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UK net zero target will allow for aviation emissions, but not legislate for them now

In the final weeks before stepping down as Prime Minister, Theresa May has brought forward legislation that would amend the current UK commitment to cut emissions by at least 80%. Replacing it is a new target to make a reduction in greenhouse gases of at least 100%. Investment in carbon removals of historic CO2 (the CO2 that has already built up in the atmosphere as a result of human activity) could in theory allow us to go further than zero emissions. The legislation is likely to be approved by parliament in the next few days.

The Government’s climate advisers, the CCC, had advised that the UK should legislate for a net zero emissions target by 2050, to be achieved without offsets, and to include emissions from aviation and shipping. The draft legislation which was published yesterday doesn’t formally include aviation and shipping emissions (this would have required primary legislation, which would take longer to approve than the proposal to simply replace 80% with 100% in the existing legislation), but Government has stated that it will continue to allow “headroom” for these emissions when setting carbon budgets for other sectors – something DfT has not previously committed to.  The Government has also said, in an email to AEF, that it is “minded to include these emissions in legislation at a later date”. The CCC has recommended that aviation and shipping emissions should be included in carbon budgets from 2033.

The Government’s plan continues with the approach that has been taken so far under the Climate Change Act. Emissions from international aviation and shipping were left out of legislation because of complications at the time about how to account for them. But the Act requires these emissions to be taken into account in the setting of carbon budgets, leading to CCC’s previous recommendation to allow “headroom” for aviation of 37.5 MtCO2 by 2050.  How much headroom will be set aside under the new net zero target has yet to be decided, but in its net zero modelling, CCC allowed for a lower figure of 31 Mt for aviation (to be balanced by carbon removals – technologies or land use changes such as tree planting which remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere).

Meanwhile, the Government has said that while it intends to meet the net zero target without recourse to international carbon offsets, as CCC recommended, it nevertheless wants to reserve the right to use offsets if they can be properly monitored.

Our view

Yesterday’s announcement leaves lots to campaign for, on aviation, but nothing guaranteed.

We’re pleased that the Government has made clear that a UK net zero target has to address all sectors, including aviation and shipping, and that it intends to include these sectors formally in future. We’re left, though, with two key concerns:

  1. If aviation emissions reductions are not legislated for, will the Government and the industry actually deliver any meaningful action to tackle them?Under the current approach there is no way formally to hold Government to account on this. The Government must now use the forthcoming Aviation Strategy to set out its vision for limiting aviation emissions in line with net zero; the draft strategy’s pro-growth approach is not, in our view, consistent with this.
  2. With no official limits on use of offsets, will the Government attempt to use the UN CORSIA scheme (which has no long -term emissions target, and addresses only emissions growth above 2020 levels), together with an aspiration for large-scale carbon removals in future, as an excuse for inaction on actual aviation emissions? Aviation is likely to make the heaviest reliance of all sectors on negative emissions. Where these will come from, how they will be paid for, and whether we can rely on them to be available at scale are now the important questions. Offsets, meanwhile, are no substitute for a meaningful climate change plan for UK aviation, which is long overdue.