HomeLow carbon futureWhy the government can’t continue to ignore international aviation and shipping in its climate plans

Why the government can’t continue to ignore international aviation and shipping in its climate plans

This post is by Ryan Leung, policy assistant at Green Alliance

The UK is about to set its 2030 climate target (otherwise known as its Nationally Determined Contribution, or NDC) as part of the UN COP process in which countries increase their ambitions on national plans to tackle climate change. 

Currently, emissions from international aviation and shipping are not included in national targets like NDCs and carbon budgets because they are covered by international processes. But there are good reasons for the UK to have domestic targets for international aviation and shipping too, and now is it the time to put them in place.

Together these sectors are responsible for over a tenth of UK emissions. Aviation emissions have doubled since 1990 and, in 2019, the sector was responsible for around eight per cent of all UK emissions. It is likely to be the largest emitting UK sector by 2050, potentially producing a third of emissions in 2050. International shipping accounted for three per cent of all UK emissions in 2019. 

International ambitions are low
Aviation’s plans to mitigate carbon emissions through its Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) programme are very limited in scope. They do not aspire to a carbon neutral industry as a whole, only aiming for its future growth to be carbon neutral through offsetting. This means airlines will only need to buy offsets for their emissions growth from 2020. And offsetting schemes are largely not fit for purpose: for example, research shows that at least 73 per cent of the measures in the UN’s flagship offsetting programme, the Clean Development Mechanism, are unlikely to deliver the emissions reductions claimed. CORSIA will not be mandatory until 2027 and is planned to end in 2035. Unless it is extended beyond this date, CORSIA is expected to cover only six per cent of aviation’s projected CO2 emissions between 2015 and 2050.

In a similar vein, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) also aims to reduce emissions, but only by at least 50 per cent by 2050, compared to 2008 levels. It has also said it wants to reduce the carbon intensity of shipping by 40 per cent by 2030. However, the measures needed to achieve these goals are still being negotiated internationally and, even if they are adopted, analysis suggests that shipping emissions will rise by at least 14 per cent by 2030 compared to the level in 2008.

These low ambitions mean that international programmes to reduce emissions from aviation and shipping are not compatible with the aspirations of either the global Paris Agreement or the UK’s net zero target.

It’s the UK’s chance to raise the game
Next year is an important year for the UK on the global stage, as it is hosting both the UN climate conference COP26 and the G7. It is also due to publish several national decarbonisation strategies for the transport sector, including the Transport Decarbonisation Plan and an Aviation Strategy. By standing out globally to formally include emissions from international aviation and shipping in its national targets and strategies, the UK will confirm its leadership position on climate action ahead of these important summits.

It is also a particularly opportune time to take a lead on this as Brexit allows more freedom for the UK to set its own taxes and charges for aviation and shipping emissions. For example, currently flights within the EU are covered in the EU’s emissions trading scheme (EU ETS) but international flights are not. The UK is considering setting up its own emissions trading scheme now it has left the EU and has the opportunity to introduce new approaches. Similarly, as we will be matching EU regulations by putting into UK law requirements for ships to monitor and report their emissions, it is an ideal moment also to introduce emissions reduction targets.

The restructuring of both sectors in the aftermath of the pandemic means there is space for a policy reset and for the government to take stronger action to ensure they emerge able to contribute better to a low carbon future.

Including aviation and shipping will give other sectors more leeway
The inclusion of international aviation and shipping emissions in UK carbon targets would not only send a signal that the government is prioritising the emissions from these sectors, but also clarify what the emissions reductions should be from other sectors up to 2050, giving them more leeway on reducing emissions by 2050.

Global capacity to remove and store carbon is limited, and there are several sectors as well as aviation and shipping that will need them to reach net zero. Including international aviation and shipping in national carbon targets clarifies the scale of carbon removal the UK will need for all sectors by 2050.

Targets will also help to stimulate more innovation which will benefit all sectors of the economy. In shipping, for instance, the development of low carbon fuels, like ammonia and hydrogen, and accompanying port infrastructure will benefit supply chain businesses and provide new sources of employment. In aviation, developing sustainable fuels, like e-kerosene, is a significant long term opportunity to help the sector decarbonise earlier, in time for 2050, and new electric aircraft are already showing potential for the longer term.

The omission of international aviation and shipping from national targets has been an anomaly for too long. We cannot claim to be climate leaders while turning a blind eye to such significant sources of emissions. The imminent NDC announcement is the chance for the government to put this right.


Written by

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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