UK Aviation Industry Commits To Interim Carbon Targets

Heathrow Airport
Credit: London Heathrow Airport

A coalition of UK airlines, airports and industry has unveiled interim decarbonization targets en route to meeting their commitment to net zero carbon by 2050. 

But the Sustainable Aviation coalition has cautioned that support from government policies and investments is required this decade or the UK risks falling behind other countries.

The UK aviation industry is targeting a reduction in net emissions of at least 15% by 2030, relative to 2019, increasing to 40% by 2040 as sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), permanent carbon removal and low/zero-carbon technologies such as electric and hydrogen become mainstream.

“UK aviation led the world last year by being the first national aviation body to commit to net zero by 2050,” Sustainable Aviation coalition Chair Adam Morton said in a statement. “We are now raising the bar by committing to additional interim milestones.”

To achieve these interim targets, the coalition said, key government policies are needed in 2021 to develop a commercial-scale UK SAF industry that can produce enough fuel from household and municipal waste to support at least a 32% reduction in emissions by 2050.

The first SAF production facility in the UK has now secured planning permission, the coalition noted, but up to 14 waste-to-fuel plants will need to be built by the mid-2030s, which will require government policies that provide both a demand signal and price support.

The government also needs to provide a positive, long-term signal for investment on aerospace technology, the coalition said, by increasing and extending funding for the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), which manages the UK’s investment in civil aviation research and development.

Airspace modernization must be completed to generate significant carbon saving through more efficient flights, the coalition said. And the UK government must seek a more robust long-term commitment for carbon reduction at the ICAO Assembly in 2022.

The coalition also is calling for UK polices that incentivize the commercialization of carbon removal technologies that enable carbon-neutral or carbon-negative aviation fuels that will allow the aviation industry to address its remaining residual emissions.

”UK aviation is optimistically relying on removals technologies which simply do not exist in the UK currently, instead of facing up to the fact that it needs to commit more money to zero-emission aircraft and sustainable aviation fuel,” said Matt Finch, UK policy manager for environmental group Transport & Environment.

The U.S. is considering a blenders tax credit to incentivize SAF production while the EU is planning to introduce a mandate requiring an increasing percentage of SAF to be blended into jet fuel. The UK will shortly begin consultations on a SAF mandate. Environmental groups are pushing the government to support synthetic fuels produced from green hydrogen and captured carbon.

The UK government is working with industry through the Jet Zero Council, which was created in March 2020. Under the Council, working groups are developing two road maps, one for zero-emission flight technology, led by ATI, and one for SAF. They are planned for release this summer.

“What we’re trying to do with these roadmaps is be really clear about what industry needs to what government needs to do in order to get real momentum and action over the next couple of years,” said Emma Gilthorpe, the Council’s CEO and London Heathrow Airport COO.

Another key report is due June 30 from the UK’s Coalition for Negative Emissions, a cross-industry effort to identify opportunities for CO2 removal to offset residual emissions including how to support aviation in meeting its climate-change targets.

The Sustainable Aviation coalition is now working to update its Decarbonization Road Map, first released in 2020. Planned for summer 2022, this will take into account an updated UK air traffic forecast expected to be released by the government in 2021 and reflecting the impact of COVID-19. 

Updated with EU and UK policy changes on SAF and progress with electric and hydrogen aircraft development, the road map is “expected to demonstrate even faster potential to decarbonize aviation through technology innovation,” the coalition said.

Graham Warwick

Graham leads Aviation Week's coverage of technology, focusing on engineering and technology across the aerospace industry, with a special focus on identifying technologies of strategic importance to aviation, aerospace and defense.