high performance engines, new wing designs and ultra-lightweight cabin seats – all intended to cut fuel consumption – will be getting funding from the Government’s Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) programme of £200 million. Business Secretary Alok Sharma said the £200 million would be matched by £200m from industry. There may also be money from universities, including Nottingham and Birmingham, for this research. The ambition is “zero carbon aviation” as part of the Government’s FlyZero initiative. Britain would like to become a world leader etc in lower carbon aviation technologies. There is a The Net Zero All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) of MPs that is working on the necessary transition to “net zero” by 2050. The UK needs to be seen to be leading on this, before hosting COP26 in November 2021 (postponed from Nov 2020). The APPG has a 10 point action plan that says fossil fuel extractors and importers, as well as airlines, should be required to permanently store an increasing percentage of CO2 generated by the products they sell, rising to 100% by 2050, via a proposed “carbon takeback obligation.”
Jet Zero Council had its first meeting on 22nd July – to bring aviation emissions in line with UK 2050 net-zero target
The Jet Zero Council held its first meeting, online, on 22nd July. Tim Johnson, Director of the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) is the only representative on the council, representing environmental issues. Government press release on the first meeting said: “Chaired by the Transport and Business Secretaries, today’s first ever Jet Zero council meeting will discuss how to decarbonise the aviation sector while supporting its growth and strengthening the UK’s position as a world leader in the sector.” And Grant Shapps said: “The Jet Zero Council is a huge step forward in making change – as we push forward with innovative technologies such as sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) and eventually fully electric planes, we will achieve guilt-free flying and boost sustainability for years to come.” … Producers of novel fuels are excited. … They all want lots of government money. Tim Johnson said: “It was a positive start, with an appropriate degree of ambition and urgency, a technology-neutral stance that will treat all options equally, and recognition that getting new technology and SAF into the fleet requires a regulatory framework that includes carbon pricing. That’s a good platform to work from.”
Government announce a new “Jet Zero” council … but no details or notice to environmental organisations
In a surprise announcement at Friday’s government Covid-19 daily briefing, Grant Shapps, the Secretary of State for Transport, revealed plans for a ‘jet zero’ council, that will include representatives from the aviation industry, Government and environmental groups. Its alleged goal is “to make zero emissions transatlantic flight possible within a generation.” No further details were made available. No environmental group was given any notice about this new initiative. As the principal environmental body working on aviation issues, the AEF (Aviation Environment Federation) should have been included, if the government initiative was serious – not just a bit of nice publicity for the aviation sector. AEF has written to Shapps, to say that if the ‘jet zero’ council is to be a worthwhile initiative, the Government must ensure that it does not simply provide good PR for airlines and airports about a future aspiration – while allowing current emissions to grow unhindered. The initiative must be part of a wider programme of government action to deliver the UK’s climate commitments. The council must operate in a transparent manner including engaging with environmental organisations and all relevant stakeholders. To read the letter in full, click here.