Letter from academics on Jet Zero’s failure to reduce aviation CO2 by avoiding air travel demand management

Letter in the Times, 10th September 2021


Sir, As academics and researchers with expertise in climate science, meteorology, transport, nutrition and other fields, we are writing in response to Jet Zero, the government’s proposed strategy to decarbonise flying. Jet Zero would allow UK aviation emissions to increase up to 2030 from 2019 levels.

This is counter to very clear advice from the UK Climate Change Committee to the government: measures to limit demand for flying should form an integral part of meeting our emissions reduction targets, alongside exploring the longer term technological innovations set out in Jet Zero.

The report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes it starkly clear that it is vital to meet our net zero targets. As António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, said recently: “There is no time for delay and no room for excuses.”

The management of aviation demand must be sufficiently responsive so as to keep emissions reduction targets firmly within sight through the inevitable successes and failures of new technology.

Professor Stephen Mobbs, Executive Director, National Centre for Atmospheric Science;

Professor John Marsham, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds;

Professor Ian Brooks, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds;

Professor Paul Chatterton, Urban Futures, School of Geography, University of Leeds;

Professor Jillian Anable, Transport and Energy, Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds;

Professor Megan Povey, School of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Leeds;

Professor Janet Watson, Co-director of the Centre for Endangered Languages, Cultures and Ecosystems, University of Leeds;

Professor Helen Steward, School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science, University of Leeds;

Professor David Hesmondhalgh, School of Media and Communication, University of Leeds;

Professor Jonathan Pitches, Head of School of Performance and Cultural Industries, University of Leeds;

Professor Thea Pitman, Latin American Studies, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds;

Dr Debbie Rosen, Science and Policy Manager, CONSTRAIN, Priestley Centre, University of Leeds;

Dr Marina Baldissera Pacchetti, Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds;

Dr Paul Brockway, School of Earth & Environment, University of Leeds;

Dr Jen Dyer, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds;

Dr Kate Pangbourne, Associate Professor, Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds;

Dr Malcolm Morgan, Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds;

Dr Sally Cairns, Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds; Dr Joey Talbot, Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds;

Dr David Palma, Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds;

Dr Jonathan Taylor, Dept of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Manchester;

Dr Hugo Ricketts, Centre for Atmospheric Science, University of Manchester




See earlier:

Chris Stark (CCC) on how aviation needs to cut its emissions, only using CCS – which it must pay for – as a last resort

The Head of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), Chris Stark, has given evidence to the Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) on the aspirations of the aviation sector to get to “net zero” by 2050, and the government’s “jet zero” plan. He said aviation, unlike other transport sectors, was unlikely to meet targets for net zero by 2050.  The sector should pay for costly engineered carbon removal technologies (CCS) rather than rely on using the planting of trees to claim they are reducing CO2 emissions.  And these offsets and removal technologies should only be used as a last resort, after direct cuts of carbon and emissions by the industry itself. He said carbon removal technologies are not a “free pass” for the industry. Removals are expensive, and the sector should pay for them themselves – which would put up ticket prices. It was regrettable that the DfT’s transport decarbonisation plan had not mentioned the necessity of reducing air travel demand. There is a danger that the tech does not deliver. The plans need to be assessed every 5 years, and though that is a difficult choice for government, demand management may have to be considered in future.

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Jet Zero consultation – what it says on “Influencing Consumers” – keep flying, depend on techno-optimism

The DfT has launched its consultation, called “Jet Zero” on how the UK might decarbonise flights, by 2050. One really effective way to do that would be to reduce the demand for air travel, which is what the Climate Change Committee  (CCC) recommended. The CCC said (24th June) “Lack of ambition for aviation demand management would result in higher emissions of 6.4 MtCO2e/year in 2030 relative to the CCC pathway for aviation emissions.” But the Jet Zero consultation just says “We want to preserve the ability for people to fly whilst supporting consumers to make sustainable travel choices.” And “This Government is committed to tackling the CO2 emissions from flights, whilst preserving the ability for people to fly.” And “we currently believe the sector can achieve Jet Zero without the Government needing to intervene directly to limit aviation growth” and cut aviation CO2 by as much as the CCC says is needed, but by other means – SAF, hydrogen, electric planes etc. It then says it will “seek to address residual carbon emissions through robust, verifiable offsets and additional greenhouse gas removals.” And it acknowledges that these are all “currently at a relatively early stage of development and [their deployment] requires collaboration and commitment across all parts of the sector if it is to succeed.” It also considers carbon information for flights, but only so people can still fly, but choose different airline options.

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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. 



£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.”