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Can flying in planes be sustainable? Even aviation bosses aren’t so sure

Experts in the transport and aviation sectors have pointed out “serious flaws” in the government’s “jet zero” strategy, which relies on technology that “hasn’t been invented yet”.

The government’s “jet zero” strategy for decarbonising flying by 2050 relies almost entirely on “unproven” and non-existent technology, experts from the industry have warned. 

Evidence collected for a new inquiry into net zero aviation and shipping has outlined “serious flaws” with the government’s strategy amid reports the UK will push for a global target on cutting aviation emissions at COP26.

“Jet zero” was outlined as part of a consultation over the summer. It promised to slash aviation emissions “in a way that preserves the benefits of air travel and delivers clean growth of the UK sector”. 

The 52-page consultation document makes no mention of reducing demand for flying, in spite of calls from the government’s own climate change advisers, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), to reduce demand in order to meet net zero by 2050. 

Instead, the government’s plans will rely heavily on technological innovations like sustainable aviation fuel, hydrogen power and electric planes to slash emissions. 

Yet at the Environmental Audit Committee’s (EAC) first evidence session on net zero aviation on October 28, MPs heard from expert witnesses that many of these technologies are still in their infancy and not ready for commercial use.

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Dr Chikage Miyoshi, expert in environmental aviation, said decarbonising “is really really difficult” for the sector, while Chris Young, chief engineer at Rolls Royce, admitted that using hydrogen to power carbon-intensive long-haul flights is still technically impossible. 

In its submission to the inquiry, clean transport campaign Transport and Environment said the government has pinned all its hopes on “advances in currently unproven technologies” instead of “attempting to mitigate some emissions by simply restricting growth of flights”. 

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The government has consistently avoided the question of reducing demand for flying in order to cut aviation emissions, with a new cut to air passenger duty for domestic flights likely to increase passenger numbers.

It also deleted a piece of research it had commissioned on encouraging behavioural changes to meet net zero.

The deleted document said that “achieving net zero requires significant behavioural change, including a  significant reduction in demand for flying and eating ruminant meat and dairy.”

In a Commons report released in September, the government said both it and the aviation industry “say that there are compelling economic arguments in favour of continued growth.”

This was in spite of the same report noting that participants of the 2020 Citizens Assembly on Climate Change “resoundingly rejected” industry projections for a future in which air passenger numbers would rise by 65 per cent between 2018 and 2050. 

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Alethea Warrington, of climate campaign group Possible UK, says there is widespread public support for measures like frequent flyer levies, making demand reduction a “sensible route” for slashing aviation emissions. 

“People understand the urgency of taking action to tackle the climate crisis, yet instead of taking the sensible route, the government is indulging in a fantasy of unlimited growth in flights while maintaining climate targets.” 

“Even if these new ways to power planes do eventually come into use, we still need to reduce demand for flights now to protect the climate.”

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “We are working closely with industry through the Jet Zero Council to decarbonise aviation in a way that preserves the benefits of air travel. 

“The Government is supporting a variety of technology, fuel and market-based measures to address aviation emissions, including £180m in funding to support the deployment and commercialisation of sustainable aviation fuel plants in the UK.”

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