Government consultation about cutting AIRPORT CO2 emissions, but ignored AIRCRAFT emissions

The Government is currently consulting on proposals to introduce a target for airports to achieve zero emissions without offsetting by 2040.  But the target doesn’t include the emissions from flights, despite these being responsible – according to the Government’s own consultants – for 95% of airports’ emissions.  The government’s target would actually require a massive reduction, or complete cessation, of flights if it included the CO2 emissions from planes too.  While it is possible to decarbonise (largely by use of electricity) airport operations on the ground, there are no technologies that can do this, on a large scale, for aircraft. The only plan for flights, other than so-called “sustainable aviation fuels” would be speculative future CO2 removal from the atmosphere.  The consultation document says that “The zero-emissions airport target is not intended to hamper economic growth at airports, but to provide a social licence for growth.”  ie. making it look as if the aviation industry is working hard to cut its emissions. It would be necessary, for the airport CO2 targets, to include full reporting of the emissions from flights using the airport.



25th April, 2023

By the AEF (Aviation Environment Federation)

The Government is currently consulting on proposals to introduce a target for airports to achieve zero emissions without offsetting by 2040. Sounds good, right? But there’s a catch and it’s quite a big one. The target doesn’t include the emissions from flights, despite these being responsible – according to the Government’s own consultants – for 95% of airports’ emissions.

Decarbonising airports will not decarbonise flying
Including flights in the proposed target would essentially require a shut-down of the aviation industry. Technologies now exist that could deliver complete decarbonisation of airport buildings and of airport vehicles on the ground by 2040. For airlines, meanwhile, there are no zero emission aircraft yet in operation on commercial routes, and alternative fuel options all face limitations in terms of scalability and emissions mitigation. The Government’s plans for emissions from flying – as set out in the Jet Zero strategy – look very different, therefore, from the proposed airports target. Even under a “high ambition” (some would say “high risk”) scenario, the government anticipates emissions from the aviation sector of over 19 Mt CO2 per year by 2050, which would need to be balanced by way of carbon removals.

The 2040 target as a means of securing public support for growth
What is the purpose, then, of the Department for Transport setting an ambitious climate target for airport operations, which other policies such as the phaseout of petrol and diesel vehicles, will go a long way towards delivering anyway? The consultation document itself offers an explanation, stating that “The zero-emissions airport target is not intended to hamper economic growth at airports, but to provide a social licence for growth.

AEF, along with numerous green NGOs and, indeed, the Government’s own climate advisory body, the CCC, have been arguing that the scale of aviation growth currently been planned for is not compatible with climate targets. The Government takes a different view, insisting that aviation growth, including airport expansion, will boost UK productivity and help “level up” the UK. However, the view of the public is unclear. CAA research from 2020 found that “UK adults are more likely than ever before to say they think about the environmental impact when travelling by air”. And airport expansion in particular remains controversial, with community groups continuing to challenge plans for growth at Bristol, Manston, London City, Luton and – of course – Heathrow and Gatwick.

A way forward
Setting ambitious targets for climate action, including actual rather than ‘net’ emissions cuts where possible, has to be a good thing. AEF won’t, therefore, be opposing the setting of a 2040 target for airports. But given the long history of many UK airports having misleadingly claimed ‘carbon neutral’ status on the basis of plans that don’t address flights it’s particularly important for the Government to avoid providing false reassurance for the public about plans for decarbonising flight.

In our response to the consultation, we’ll therefore be arguing that the 2040 target for airport operations, if introduced, must be accompanied by a requirement for transparent reporting of the emissions associated with the flights from each of those airports, as suggested in the consultation. In reporting any progress towards meeting the target, airports should make clear the limits of its scope and should avoid references to becoming a ‘zero emission airport’ or similar.

Greenwash in the aviation sector is already a significant problem. Government policy needs to avoid exacerbating this, and should instead build on the work being undertaken by the CAA to better inform the public about the CO2 from flights.

The consultation on the Government’s target is open till 2nd May.

Airport carbon target risks greenwashing aviation emissions


Open DFT  consultation

2040 zero emissions airport target

Published 7 February 2023


Ministerial foreword

Aviation will become one of the world’s largest emitting sectors by 2050. Millions of flights take off and touch down around our planet every single year, and all parts of the industry must act to fix our changing climate.

As an industry, aviation is inherently global in nature, and this makes it one of the most challenging modes of transport to decarbonise. But the UK is intent on rising to that challenge, and our Jet Zero Strategy set out our vision for an aviation sector which reaches net zero emissions by 2050.

