Element Energy report shows air travel demand reduction is essential, to cut UK aviation carbon

New report for the Aviation Environment Federation, by Element Energy, looks at the reality of the UK government’s reliance on novel technologies to eventually cut aviation carbon emissions. The DfT is depending on greatly improved aircraft energy efficiency, as well as electric planes, planes powered by hydrogen, and a huge component of new lower-carbon fuels, SAF (sustainable aviation fuels) replacing kerosene, and carbon capture and storage. The DfT does not consider reducing demand for flying, and considers an increase of 70% above the level in 2018, by 2050, as acceptable. Element Energy show the aspiration of 2% annual plane efficiency gains is unrealistic, and even 1.5% will be difficult. They consider that novel fuels might, at best, produce a carbon saving of 60%, not the 100% the DfT hopes for.  The price of carbon in future needs to be high, for international flights, and if it does not increase enough, flying demand will not decrease – to the DfT forecasts are unreliable. The study concludes that, even with a high proportion of SAF being used, and optimal fuel efficiency gains, by 2050 there would need to be a reduction in flights and passengers of around 45%, if the sector is to achieve the target of 15MtCO2 (even that is a huge amount of carbon).


“The Role of Aviation Demand Reduction in UK Decarbonisation”

Report for Aviation Environment Federation (AEF)
April 2022

A new report from Element Energy (EE), commissioned by the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF), has concluded that aviation demand reduction is required to hit economy-wide emission targets. Government’s ‘Jet Zero’ plans overestimate the likely improvements in operations, technology and alternative fuels and rely on uncertain solutions, it finds.

Significant risks include relying on improved system efficiencies, assuming high sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) uptake levels, a misleading portrayal of SAF emissions abatements and failing to account for the non-CO2 impacts of aviation. While new technologies and fuels will be necessary, they are unlikely to be developed at the speed and scale needed to deliver net zero aviation without reductions in demand being delivered in parallel.

The report concludes that a halt to airport capacity growth and demand reduction measures pose a far less risky approach to hitting net zero aviation by 2050 and the 78% economy-wide emissions cut to which the Government has committed by 2035.

EE criticises the trajectory of the Government’s preferred scenario for delivering ‘Jet Zero’, and argues for an alternative approach that requires the sector to make deeper cuts to its emissions in the near-term to help reduce risk and to minimise the total amount of CO2 emitted between now and 2050.

The latest Department for Transport consultation on Jet Zero draws on work by Element Energy that suggests that engineered greenhouse gas removals (GGRs) could be a cost effective method in the future for tackling remaining CO2 emissions. However, EE’s work for AEF highlights the risks of relying on GGRs and cautions that they “should only be deployed once both technological and behaviour change options to reduce emissions have been exhausted”. The report also argues that the “enormous effort and cost” that the Government assumes will be paid to deliver carbon capture and storage “is largely to support the status quo in aviation and agriculture”.

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Johnson’s ‘jet zero’ plan unrealistic and may make UK miss CO2 targets – report

Ministers instead urged to focus on reducing flights and halting airport expansion to cut carbon emissions

The government plan is likely to result in ministers missing their legally binding carbon emissions targets, according to a report. Photograph: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

The study from Element Energy, which has worked for the government and the climate change committee in the past, says instead of focusing on such unreliable future developments, ministers should work to reduce the overall number of flights and halt airport expansion over the next few years.

The report, released on Monday, was commissioned by the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) and comes as five regional airports are in the process of seeking approval to expand.

In addition, Gatwick and Luton have announced they will be submitting major applications later this year, while Heathrow has not abandoned its plans for a third runway.

AEF’s policy director, Cait Hewitt, said the findings showed the government’s plan amounted to “sitting back and allowing both airports and emissions to grow in the short term while hoping for future technologies and fuels to save the day”.

“These expansion plans will generate millions of tonnes of additional CO2 each year,” she added. “Until the government sets out a realistic net zero trajectory for the sector, and the industry is on track to outperform it, additional airport capacity should be off the agenda.”

The government’s jet zero initiative was launched two years ago and is part of a raft of policies that aim to get UK emissions to net zero by 2050.

Boris Johnson announced the proposals, declaring a goal of a commercial transatlantic flight that produces no carbon emissions by 2025, a claim that was widely dismissed by experts as a gimmick.

The report adds weight to concerns about the viability of the government’s plans, stating that it is unclear how the Department for Transport would “deliver the technological improvements” it was relying on in terms of sustainable fuel and aircraft efficiencies.

It concluded that ministers should instead aim to reduce the number of flights now – halting airport expansion plans, expanding carbon pricing and taxing frequent flyers and kerosene.

Hewitt said: “[There is] a need for action now, including ruling out airport expansion and limiting demand, to ensure aviation makes a fair contribution to cutting emissions by 2035 and is on a pathway to net zero by 2050.”

A DfT spokesperson said: “We are anti aviation emissions, not anti-flying – we must reduce emissions from aviation whilst retaining our ability to fly.

“Our analysis suggests that the aviation sector can achieve Jet Zero without the Government needing to intervene directly to limit aviation growth, with net zero targets achieved by focusing on new fuels and technology, with knock-on economic and social benefits, rather than capping demand.”