UK must make up for more air travel

2 min read

Sectors of the UK economy will need to reduce carbon emissions by 90 per cent by 2050 to compensate for increased air travel and technological constraints in the aviation industry.

This was the warning made by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) in a letter sent to transport minister Lord Adonis and environment secretary Ed Miliband, ahead of the UN summit on climate change in Copenhagen later this year.

The letter recommends that aviation emissions should be capped at 2005 levels by 2050 as part of a wider deal to reduce carbon emissions, either through an international agreement or using national and regional targets. It warns that, if nothing is done, global aviation emissions could account for 15-20 per cent of all CO2 produced in the next 40 years.

While the CCC recognises the research and development (R&D) of greener aircraft, it believes that limitations to emerging technologies such as biofuels and lightweight airframes, combined with an expected threefold increase in passenger numbers, will set back environmental gains for airlines in the short and medium term.

As a result, it believes that industry and households will have to contribute an additional 10 per cent reduction in CO2, in addition to the 80 per cent cut already agreed, while significant investment is made in R&D to support innovation in the aviation industry.

David Kennedy, the committee's chief executive, insisted that these measures would not cause people to fly less. ‘It is vital that an agreement capping global aviation emissions is part of a Copenhagen deal,' he said. ‘We are calling for a cap that would not require people to fly less than today, but would constrain aviation emissions growth going forward.’

The aviation industry has welcomed the CCC’s calls for increased funding in R&D, but has criticised it for underestimating the potential gains associated with developing fuel, engine and airframe technologies.

Matthew Knowles of the Society of British Aerospace Companies (SBAC) said: ‘The proposals in the letter from the CCC are reasonably in line with what we’re already doing.

‘The UK's Sustainable Aviation initiative has already published a CO2 roadmap that shows how the industry will meet the predicted threefold rise in passenger demand to 2050 while reducing CO2 emissions back to 2000 levels,' he said. 'This demonstrates that the more pessimistic forecasts around greater contributions from other sectors will not be necessary.’

The CO2 roadmap launched in December estimates that improvements in current airframe and engine design as well as new technologies such as blended wing bodies and open rotor engines are expected to reduce CO2 emissions by 62 per cent compared with a ‘constant technology’ baseline.

A further 10 per cent reduction is forecast from improved air traffic management and operations that will be delivered by 2020. Low-carbon alternative fuels are expected to provide an additional 10 per cent reduction from 2030. Overall, according to the roadmap, these initiatives will bring CO2 levels in aviation down to 2000 levels by 2050.

Roger Wiltshire, secretary general at Sustainable Aviation, said: ‘The CCC is obviously not sure if our plans are technically viable. However, we in the industry are confident that the assumptions we built into the roadmap are reasonable and quite achievable.’

In a report released last year, the CCC argued that the high cost of biofuel production would prove a significant obstacle to the UK’s carbon abatement strategy. While Wiltshire agrees that technologies such as alternative fuels are not without their challenges, he claims that, with enough development funding, they will be major contributors to reducing greenhouse emissions.

‘The biofuel agenda has developed significantly over the past two years,' he said. 'Big players in industry are currently doing trials on biofuels that are sustainable and won’t compete for land or food production. We expect the use of biofuel mixes to be approved in the next year or two and start being used more regularly by 2020.’

The CCC plans to present a revised analysis of how technology will play a role in the 2050 aviation target in its forthcoming December report on UK aviation emissions.

Ellie Zolfagharifard