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The aviation industry has been under long-term pressure to reduce its contribution to climate change – from governments, stakeholders and the public.

In 2019, domestic and international aviation accounted for around 8% of UK CO2 equivalent emissions.

While the coronavirus pandemic has caused an unprecedented short term reduction in demand for air travel, many within the aviation industry expect demand to recover to 2019 levels by 2023-24 and to continue to grow thereafter.

Decarbonising aviation and “net zero”: the challenge

Under the Climate Change Act 2008 the UK is required to have net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. While the target does not explicitly cover emissions from international aviation and shipping, these emissions have been taken into account by setting aside “headroom” within the carbon budgets and the Committee on Climate Change has recommended that emissions from the UK’s international aviation be formally included in the net-zero target.

However, aviation is widely recognised as both one of the most carbon-intensive forms of transport and one of the most difficult to decarbonise. This means that aviation could well be the largest contributor to UK greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, particularly if demand continues to grow.

Government policy and international initiatives

The Government is in the process of revising transport policy across all modes in order to meet the challenge of the 2050 net-zero emissions target. The Government intends to publish a transport decarbonisation plan and an aviation strategy (including a net-zero aviation strategy). It is also planning to publish an Aviation Recovery Plan to ‘boost’ air travel after the pandemic.

The UK Government, the EU and international bodies, and the aviation industry have proposed a number of initiatives to mitigate emissions from aviation, including:

  • Market-based measures such as the United Nations CORSIA program, EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) and the UK ETS;
  • Measures to improve the fuel efficiency of conventional aviation such as through changes to aircraft, air traffic management, airspace modernisation and ground operations at airports; and
  • Measures to promote the development and use of low carbon technologies such as novel fuels (such as biofuels) and aircraft (such as hybrid-electric aircraft).

What about demand for flying?

There have also been calls for more action to limit the growth in demand for flying. Some have argued for new tax policies to discourage flying and for measures to influence individual consumer choices. At the 2020 Citizen’s Assembly on Climate Change participants “resoundingly rejected” industry projections for a future in which air passenger numbers would rise by 65% between 2018 and 2050, saying that it would be “counter-productive” for tackling climate change.

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