Will the delivery of net-zero aviation still be up in the air by 2050?

12 January 2023 by Johnny Goldsmith
blog author

​With the world’s long-awaited transition to sustainable aviation remaining an ever-pressing issue, an emission reduction strategy is vital for decarbonising the sector.

The UK government’s Jet Zero Strategy, launched last July, is the blueprint for achieving net-zero aviation by 2050. It highlights key objectives which include boosting the country’s sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) sector and focusing on system efficiencies to reach net-zero emissions in domestic aviation by 2040.

While the strategy has set ambitious targets to mitigate environmental damage, the emissions reduction goals are not set in stone until 2025. The government is introducing a CO2 emissions reduction trajectory that sees aviation emissions peak in 2019. This trajectory from 2025 to 2050, is based on a "high ambition" scenario, setting in-sector targets of 35.4 MtCO2e (metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent) in 2030, 28.4 MtCO2e in 2040, and 19.3 MtCO2e in 2050 – a figure that is still considerably high.

Having said that, it also offers a wealth of opportunity, through collaboration with various partners including the Jet Zero Council, which the Department for Transport established two years ago. The Council acts as a partnership between government, industry and academia to drive the delivery of new technologies and innovations such as SAF and ZEF (zero emission flights) to reduce aviation emissions.

A brighter future?

There is no doubt that the strategy has the right intentions - the aviation industry is responsible for 12 per cent of CO2 emissions from all transport sources and produces around 2.1 per cent of all human-induced CO2 emissions, according to the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG). Therefore, it is crucial to effect change and implement new technologies but as always, there are considerable challenges to overcome.

The Jet Zero Council comprises CEOs from industry organisations as well as ministers, and such commitment from the airlines involved should help galvanize the government’s Jet Zero Strategy goals, but the strategy is likely to only succeed if influenced and held to account by the council’s industry professionals.

Jet Zero Consortium

The strategy will have certainly come under the scrutiny of the Jet Zero Consortium, a group unrelated to the Jet Zero Council. The consortium unites leading aircraft manufacturers, component suppliers and academic institutions to develop the world’s first 100-seater True Zero Hydrogen Hybrid Electric Regional Aircraft - known more simply as the H2ERA.

The consortium, founded by Electric Aviation Group (EAG), will reach out to the Jet Zero Council for collaborative opportunities surrounding its H2ERA development programme and will work closely with the UK government to ensure strategic directions are relevant to meeting the targets to improve aviation’s environmental impact.

Members of the consortium include UK-based fuel cell company Bramble Energy, aircraft engine supplier GE Aviation, University of Bath and Magnix, the electric motor manufacturer for electric aircraft. The invitation to join the consortium is extended to SMEs and disruptive tech start-ups to help deliver the H2ERA and wants to seek those who are willing to invest in the UK aerospace sector.

Support for net-zero goals

Besides the efforts of the consortium, several of the organisations involved in the government’s Jet Zero Council have also carved out some pathways towards making impactful changes. Virgin Atlantic, for example, has been scrutinising fleet efficiency to support net-zero targets and has made some headway with the use of SAF on some of its flights.

Meanwhile, British Airways has been offsetting carbon emissions on all UK flights since January 2020 and became the first airline to use SAF produced on a commercial scale in the UK, after signing a multi-year agreement with Phillips 66, a diversified energy manufacturing and logistics company.

The deal will enable the airline to power a number of BA flights with SAF and as part of its BA Better World sustainability programme, BA is delivering a range of short, medium and long-term initiatives to decarbonise and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The airline also invested in sustainable aviation company ZeroAvia to understand how hydrogen-powered aircraft can play a leading role in the future of sustainable flying. ZeroAvia completed the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell powered flight of a commercial-grade aircraft a couple of years ago.

Sustainable aviation fuel

SAF could be a big player in helping the aviation industry meet the desired net-zero goals as it reduces carbon emissions by 80 per cent over its entire life cycle, in comparison to regular jet fuel.
There is a huge reliance on SAF and ZEF (the latter uses hydrogen-powered and battery electric aircraft) to steer the aviation industry towards a net-zero future but these innovations are still relatively immature with less research and development, hence feasibility must be considered.

Flights that use SAF emit 10 per cent less emissions than regular jet fuel, and the sustainable fuel, which is similar in its chemistry to regular jet fuel, can be mixed (blended with up to 50 per cent normal jet fuel) or used alone.
SAF is made from sustainable feedstocks such as cooking oil and other non-palm waste oils from animals or plants and can also derive from solid waste from homes and businesses including textiles and food scraps.

Better SAF than sorry?

The major downside to sustainable fuel is that it is more expensive to produce and lacks suppliers which is the culprit for making it costly. This alone will need to be addressed for the Jet Zero Strategy to be deemed a success and therefore part of the policy is to have at least five UK SAF plants under construction and a SAF mandate in place by 2025.

There is heavier discussion surrounding utilising sustainable aviation fuel compared to hydrogen planes because SAF is already available - albeit not in plentiful supply at present - and planes do not require reconfiguration in the way they would to be powered by hydrogen.

My feeling is that while the strategies in place are laying strong foundations to build a better and more robust future for the aviation industry with an abundance of experts on board to move this forward, time is of the essence as always. The pressure is on to make Jet Zero a reality and the clock is ticking for more investors to come forward to help transform innovative solutions into tangible actions.

I would invite readers to share their thoughts on the feasibility of SAF and ZEF in achieving the UK Government’s Jet Zero vision by 2050.

Johnny Goldsmith is part of Acre’s Sustainable Business team in the UK, helping to connect organisations in the transport and infrastructure sectors with talented sustainability leaders

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