Jet Zero by 2050: is the UK aviation strategy real?

2021/09/28 at 9:17 AM

Jet Zero is a collective term used across the industry and government for the ambition to achieve zero-emission aviation by 2050. The Jet Zero Strategy in the UK is a dedicated governmental plan to decarbonise flights. The strategy is widely criticised in the British press for its high ambition and over-reliance on future technologies. However, the authors of the document are open to discussions and new initiatives.

“Many of the technologies we need are in their infancy and will take time to develop”, the document says. The government published it in July and has been collecting comments and opinions on it. Let’s take a look at the main positions of the strategy. Today, aviation contributes 2-3 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But since it is one of the most challenging sectors to decarbonise, due to the document, by 2050 it can become the second-highest emitter. There are few aviation decarbonisation scenarios showing the expected emission reduction for the next 30 years.

Jet Zero Strategy: possible scenarios for the UK, source: Department for Transport

The goal is clear but there can be multiple solutions. Many of the technologies (sustainable aviation fuels, zero-emission aircraft, greenhouse gas removal technologies) are promising and, at the same time, at an early stage of commercialisation. So authors of the strategy expect a combination of them. What will it look like? The document admits we will possibly see it by 2030.

The only thing clear is that the UK government won’t be able to establish the strategy alone. It needs support both inside and outside the country. It relies on collaboration with foreign governments and international organizations such as ICAO. Since 1990, UK aviation emissions have doubled. As an island nation, the Kingdom heavily relies on overseas air travels, so in 2019 international flights accounted for 96 per cent of total UK aviation emissions.

What needs to be done?

Jet Zero Strategy envisages several areas of work. First of all, it is an improvement of the system efficiencies. “Significant proportion of our emissions reductions will come from improving the efficiency of our existing aviation system: our aircraft, airports and airspace,” the document says. And this is not wishful thinking: since 1990 average annual efficiency improvements of 0,8 per cent have led to 22 per cent emissions reductions per passenger. By 2050, moving to best-in-class aircraft, airport operations and airspace modernisation could deliver 25-36 per cent of CO2 savings. For instance, airports are expected to make significant savings by using a single engine for taxing, electrically connected and autonomous vehicles etc. Also, the strategy suggests replacing the North Atlantic Track system with real-time satellite-based surveillance. The UK government is going to support an airspace modernization providing up to £5,5 million funding by 2022.

Sustainable aviation fuels are another point of the strategy. This is a low-carbon alternative to aviation kerosene. It can be fuel made from biomass or non-biogenic waste, or green hydrogen. The biofuel can be used in existing aircraft without any modification or be blended with fossil fuel. It can result in over 70 per cent of CO2 emissions being saved. As a part of the Sirius project, Rolls-Royce has already undertaken engine ground tests using 100 per cent SAF. However, the costs of SAF are currently two-three times higher than the price of fossil fuel.

Airbus ZEROe concept of a zero-emission aircraft, source: Airbus

Another part of the strategy is dedicated to zero-emission flights (or, to be exact, zero-emission aircraft). The hydrogen-electric and battery-electric aircraft have already been demonstrated in the UK. The further investment in these technologies “could support a significant reduction in aviation emissions,” the document says. The UK already has a FlyZero – a 12-months research project which brings together over 80 experts from across industry and science to explore the design challenges and market opportunity of potential emission-free aircraft concepts. The 15-million-pound grant has already been invested in FlyZero. The main governmental support is being provided for the development of hydrogen which is expected to play a key role in fuelling future zero-emission aircraft. The UK is already developing its first hydrogen transport hub in the Tees Valley (north of England).

The market regulation of CO2 emissions is also considered as a possibility to reduce aviation emissions. There are different market-based measures for promoting cost-effective decarbonisation allowing businesses to cut carbon where it is cheapest to do (to offset the emissions or to buy further capacity from other businesses that have not used their full allowance).

The last, but not least, point of the strategy is influencing the passengers to support sustainable travel choices. According to the authors of the document, the provision of the consumers with the information about CO2 emissions will encourage the airlines to use greener technologies or offset their carbon footprint. It will make passengers plan their trips responsibly as well.

Airbus zero-emission aircraft, source: Airbus

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