Skip to content

End of era for fossil-fuelled aviation in the UK as Government legislates to cap emissions from flying internationally

20th April, 2021

The UK is to become the first major economy to extend its legal ‘net zero’ emissions commitment to departing international flights, the Government is expected to announce tomorrow. 

Despite decades of talk from the aviation industry about tackling the sector’s climate impacts, emissions from UK aviation were higher in 2019, just before the pandemic, than ever before, and aviation’s share of national emissions has been growing steadily as other sectors have begun to decarbonise. While some airlines and airports have made climate pledges, until now there has been no means of holding them to account for these aspirations. 

AEF Deputy Director Cait Hewitt said:

This should mark the beginning of the end for fossil-fuelled aviation. After many years of slipping the net when it comes to climate change, and expecting special privileges, airlines will now need to start planning for a very different future. 

Including international aviation in UK climate law gives a strong message from ministers that all sectors of the UK economy need to be on the same path towards net zero emissions. Now the Government will need to make sure that’s delivered.

The Government is expected to consult next month on what measures it plans to introduce to put aviation onto a path of cutting emissions. Options it will need to consider include the setting of annual emissions targets for airlines; a review of policy on airport expansions; new financial measures to limit flying demand such as an air miles tax; and measures to support staff currently employed in aviation to transition to green jobs where appropriate.

So far, the aviation industry has primarily focused on carbon offsetting as its response to climate change but this approach won’t be enough to deliver the legal net zero target. More meaningful action from the industry could include ramping up R&D into zero carbon energy options for aviation (synthetic fuel using captured CO2 is theoretically possible to manufacture, for example, but is currently only at the testing stage) and a plan to deliver carbon capture and storage of remaining emissions. This is not a popular option and has proved very hard to put into practice so far but it’s likely to be essential. 

Public concern about climate change has remained high throughout the Coronavirus pandemic. Nearly half of UK residents say that they plan to fly less in future[1]. And with businesses having seen the benefits of online meetings and many firms having made their own climate pledges, demand for business flights may never return to their pre-pandemic levels. 


Notes to editor:


[2] AEF has campaigned for inclusion of IAS in carbon budgets. See more