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UK aviation emissions: what’s the plan?

While governments may come and go, our legal climate change commitments remain unchanged. In this context, the Committee on Climate Change had been hoping that its latest annual progress report would be an opportunity to assess the Government’s long-awaited Emissions Reduction Plan (or ‘Clean Growth Plan’), setting out how it plans to meet the emissions reductions required during the fourth and fifth carbon budgets, covering the period 2023-32. In fact, however, the plan has yet to emerge.

The CCC’s pointedly-titled report, Closing the policy gap, identifies a number of areas in which new policies are needed to ensure that the UK’s legal duties on CO2 reductions are met. Among a long list of policy requirements – including low-carbon power, electric vehicles, energy efficiency and carbon capture and storage – the CCC recommends new policy and strategy to deliver:

A plan to limit UK aviation emissions to the level assumed when the fifth carbon budget was set: around 2005 levels by 2050, implying around a 60% potential increase in demand, supported by strong international policies

The latest government forecast of aviation emissions was published in 2013 and anticipated emissions rising to 47 Mt by 2050 – a 93% increase in passenger numbers even assuming no new runways. In light of the Government’s move to support expansion at Heathrow, new national aviation forecasts for passenger demand and CO2 emissions were due to be published during the consultation period for the Airports National Policy Statement, but were withheld due to ‘purdah’ rules in the run-up to the general election. It is unclear when they will now be published.

The Airports Commission’s forecasts meanwhile anticipated lower regional airport demand figures and more optimistic fuel efficiency improvements but still indicated an overshoot of the CCC’s recommended limit for aviation emissions even without expansion, and a still higher level of emissions if the third runway goes ahead.

Cait Hewitt, Deputy Director at AEF, said:

“Since 2010, consecutive governments have been ignoring the advice of their own advisers to come up with a plan for aviation emissions. The Government’s now pushing ahead with a third runway at Heathrow despite having nothing to say about how we can keep emissions from aircraft in line with our legal climate change obligations. How can MPs judge the case for Heathrow expansion until they know the full climate change cost of the project?”

So what’s the Government going to do?

The Clean Growth Plan should, the Government says, be out in the autumn. The CCC has said that this must include a plan for tackling aviation emissions. While it has never specifically advised against Heathrow expansion, the CCC’s progress report repeats its earlier recommendation that: “In the context of future UK policy and infrastructure investment decisions, appropriate long-term assumptions for government planning are for aviation emissions to be around 2005 levels in 2050”: around 37.5 Mt CO2.

A theoretical possibility is that the Government could actually come up with the goods and set out a policy plan, using a combination of demand constraint measures (for example through pricing, together with limits of airport capacity growth or use) and specific incentives for emissions reductions, that would show how aviation emissions will be kept to 37.5 Mt. But it is hard, in reality, to imagine what such a plan would look like. It’s quite likely that the demand and CO2 forecasts, when they are finally published, will be lower than the last set, given (i) the trend of previous forecasts (ii) the fact that the Airports Commission’s forecasts, which are more recent, are lower and (iii) the likely impact of Brexit. But even so it seems unlikely that they’ll fall below the level of the recommended emissions limit once the impact of a new Heathrow runway is factored in.

More likely is that the Government is pinning its hopes on carbon offsetting as a solution for aviation (and maybe, indeed, for meeting carbon budgets more generally). But the CCC has consistently cautioned against relying on offsetting, not least given that in order to meet the global temperature objectives underpinning the Climate Change Act and international climate agreements, all countries will need to be limiting their emissions so cheap carbon offsets just won’t be available. In its latest progress report, the CCC comments specifically on the UN’s offsetting scheme for aviation, agreed in 2016, noting that it lacks any long-term objective or link to the Paris Agreement, and estimating that it will cover less than half of total international aviation kilometres flown in 2030 (given various exemptions and fact that it only covers emissions above 2020 levels).

Where does this leave us?

Whether or not there is a role for carbon markets in tackling climate change, there is no easy way out from the need to limit aviation emissions at a UK level and to take action that reflects where we need to be by 2050 in terms of decarbonisation. With UK aviation emissions now growing again (following the dip caused by the recession) and a major runway decision looming, the Government surely can’t dodge the issue for much longer.