It’s here. The climate crisis has landed in the UK. We’re in a dangerous heatwave that’s forcing schools to close, hospital appointments to be cancelled, trains to reduce service, and flights to stop as the runway melts. Extreme weather is not only a threat to our infrastructure, but a threat to our lives.
There’s only one answer: urgent action to tackle the climate crisis.
And yet, on a day that has broken a temperature record set just three years ago, the government has done the opposite. While the tarmac sizzles beneath our feet, the skies above us are still full of planes spewing out greenhouse gases. What will it take for the government to get serious about cutting emissions from flights?
Today’s newly published “jet zero” strategy is meant to address the spiralling emissions of the UK’s aviation industry. Yet it allows airport expansions and a huge increase in passenger numbers (by an additional three-quarters compared to pre-pandemic levels), while hoping that technologies will emerge by 2050 to clean up the resulting emissions which heat up our planet. But the reality is that there isn’t any technology available now, or on the horizon, which would allow mass commercial aviation to continue at current levels without producing dangerously high emissions.
The strategy sets out a dazzling array of low-carbon technologies, which the government hopes will allow the aviation industry to expand for the next three decades while keeping within our climate targets. All of them are either extremely expensive, close to physically impossible, demand a ridiculous share of the planet’s limited resources, or wouldn’t actually reduce emissions. It’s incredibly difficult to fly without using fossil fuels for anything more than a very short journey with a very small number of passengers – which is the key reason why nearly every one of the aviation industry’s climate targets to date has been missed – usually by a country mile.
The weight of batteries makes it very difficult for them to power an electric plane if you want it to actually take off. The same goes for the volume of storage needed for a hydrogen-fuelled plane. But even if solutions were found, it typically takes decades to develop, safety-test and roll out an entirely new type of plane – and it’s clear that our climate can’t wait that long. Passenger jets coming off today’s production lines at Boeing and Airbus will still be in service in 2050, when the global economy needs to have already achieved net zero.
Then there’s so-called “sustainable aviation fuels” or SAFs. These are usually nothing of the sort – because burning huge amounts of biomass or waste is also extremely detrimental to the climate. The “jet zero” strategy also relies heavily on greenhouse gas removals to balance the books. This concept would allow airlines and airports to continue polluting for decades, putting off real action to cut emissions now with the hope that unicorns will arrive some day to suck those millions of extra tonnes of pollution out of the sky and store it underground.
The truth is there is only one method for reducing aviation emissions that we know works, but the government refuses to do it: reduce the number of flights.
The climate change committee, the government’s own advisers on climate, have just warned that it’s likely that the technologies its plan for aviation relies on will not be commercially available by 2050, and called for an urgent plan to cut back flights. Today the government ignored their warning, in favour of a fantasy of unlimited growth on a finite planet that’s close to its limits.
If demand management was done fairly, it wouldn’t affect most of us all that much. Access to flying is hugely unequal, with the wealthiest in the UK flying frequently while the rest of us fly rarely, if ever. Just 15% of people take 70% of all the flights, and in a typical year nearly half of us don’t fly at all.
We need sensible policies to reduce frequent flying that mean our really important trips – like seeing family overseas once in a while – don’t become something only the richest can afford, and that make sure that cleaner ways of travelling, such as by train, are cheap and accessible. This would slash emissions and ensure people could still enjoy travelling. The public can see that this makes sense, with the government’s own polling finding that a majority of the public are in favour of a frequent flyer levy, with fewer than one in five people opposed.
The government’s plans for aviation threaten to crash our climate. They’re doubling down on business as usual and betting the farm on magic beans, when we could reduce flights right now in a way that’s effective, popular and fair to everyone. If the government can’t take bold climate action during a record-breaking heatwave, then will it ever take this crisis seriously?
- Leo Murray is co-founder and director of innovation at the climate charity Possible
The framework and plan for achieving net zero aviation by 2050.