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Net Zero strategy: Boris’s “guilt-free” zero-emissions planes have no basis in reality

22nd October, 2021

On Tuesday 19th October, the UK Government published its plans for getting the whole economy, including aviation, to net zero emissions.

On aviation, the strategy lists as one of the Government’s key policies “Aim to become a world-leader in zero emission flight and kick-starting the commercialisation of the UK sustainable aviation fuel so people can fly, and connect without guilt”.

Specific proposals to deliver net zero aviation have been set out in the Government’s consultations on Jet zero: Our strategy for net zero aviation, and on Mandating the use of sustainable aviation fuels in the UK, which the Government is heavily relying on to deliver net zero in a sector almost void of available technology solutions to its carbon problem. Both of these documents are yet to be finalised. 

In a Foreword to the net zero strategy document, Boris Johnson claimed that we will still be flying in 2050 “but our planes will be zero emission allowing us to fly guilt free”. While zero emissions technologies should be encouraged, it is dangerous to assume that we will be able to rely on them, and in so doing, overlook the policy actions that are needed today to reduce the sector’s climate impact. Even the industry has said it is very unlikely we will see zero-emission aircraft this side of 2050 except on very short routes. And the Government’s own net zero plans admit that aviation CO2 in 2050 will need to be compensated for by large-scale Greenhouse Gas Removals. GGR technology is still in its infancy however: the world’s largest carbon removal plant, which started running in Iceland last month, is capable of capturing just three seconds of the world’s CO2 emissions per year.

The net zero strategy also announced the Government’s ambition to deliver 10% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) by 2030, and its offer of £180 million funding to support the development of SAF plants in the UK. The SAFs that are currently available however, which the Government plans to showcase by using them in the planes of delegates leaving COP26, are produced principally from used cooking oil. Producing at least as much CO2 once burnt as traditional jet fuel, these fuels are neither zero emissions nor scalable.

A BEIS paper published alongside Tuesday’s plan Net Zero: principles for successful behaviour change initiatives, and controversially later withdrawn, argued instead that a “technological and behavioural lens” is needed to tackle aviation emissions. The paper recommended reducing the demand from frequent business flyers, promotion of domestic tourism, and enabling people to choose more efficient airlines. Counter to the Prime Minister’s ‘guilt-free’ flying rhetoric, it said:

“Success here may ultimately be marked by a shift in social norms, from international in-person meetings being a sign of importance to being an immoral indulgence or embarrassment”.

And that:

“‘Frequent flyer’ should not be a badge of pride”.

The paper also argued that for the Government to approve airport expansions without any conditionality for decarbonisation sends a “hugely impactful signal”.

In response to the net zero strategy, AEF’s Policy Director Cait Hewitt said:

Boris seems to think that we’ll soon be travelling by unicorn. The idea that by 2050 we’ll be flying ‘guilt free’ on zero emissions planes for long-haul flight has no basis in reality.

A net zero future needs to include less flying, more domestic holidays, and retraining for aviation workers whose jobs are precarious, and that’s the future that the Government should be working towards.