Aviation industry has hijacked DfT airports policy

With each passing year we hear ever more stark and evidenced warnings from the Climate Change Committee, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and from the UN. Aviation is one of the hardest sectors to decarbonise, aviation growth must be reined in, aviation emissions are more harmful than other emissions. Yet this government has buried its head firmly in the sand, and its rhetoric becomes more transparently ridiculous as the climate crisis worsens. It has no strategy: it simply repeats the “aviation is good” mantra with no scientific foundation.

Pacifying industry

BBC online published an article under the banner Greener flights will cost more, says industry. This is clearly industry trying to spook government into believing that the world will end if flight costs increase and people choose to fly less. Eager to reassure this powerful lobby, Transport Secretary Mark Harper said: “This government is a determined partner to the aviation industry – helping accelerate new technology and fuels, modernise their operations and work internationally to remove barriers to progress. Together, we can set aviation up for success, continue harnessing its huge social and economic benefits, and ensure it remains a core part of the UK’s sustainable economic future.

Aspirational commitments

Teaming up with ex-Transport SoS Grant Shapps, Mark Harper has contributed to an article bigging up the UK’s commitment to an aspirational programme designed to decarbonise aviation – the only way it can create a fig-leaf for its so-called “Jet Zero” strategy. The government’s own website carries the story Government outlines action needed in coming years to decarbonise aviation, describing the race to achieve Jet Zero by 2050. Of the various pie-in-the-sky technologies including electric planes and hydrogen-powered flight, which experts admit are decades away, UK plc is being committed to developing so-called Sustainable Aviation Fuels to satisfy the thirst for aviation growth.

Stark warning and half-baked response

A report commissioned by the Aviation Environment Federation from Element Energy sets out the position in clear terms: The government’s techno-optimism puts emissions targets at risk. Let’s be clear: the government is betting our futures on as-yet undeveloped technology and unproven business models. Rather than taking a precautionary approach and working to rein in aviation expansion – for example by persuading governments across the world to charge tax on aviation fuel, by ensuring the polluter pays through increased ticket prices, and banning frequent flyer rewards, the government dances to industry’s tune. If the government’s aspirational approach is not delivered in time, it will be too late. Client Earth won when they challenged the government in the High Court over failing to provide an adequate Net Zero strategy. Tasked with updating its strategy by March 2023, the government’s response has been branded half-baked and half-hearted.

Royal Society report

The Royal Society has produced a policy briefing report which brings scientific discipline, holistic thinking and real evidence to the table, instead of the half-baked approach of politicians swayed by lobbyists. A working group chaired by Professor Graham Hutchings, FRS, has produced an excellent report which can be downloaded from the Royal Society website using this link. Professor Hutchings introduces the report in the short video below:

The report examined the four options for decarbonisation. Our comments on these, extrapolated from the report, are as follows:

Biofuels: CO2 would still be produced, and only some biofuels are net low carbon. Scale and availability of source material (apart from sewage) is limited and would compete with other uses such as food production. Advantage (to industry) is that it requires little modification to aircraft or infrastructure and can be introduced quickly. Disadvantage (to everybody) is that to produce biofuels on the scale consumed by UK aviation would take half of our farmland. And if the government just signs deals to import food instead, the carbon costs of imports is increased. And sucking all the bio-products into producing jet fuel could lead to soil nutrient depletion.

Hydrogen: No CO2 would be produced by aircraft, but may arise during hydrogen production, especially if the high amount of electricity required cannot be produced in a renewable way. There will also be increasing demand for renewable electricity as other sectors decarbonise. Substantial modification to aircraft and infrastructure would be required, and this would have to take place worldwide for long-distance travel. There are also safety concerns, and the issue of non-CO2 effects such as high altitude contrails would not be resolved.

Synthetic e-fuels: CO2 would still be produced by aircraft, and little infrastructure modification would be required. Costs would be higher, green hydrogen production would be required to feed the process, and direct carbon capture technology would be needed on a significant scale, which of course would require the energy to drive it also being renewable. Again, other sectors will be competing for green electricity – not just aviation.

Ammonia: No CO2 would be produced by aircraft, and substantial modification of aircraft and infrastructure would be needed. Costs would be higher, and again it would depend on green hydrogen to feed the process. Safety concerns would have to be addressed and the non-CO2 impacts such as contrails would be likely to persist.

Watch out for the increasingly strident voices clamouring that aviation expansion is vital to sustaining life as we know it, as this powerful industry lobby positions itself to try to dupe us and our elected representatives into believing that “sustainable aviation” means sustaining the aviation industry!

Moratorium is the only responsible step

The only responsible step for the government, given the existential threat caused by the climate crisis, is to declare a moratorium on airport expansion. 50% of UK aviation emissions are produced by the 1% most frequent flyers: clipping their wings is hardly going to create a comparable existential crisis. This much was obvious in 2021 when we joined the AEF and other campaign groups in calling for such a moratorium. And this is why further expansion of Luton Airport is going to increase risk to the local economy rather than underpin it – especially given the short to medium term uncertainty in demand highlighted by the European Air Traffic Organisation Eurocontrol in its forecasts.

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