Failed Policy Frameworks 2: Aviation and decarbonisation

Anthony Rae 17th May 2024: In December 2020 the Climate Change Committee established a pathway for annual total transport emissions that requires a reduction from 167.2MtCO2e in 2019 to 118MtCO2e by 2030: a reduction of 49.2 MtCO2e. In October 2021, and in response, the government Net Zero Strategy (NZS) adopted a slightly higher annual TTE target for 2030 of 121.5MtCO2e. But that target and associated trajectory was in fact an aggregate of two quite different emissions pathways. One for roads required major reductions in surface transport emissions led by the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) as a result of a phase-out of internal combustion engines (ICE) cars from 2030, which had just been accepted as government policy in November 2020. The other, for aviation, requested almost no reductions whatsoever in aviation  emissions. In the previous article on this page Anne Robinson writes about the potential pitfalls undermining the roads emissions reduction. This article has to explain the extraordinary privileging of the aviation sector.

It’s quite simple. For more than two decades DfT policy has deliberately promoted the expansion of aviation passenger demand and airport capacity regardless of the emissions consequences.  Aviation emissions in the 1990, the year that the Climate Change Act established as the baseline from which reductions must proceed  aviation emissions were 17MtCO2e . But since then they’ve been soaring away: to 38MtCO2e in 2019 and therefore +125% above the 1990 baseline; in 2030 they are projected to be 35.4MtCO2e, therefore +108% above  1990; and in 2050 19.3MtCO2e, still +13.5% above  in 2050. In other words there will have been no decarbonisation at all by the aviation sector over the entire 60 year NZ period 1990-2050. When I wrote about ‘privileging’ above, you can see I wasn’t exaggerating, but clearly the DfT and aviation sector unlike must believe the Climate Change Act does not apply to them.

Seeing that there is a steady improvement in the efficiency of jet engines and fuels, why has that huge expansion in emissions occurred? Because demand was allowed to surge, and airport capacity encouraged to expand. The number of passengers in 1990 was just over 100 million; by 2019 it was almost 300m, and DfT policy now wants to encourage it it to soar to 430m by 2050. Unsurprisingly the Climate Change Committee is now explicitly clear that continuing aviation and airports expansion is incompatible with Net Zero.

It can be seen therefore that what the DfT’s Jet Zero Strategy – the title is a pure propaganda – is doing is deliberately incurring increased climate risk. It relies almost exclusively on technological interventions which cannot be effective in the next 10 years, whilst demand management interventions, which can act quickly against climate risk, have been deliberately excluded from the strategy. Almost unnoticed, it removed all the regulatory levers by which passenger demand, airport capacity and therefore emissions can be managed.

To become Net Zero compliant an incoming Labour government would have to withdraw and radically revise the Jet Zero Strategy policy framework. At the moment there are no indications that this is being contemplated.