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Don’t rely on offsetting to solve aviation emissions problem, CCC tells Government

For a long time now, the Government has had no climate change policy or emissions target for aviation. Its official advisers, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), have for many years been – very politely – calling out the lack of any plan for limiting aviation emissions to the level assumed in the UK’s long-term climate plan. Such a plan would be hard, it’s true, to reconcile with the Government’s support for aviation growth, since there’s no readily available technology for decarbonising the sector. Aside from commissioning occasional studies to identify measures that couldbe implemented if there was a will to do so, both the Government and, more recently, the Airports Commission, have carefully stepped round the subject. 

The Aviation Strategy was supposed to change all that and to provide some clarity on the Government’s intentions. Unfortunately:

  • The strategy is being developed the wrong side (too late) of the parliamentary decision to expand the UK’s biggest airport by 50%.
  • The draft strategy states that the Government intends to accept the CCC’s longstanding “planning assumption” that aviation emissions will be no higher than 37.5Mt by 2050. But it fails to explain how that will be achieved, given its own forecasts are significantly higher than this.
  • And it’s also the wrong side (but this time too early) of the root and branch review that CCC is undertaking of whether the Climate Change Act as it stands is tough enough to deliver the UK’s commitments under the Paris Agreement. The CCC announced this week that its ‘net zero’ advice, including a review of the appropriate long term level of aviation emissions, will be out on 2nd May. But the DfT’s consultation on its draft aviation strategy closes in April. Not only will those responding to the consultation be unable to consider the implications of the CCC’s advice for the government plans, but the strategy will continue to be developed in the absence of this key advice.

The CCC has therefore responded to the consultation by way of a letter from the Committee Chair Lord Deben to the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling. 

In terms of the timetable, the letter warns that while the advice on the date by which the UK should aim to reach net zero emissions has yet to be published, “A stronger UK target would require more effort from all sectors, including aviation.” CCC will therefore write again to DfT, once the advice is published, to set out implications for the aviation strategy. 

In the meantime, while the Committee welcomes the Government’s intention, stated in the draft strategy, to formally accept the CCC’s longstanding advice that aviation emissions should be no higher than 37.5 Mt by 2050, it indicates, crucially, that this level should be achieved “on the basis of actual emissions, rather than by relying on international offset credits”. The latest DfT forecasts see emissions exceeding this level even in the ‘low’ growth scenario, and the Government has strongly hinted that it plans to make up the shortfall by relying on the international aviation offsetting scheme CORSIA, to avoid having to impose measures to restrict UK aviation growth.

The Committee stops short of commenting specifically on Heathrow expansion or on the Government’s wider plans for growth (lots of it) as proposed in the draft aviation strategy. But it does make clear that even meeting the current planning assumption will require “steps to limit growth in demand”, and that “in the absence of a true zero-carbon plane, demand cannot continue to grow unfettered over the long-term.”

AEF published a detailed paper on climate change in September last year to inform the aviation strategy process. We are now developing our response to the consultation. We have, in the meantime, written to the Government arguing that the strategy development should be held back in order to align with the CCC’s process. Climate change policy implications for aviation can’t easily be dealt with by way of a discrete chapter or addendum, we argue, since they are likely to have relevance for the fundamental approach to growth that the strategy is pursuing.  We are awaiting the Government’s response.