Skip to content

Stop expanding airports, include aviation in carbon budgets, and don’t let airlines off the hook with carbon offsets, CCC has advised

18th December, 2020

Two climate targets have made the news this month. The first: to achieve an emissions reduction of at least 68% compared with 1990 by 2030. The second: the Sixth Carbon Budget (from 2033-2037).

1. The NDC: reduce emissions by 68% from 1990 to 2030 

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has written to Government advising on the level of emission reductions to be made under the UK’s National Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement. CCC recommended that the UK should increase its ambition based on previous targets, and achieve an emissions reduction of at least 68% compared with 1990 by 2030. Previously, the UK has been part of the EU-wide NDC, but leaving Europe has necessitated setting our own target for 2030. 

Emissions from international aviation and shipping should not be formally included in the target, the letter advised, citing international reporting convention. Nevertheless, the recommended NDC target aligns with the overall pathway to net zero under the Climate Change Act, on which CCC issued its advice just a few days later, and which does include aviation and shipping (See: The Sixth Carbon Budget below). So while formally excluded from the NDC, the emissions from these sectors were at least allowed for in the setting of the 2030 target, and CCC was explicit in saying in its NDC advice that targets for aviation and shipping would need to be set in parallel. The Government accepted the CCC’s advice on the NDC target on the same day but has yet to make any commitments to aviation targets.

2. Sixth Carbon Budget (2033-37) and the pathway to net zero

Less than a week later, the CCC published its 448-page advice on the sixth carbon budget (for years 2033-2037 and required under the UK’s Climate Change Act) and on the UK’s path to Net Zero by 2050. This included some important recommendations on aviation, many of them new, which are summarised below.

  1. International aviation and shipping emissions should be formally included in the UK’s carbon accounts, starting from the sixth carbon budget. Till now, aviation emissions have been ‘allowed for’ in the UK’s carbon budgets, by setting aside a proportion of emissions for the sector, but have not been formally included. This has allowed emissions from flying to rise without any penalties to the industry, and 2018 (the latest year for which data is available) recorded the highest ever level of CO2 from civil aircraft using UK airports. This policy approach, CCC argues, is not sufficient, and needs to be tightened.
  2. There should be no net increase in airport capacity. The CCC’s modelling allows for 365 million passengers per annum (mppa) using UK airports – an increase of around 25% compared with today’s level. But since existing airport capacity allows for at least 370 mppa, CCC argues (and government forecasts suggest the figure could be higher still) new airport capacity can only be justified if accompanied by ‘restrictions’ elsewhere. This implies intervention to remove existing planning permissions, which could be difficult to implement in practice. Till now, the Government has been supportive of airport expansion including – in theory – a new runway at Heathrow, though it showed no interest in contesting the finding of the Court of Appeal that the policy underpinning a third runway was unlawful on climate change grounds.
  3. The Government should set and enforce both CO2 and non-CO2 targets for UK aviation, in anticipation of the sector’s inclusion in carbon budgets. A “demand management framework” (which CCC does not define) will need to be developed and in place by the mid-2020s, the report argues, “to annually assess and, if required, act as a backstop to control sector GHG emissions and non-CO2 effects.” Under the CCC’s proposed ‘balanced pathway’ for the UK economy as a whole, 23 Mt of CO2 from aviation remain by 2050, and would need to be balanced by removals. This is significantly lower than the 30 Mt in CCC’s original net zero modelling, and builds in an assumption that Sustainable Aviation Fuels will represent 25% of total liquid fuel used by that date, up from 10% previously. 
  4. Offsets purchased under the UN Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) should not be used for compliance with carbon budgets. While the CCC supports the principle of international action on aviation emissions and urges the UK Government to continue negotiating at the UN level, the CORSIA scheme is not, the Committee notes, currently aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement and only offsets emissions above a 2019/20 baseline. Compliance with the scheme should therefore, CCC argues, be additional to action to bring the sector’s actual emissions into line with net zero.
  5. At a minimum, a target of no increase in warming from aviation’s non-CO2 impacts after 2050 should be adopted. Further work is needed to define the appropriate policy mechanisms for tackling aviation’s non-CO2 impacts, CCC says. A recent study concluded that these impacts have already caused twice as much warming as CO2 from aircraft.

Many questions remain. The net zero model as a whole appears to leave a significant wedge of emissions, labelled ‘additional removals or abatement’ unaccounted for. Whether aviation demand growth is really permissible given this gap between the plan and the legal target is questionable, we’d argue. There’s also a lack of clarity about what policy mechanisms will ensure that the greenhouse gas removal technologies which are not yet operating in the UK – but on which the aviation plan depends – are in fact developed. 

Nevertheless, the recommendation on airport capacity is the strongest that CCC has ever made and is one that AEF has advocated for over a decade. With the Heathrow third runway back on the agenda after the Supreme Court ruling, and many other airports applying for expansion, this could be a significant test for policy. And the line on CORSIA credits means that including aviation in carbon budgets would require real, in-sector emissions reductions. These are critically important recommendations for the Government to implement if its long-awaited aviation climate policy is to have any credibility. Its response to the CCC’s sixth carbon budget recommendations overall is anticipated by June 2021.