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  • Matt Gorman
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    Earlier this year, a few weeks before Covid-19 hit and a whole new but now familiar lexicon – lockdowns, social distancing, quarantine et al – changed every part of our lives, the UK aviation sector pledged to get to net zero emissions by 2050 and set out a detailed roadmap to get there. 

    That represents a huge step forward. It’s the first time anywhere in the world that a group of aviation companies, representing airlines, airports and manufacturers, have committed to net zero. As UK Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, concluded at the launch, “this is a great day for aviation, a great day for the UK, and a day we’ll look back on as a great day for the world”. 

    Four months on, in the midst of what is without a doubt the most profound shock that the aviation industry has faced in the half century era of mass air travel, that may all risk sounding a bit hyperbolic. Air travel has ground to a halt in recent months. Many of those who work in the industry are on Government job support schemes or out of work.

    Trade in services and high-value goods (most of which travel in the belly of passenger planes) has become more difficult. The global tourism industry – the world’s biggest employer – has suffered in an unprecedented way. The aviation sector has some very immediate challenges to address, not least developing a common set of international standards for safe travel, so people are able to fly again in confidence. 

    Fly Safe Pit Stops

    But climate change remains the greatest mid to long-term challenge we all face. If anything, COVID-19 has simply underlined the need for action. It’s shown the risks of ignoring warning signs. It’s shown the profound impacts that a global crisis can have – on our health, our way of life, the economy. And it’s shown the need for coordinated global action on that kind of crisis. Mark Carney summed it up well at a recent seminar saying that if COVID is a once in a generation challenge, climate change is a once in the planet’s history challenge. 

    The science is clear – to avoid the worst effects of climate change the whole global economy must reach net zero emissions by 2050. Aviation is no exception. Our challenge is to decarbonise flying so that we protect the benefits of aviation in a world without carbon. To do that, Sustainable Aviation's “Decarbonisation Roadmap” has two main parts: 

    • Taking carbon out of flying through more efficient aircraft and airport operations underpinned by new lower/zero carbon energy sources including Sustainable Aviation Fuels
    • Putting carbon back in the ground through robust natural and engineered carbon removal measures – an interim step before fully zero carbon flight becomes reality

    There is one big thing UK aviation must do in the 2020s to accelerate net-zero flight: rapidly scale-up production and use of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF).  These are proven technology (they’ve powered 200,000 commercial flights globally) and critically can blended with jet fuel and “dropped in” to today’s aircraft and pipelines. That’s vital because it avoids waiting for the 25-year cycle of aircraft replacement, so we can start to make meaningful carbon reductions with today’s aircraft fleet, while working at the same time on the zero emissions aircraft and fuel technologies that could come in 10 or 20 years. 

    To start with SAF will be second-generation biofuels, made from made from different kinds of waste, including used cooking oil, municipal waste and forests offcuts for example, which can deliver life-cycle carbon savings of at least 70% compared to kerosene. They must meet strict sustainability standards, addressing concerns over first-generation biofuels. They also establish the basis for future synthetic fuel made directly from renewably produced hydrogen and captured carbon. 

    SA-roadmap

    A SAF revolution led from the UK offers economic opportunities for Britain too. By 2035, according to an independent study for Sustainable Aviation’s “Fuels Roadmap” , UK SAF production sufficient to supply around 8% of UK jet fuel needs could generate up to £2.7bn and support 18,800 jobs. Building the plants in the next few years offers employment and immediate investment stimulus in areas like Humberside, Teesside, Wales and Scotland and builds on existing skills and infrastructure in those areas. By accelerating SAF use in aviation we can “build back better”: taking a UK lead in a globally competitive sunrise sector, helping to level up, and improving the resilience of our national fuel supply. 

    The challenge is economic. SAF currently costs more than fossil kerosene. Airlines are thus unable to sign up to long-term contracts. Private investors in plants and production are thus hesitant to build the supply, despite increasing interest on their part.  The UK Government can change that equation to kickstart a virtuous cycle of growth. 

    That will take a package of financial support, incentives and regulation pursued with urgency and purpose. £500m of match-funding or loan guarantees in this autumn’s Spending Review would induce £500m of private contributions to kickstart building the first two to three commercial SAF plants within two years for them to start producing within five years. The UK Government can also intervene decisively to stimulate supply by aligning with European plans for a well-designed mandate for fuel companies to produce SAF. 

    "It can also act to incentivise demand through measures that ensure airlines don’t pay a penalty for using SAF. APD can be shaped to achieve this, after the waiver the sector is calling for help to weather the Covid storm."

    Matt Gorman , Director of Carbon Strategy , Heathrow

     

    It can also act to incentivise demand through measures that ensure airlines don’t pay a penalty for using SAF. APD can be shaped to achieve this, after the waiver the sector is calling for help to weather the Covid storm.. The existing incentive framework for renewable transport fuels could also provide a stronger signal for aviation.. As production scales up, economies of scale and learning effects will lower costs and a commercial market will develop that can stand on its own feet. 

    That’s why it was so positive to see the first meeting last week of the “Jet Zero Council”, bringing together leaders from aviation, environmental groups and Government and charged with making net zero carbon emissions possible for future flights. The ambition from the Government is clear: within a generation to demonstrate flight across the Atlantic without harm to the environment. It’s exactly that kind of ambition we need to mobilise the UK’s world-leading industrial and academic expertise to decarbonise flight. 

    Alongside new technologies, SAF is the other big focus for the Council’s work. There is a golden opportunity to kickstart a whole new industry as part of the UK’s economic recovery – building a UK lead globally, helping create jobs and driving regional benefits as well as decarbonising aviation. Let’s take it!