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As COP26 draws to a close, I have been reflecting on aviation’s journey to net zero and the crucial role Heathrow can play.
Seven years ago, we set out to make Heathrow a leader on sustainability. My focus then was to minimise the airport’s impacts, such as air quality and noise, on the local communities and maximise the benefits - skills and careers. Our plan involved decarbonising airport ground operations and improving access to the airport so more colleagues and passengers would choose public transport over cars. I accepted the global industry position that we should halve emissions by 2050 and couldn’t see how as an airport we could make much impact on decarbonising flight.
However, when we shared our plan privately with environmental groups, while they liked the local aspects, they felt that we should be using Heathrow’s global status to push for net zero aviation, and it sparked a rethink.
For some reaching net zero means no flying at all but stopping flights in the UK will have very little impact on global aviation emissions. Close Heathrow tomorrow and British people will use Paris, Schiphol or Istanbul to take their long-haul flights and the 40% of UK exports that travel in the belly hold of passenger planes would have a slower and more expensive journey – damaging our economy. No other country would follow our lead - aviation supports the economic activity that gives people around the world a better quality of life, which is why other countries will keep building airports and buying planes, even if the UK didn’t. Instead, we need to tackle the issue at hand – carbon.
I took my management team to the Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership to greater understand the impact of carbon on the climate. Halving emissions by 2050 meant that we were still putting more carbon into the air, with no plan to ever stop. Unless we were more radical, we would always be making climate change worse. So we, along with our like-minded partners in the industry, began to campaign to decarbonise global aviation.
More efficient planes, engines and airspace changes have an important role to play, as do electric and hydrogen powered planes, but we cannot develop the technology and replace the entire global fleet by 2050. The only way to get to net zero aviation by 2050 is to change the fuel used in existing planes from kerosene to Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF). These are made from agricultural and domestic waste but could be made synthetically by combining carbon and hydrogen. There are a range of production technologies, some of which have been around since the 1930s, but production is small scale and expensive.
You can blend SAF with kerosene in existing planes, so the faster you scale up, the faster you decarbonise. Unlike other sectors, you don’t have to change the entire system, just the fuel. You can fly from Heathrow to Moscow with SAF and return using kerosene. This is a critical advantage over electric and hydrogen-based solutions, which require both ends of the route to have the same facilities.
The challenge is to massively scale up production and get the cost down as SAF is currently two to four times more expensive. We need a progressively increasing mandate from governments for an increasing proportion of SAF to be blended with kerosene. The mandate is important because it sends a clear signal to suppliers to start investing in production of SAFs. In the UK alone we will need 12-14 SAF plants at a cost of £3-8bn just to get to 10% SAF by 2030. Getting to net zero by 2050 will take hundreds of billions of dollars of investment. That may sound daunting, but when we talk to bankers, they say this is one of the most investable green projects.
There are objections to SAF. People worry that growing crops for fuel competes with food supplies or will accelerate deforestation, which is why we are advocating only for ‘second generation’ biofuels – energy from waste - and for certification to ensure that SAF meets common standards.
SAF is also still a hydrocarbon, so will still be putting carbon into the atmosphere. This may be true, but the difference is that it is not a fossil fuel, it is ‘short chain carbon’ which is taken from the atmosphere through plants or carbon capture and returned to the atmosphere through burning fuel, making it a more sustainable option.
What I want to see next is UK SAF industry developing. Most of the new SAF investments are going to the Netherlands, Canada or the US, and we should be using government investment and loan guarantees to bring them to Aberdeen, Teesside and the Humber, replacing our legacy oil industry.
We need the UK government to show the way for other countries to deliver against this commitment. A mandate for at least 10% SAF by 2030, which could increase up to 90% by 2050 and a price stability mechanism, such as a Contract for Difference, to help bridge the cost gap between SAF and kerosene. This could be funded by the UK Emissions Trading Scheme – a new levy on passengers, that should be used to solve the carbon problem, rather than become general taxation, as has happened to Air Passenger Duty.
We need to get a global commitment to net zero by 2050 at the ICAO General Assembly in October 2022, as well as an increase in certification of SAF use from a 50% blend today to 100%. ICAO is a rule making body, so this has stronger effect than agreements at COP26.
At COP I have met many of the people who have helped us on this journey – Craig Bennett from the Wildlife Trusts, Emily Shuckburgh from CISL, HRH Prince Charles, and Mark Carney as well as those who will help us on the next phase, such as government ministers and investors. I even found myself having a late-night drink with Leonardo DiCaprio who had been unable to find enough SAF for his plane, so had flown commercially through Heathrow. He was glad to hear his connecting flight was powered with SAF and seemed happy to hear my pitch on decarbonising aviation - at least I think he was.
Now that COP26 has closed, the size of the challenge is clear. Every industry needs to adapt for the future, and they need to do it now – the aviation industry is not an exception. There is a strong commitment in the aviation industry to implement SAFs and support sustainable aviation. We need to continue to work with the government to support an increase in SAF production as well as research and development into newer technologies. Without action now, we risk the future of aviation and the health of our planet.
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