Including flights abroad in the UK’s climate target is a huge step forward

This post is by Greg Archer and Matt Finch of Transport & Environment.

If holiday makers ignore the cost of flights they quickly max-out their credit cards and create a cash crisis. If countries omit their international aviation (and shipping) emissions from their national carbon budgets they run the risk of overshooting their climate targets and contribute to frying the planet. So the UK’s decision to include our international flights and shipping emissions in its sixth carbon budget is not just good accountancy, it is a huge step forward towards limiting these pernicious, invisible and, to date, largely unmanaged emissions.

This is real international leadership
The UK is the first major economy to do this and now aims to reduce its greenhouse emissions overall by 78 per cent by 2035. In announcing that it will follow the advice of its climate advisers, Boris Johnson’s government has shown international leadership and established an important precedent ahead of November’s global climate talks in Glasgow. The EU and other countries should now follow suit, adding urgency to the glacial international progress to cut aviation and shipping emissions with strong national measures.

Key decisions on the EU’s new Climate Law are being finalised in negotiations between European institutions this week. To keep up with UK climate ambition and hold onto its international climate leadership, the EU should include its international flights and shipping in its carbon trading scheme this June.

In the UK, just budgeting for international transport emissions is largely pointless unless steps are taken to manage them. Controlling emissions in aviation and shipping no longer needs to rely on buying dodgy carbon credits or planting trees. Emissions cuts need a shift to sustainable aviation fuels like e-kerosene that can be made by extracting CO2 from the air and combining it with green hydrogen to produce a zero carbon liquid aviation fuel. International shipping could similarly be powered by green hydrogen and ammonia.

Aviation shouldn’t expand without cutting its emissions
The quantities of renewable power needed to make green fuels for planes and ships are enormous, and the non-CO2 emissions, like aircraft contrails, more than double air travel’s contribution to global warming and can only be reduced, not eliminated. As travel restrictions ease, aviation should not be allowed to expand beyond pre-pandemic levels until it brings its emissions under control.

Until now, states have outsourced action on international aviation and shipping emissions to two UN agencies: the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) respectively. Both have been negligent and failed to take their responsibilities seriously. Aviation CO2 emissions doubled between 2005 and 2019. They are forecast to double again by 2035 and quadruple by 2050. ICAO’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (Corsia) proposals won’t cut emissions at all, only offset the future growth to 2035. An EU study recently concluded Corsia is “unlikely to materially alter” the climate impact of air travel. Similarly, the IMO’s own study concluded that shipping emissions could increase by 50 per cent by 2050, while recently approved reduction measures by the IMO sanctions further emissions growth for at least the next decade.

The government seems almost embarrassed it has broken ranks and exposed the emperor’s new clothes of the ICAO and IMO. It shouldn’t be. Instead, Alok Sharma, president of the forthcoming COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, should bring together a coalition of progressive countries that want to reduce their aviation and shipping emissions through domestic and regional action, and who will include their share of international emissions in their domestic carbon budgets. The government has also sent a clear message to other nations to follow the UK’s example to make up for the ambitions gap left behind by the ICAO and IMO.

UK aviation emissions must have peaked
The government is making the right noises about controlling aviation emissions. It has established the Jet Zero Council, a partnership between industry and government to achieve zero emission transatlantic flight within a generation. It will shortly publish its much delayed Transport Decarbonisation Plan. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps recently stated that “aviation has to earn the right to grow by addressing its environmental impacts”. Now the government urgently needs to translate good intentions into meaningful action. Emissions from UK aviation must have peaked.

Accepting the Climate Change Committee’s advice for a moratorium on airport expansion would send an important signal to the aviation industry: post-pandemic, it will not be business as usual. Reversing the counterproductive cut in domestic air passenger duty and reforming aviation taxes, once passenger numbers have recovered from the pandemic, will be essential to ensure the industry pays its way. But above all, the government should mandate an increasing share of green fuels in planes and ships to begin the transition to zero carbon flights and shipping.

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