This is a stretching goal, and whilst we are ambitious, we are not naïve. We recognise that some parts of industry will need more time, and that in other areas workable solutions already exist and can be accelerated.

That is why we have set a more ambitious goal for all airport operations in England to be zero emission by 2040. Airport operations are fertile ground for nurturing existing solutions and boosting the industry’s commitment to net zero by 2050.

These zero emissions airports will be emblematic of aviation’s long-term future. We want millions of passengers who use airports to experience clean and green places. Places that remind us all of the benefits of securing a sustainable aviation future.

That future will be shaped by the whole industry, and we need the whole industry to share their views. We need to better understand the way we define airport operations, emissions sources and entities in our zero emissions goal. We rely on your expertise to understand how we best implement the target, and measure and monitor emissions to ensure it is achieved. This is your opportunity to give your perspective on how we may look to achieve our target while continuing to reap the benefits of the aviation industry.

Baroness Vere of Norbiton, Minister for Aviation

Why zero emissions airports?

In 2019, the UK became the first major economy to legislate to end its contribution to climate change by 2050. This requires us to reduce emissions across all sectors of the economy, including hard to abate sectors such as aviation. However, the transition to net zero also provides significant opportunities to create new green jobs, improve our energy security and resilience, and drive long-term growth by attracting early investment in new transport technologies.

Ambitious targets are needed economy-wide to meet our net zero goals. Transport is currently the largest emitting sector of the UK, responsible for 24% of the UK’s total emissions in 2020. Decarbonising aviation is a huge challenge across the global economy and, in two out of three scenarios in the Net Zero Strategy (NZS), is set to become one of the largest residual emitters by 2050.

Therefore, in July 2022 we published our Jet Zero Strategy (JZS) which set out the government’s approach to achieving net zero 2050 for UK aviation, informed by over 1,500 responses to the Jet Zero Consultation and the Jet Zero: further technical consultation. The strategy focuses on the rapid development of technologies in a way that maintains the benefits of air travel, whilst maximising the opportunities that decarbonisation brings to the UK. It also sets out a CO2 emissions reduction trajectory that sees UK aviation emissions peak in 2019. The strategy was followed by a global commitment at the 41st International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Assembly to net zero emissions from international aviation by 2050.

We recognise that aviation is a hard-to-abate sector and that there are parts of the aviation industry which will not be able to decarbonise fully, with 19.3MtCO2e of residual emissions in 2050 expected in the trajectory set for the JZS. Therefore, we must accelerate areas of aviation where solutions already exist, or will exist in the short-to-medium-term, to decarbonise sooner. Airport operations are one of the few areas where this is possible and therefore provide one of the best opportunities for the industry to demonstrate their commitment to Jet Zero with existing zero emissions solutions.

The Airports Council International (ACI) also recognise this issue and have set a long-term aspirational goal for their 1,950 member airports to be net zero by 2050. As this is a global goal, they recognise that some airports will move beyond this goal as they have different levels of maturity. This may include achieving this goal before 2050, addressing more sources of emissions, and advancing to zero or carbon negative emissions.

However, with over two-thirds of airports in England being listed in the Airport Operators Association Decarbonisation Report as having net zero targets before 2040, a zero emissions target for 2040 represents an ambitious next step, which will support the UK’s Jet Zero goals, as well as ambitions at a global scale.

In addition, there is an important co-benefit to decarbonising airport operations, which is an improvement in air quality. Transitioning to non-fossil fuel powered airport operations, such as using electric vehicles and zero emission heating and energy systems will likely result in a significant decrease in both nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM10) concentrations around airports. This could reduce the occurrence and severity of respiratory illnesses for those living in the vicinity of airports, as well as airport users and employees.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the air transport and aerospace sectors combined contributed £22 billion to annual GDP. Air transport directly employed nearly 150,000 people and supported up to half a million more jobs across the UK, in aviation and aerospace.

Airports serve as an effective place for business, forming natural hubs, which provide accessibility, security, convenience and can provide a wealth of talent and skills. Heathrow alone is predicted to contribute approximately £4.7 billion to the UK economy by 2025 and is set to support more than 140,000 jobs. But it is not just large airports that have an impact. Smaller regional airports provide key air services, such as connecting remote areas, flight training, specialist and business aviation, and special mission aviation (such as Search and Rescue, the National Police Air Service and air ambulances), as well as supporting levelling-up ambitions. The zero-emissions airport target is not intended to hamper economic growth at airports, but to provide a social licence for growth.

We recognise that there are a range of airports in England that compete with one another, and with other UK, European and worldwide airports for passenger and freight traffic. As we develop this policy, we will carefully consider how best to maintain fair competition between airports.

…. and it continues, at length  ….