HomeLow carbon futureWill the government do the right thing about aviation emissions?

Will the government do the right thing about aviation emissions?

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This post is by Matt Finch, UK policy manager at Transport & Environment .

Cutting aviation’s carbon emissions is a challenge, but it’s achievable. In previous years, discussing this would have resulted in a frown, a shrug and a sigh: “It’s simply too hard”, people would say. However, in recent years technology has advanced and the opportunity to do so is here. The UK government has started to take action by setting up the Jet Zero council. This council, composed of both senior government ministers and industry leaders, has an ambitious aim: the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced last year that its goal is to “demonstrate flight across the Atlantic…. within a generation…. without harming the environment”. So far, though, there has not been a meaningful policy introduced that would start to bend the curve towards achieving this aim.

Aviation development should be in line with net zero aims
In December, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) recommended that the government should start including emissions from the UK’s share of international aviation and shipping (IAS) in its carbon budgets. To date, these have not been formally included, but have been allowed ‘headroom’ in the 2050 carbon target, meaning that the budgets for other sectors have been set lower than they would otherwise have been. Including IAS in carbon budgets would send a signal to the world that the UK is taking responsibility for them. This would also mean that future aviation development would come in line with the government’s wider decarbonisation agenda.  

Truly zero emission transatlantic flight would be a monumental achievement, especially considering the physical, economical and safety barriers. It would also be an achievement considering that UK aviation emissions have been creeping upwards (a 125 per cent increase since 1990) at a time when the UK’s overall emissions are shifting downwards.

For aviation to be part of the nation’s post-Covid recovery, it must be part of the effort to build back better and be fully included in net zero planning: in fact, the government should aim for 2019 to have been the highpoint of UK aviation’s contribution to climate change. The industry is not blind to its historical contribution, in fact it has already drawn up plans as to how to reach net zero by 2050. IAS emissions should, therefore, be included in carbon budgets to set a policy framework that holds the industry to account for its own promises. 

The government should indicate that new policies are coming
What international investors desire is certainty. They don’t like it when government rhetoric says one thing, but its actions suggest another. The clearest signal the government can make right now is to say that it’s aware of the need to act on aviation emissions and that policies should be expected soon. Taking responsibility for them via our legally-binding carbon budgets is the first step on the decarbonisation policy pathway. Private sector money will be crucial in decarbonising aviation, and this is the fastest way to make sure the money flows in the right direction. This will help to drive innovation and create the right market conditions for the radical new technologies and fuels that will be needed. Implementing this policy now also means there is a good chance that innovation will take place in the UK, to the benefit of domestic jobs and the economy.

Including IAS emissions in our carbon budgets would be a global first: the first time a country has formally taken national responsibility for them. If the government doesn’t, this year of all years, it won’t be a good look and it will have very clearly rejected its own advisers’ advice. There are many good reasons to accept the CCCs recommendations. The onus is on government to do the right thing now.

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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.