By Tom Grundy

This article was originally shared on LinkedIn Pulse, you can join the conversation over on LinkedIn here.

In June, the UK Climate Change Committee delivered two progress reports to parliament on progress in reducing emissions and progress in adapting to climate change.

The UK is leading the international debate on aviation emissions. It has unilaterally decided to incorporate emissions from departing international flights to its own Paris agreement Nationally Determined Contributions. It is investing in Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) and in new electric, hydrogen and hybrid aircraft. The UK Aerospace Technology Institute is backing the Future Flight Challenge, pioneering a range of enablers for a new future of flight.

Despite this leadership, the emissions reduction goals for UK aviation in the Climate Change Committee pathway could be seen as rather modest. These include increases in SAF use from 0.1% of aviation fuel in 2025 to 25% in 2050. It envisages only 9% of flight-kms to be hybrid-electric in 2050, up from none at all in 2035. Yet the report identifies that government stated ambitions related to aviation are forecast to miss this pathway by over six Megatonnes of CO2 equivalent per year by 2030.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including:

  1. A decarbonisation pathway adopted as a policy goal for government, to inform airport expansion and demand management policy
  2. No net expansion in UK airport capacity
  3. Implementation of taxes and other price incentives to encourage use of other transport options, uptake of SAF and the development of greenhouse gas removal technologies

"Hopping on a plane every time we want to travel may become a luxury we can no longer afford"

This progress statement reflects the significant challenge in decarbonising aviation. The recommendations reflect a need for the travelling public to change behaviour to reduce the demand for flying – hopping on a plane every time we want to travel may become a luxury we can no longer afford. It also puts pressure on government to create economic conditions to promote that change, and to mitigate the costs of carbon-offsets or of moving to new fuels. These expose the policy tensions between the imperative to decarbonise and the economic benefits of the aviation industry.

Promoting the use of other, lower-emissions transport options, where available, seems to be a sensible, early step towards resolving these tensions. France has already legislated to stop domestic aviation on journeys that can be accomplished in less than 2.5 hours by train. Spain may be about to follow this lead, and the Climate Change Committee report indicates similar thinking in the UK. Undoubtedly there are many UK sectors where rail provides a viable and lower-carbon alternative than flying. However, much of the world does not benefit from the long-term investment in rail that we have seen in Europe. In many places, rail is too expensive, too difficult or just plain impossible to implement. Island nations, archipelagos, pairs of cities separated by water or by difficult terrain, all need to balance the same tensions between the benefits and environmental costs of domestic air connections. Even in the UK, important sectors for regional connectivity such as Liverpool to Belfast, and connections across Scotland and its islands are reliant on relatively slow ferries on the one hand, and carbon-intensive flights on the other.

"There are opportunities available to us now to decarbonise aviation in shorter sectors"

Scaling up Sustainable Aviation Fuel and developing potential future hydrogen-fuelled, electric or hybrid aircraft may help in these connections, but this will take time, and the affordability of these technologies remain uncertain. Meanwhile there are opportunities available to us now to decarbonise aviation in shorter sectors. The ADS recently reported that 47% of regional jet and turboprop flights in Europe are on sectors of less than 370km. These sectors are addressable in the near-term for small, electric fixed-wing aircraft and for larger, efficient aircraft such as Airlander. Airlander is designed for 100 passenger travel over these sector lengths, with comparable end-to-end journey times to the fixed-wing journey, but only 10% the per-seat-km carbon footprint. That’s a 90% reduction in per-seat-km emissions. These are the quick wins in aviation’s fight against climate change and they can be delivered soon – Airlander is expected to be in service from 2025, for example. The excitement generated by our recent launch of the spacious, quiet and comfortable Airlander cabin concepts for 100 passengers shows that lower-impact journeys can also provide a better experience for passengers.

As these alternatives become available, it can’t continue to be acceptable to deploy fast, emission-intensive aircraft on very short sector flights. The UK is taking a strong lead in setting ambitious decarbonisation goals.

If we are bold enough to Rethink the Skies, the UK can be a true showcase for the world in new networks of net-zero and true-zero domestic aviation.

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