UK’s Jet Zero Strategy: The Path to ‘Guilt-Free Travel’ or ‘Pure Greenwash’?

British Airways planes at Heathrow Airport. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP / Getty Images
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As the UK recorded its first temperature higher than 40 degrees Celsius on Tuesday, Britain’s Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps unveiled a new plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from aviation at the Farnborough Air Show. 

The Jet Zero Strategy aims to achieve net-zero emissions from domestic flights and English airports by 2040, “so passengers can look forward to guilt-free travel,” as Shapps, Minister for Aviation Robert Courts and Minister for Transport Decarbonization Trudy Harrison put it in the foreword. However, climate activists argue that the plan promises something it can’t deliver. 

“The Jet Zero strategy lands on the same day as the nation melts under record climate-change induced heat. But rather than a pragmatic plan to fully wean the aviation industry off fossil fuels, it allows the sector to carry on polluting with impunity for the next 30 years,” Transport & Environment (T&E) UK Director Matt Finch said in a statement. “Whilst there are some good commitments, it will go down in history as a missed opportunity.” 

The new plan has six major components, according to a government press release. 

  1. Improving efficiency across the sector.
  2. Boosting sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) by mandating that at least 10 percent of jet fuel be composed of SAFs by 2030 and putting £165 million towards developing a domestic SAF industry.
  3. Setting a goal of having zero-emission planes connecting routes across the UK by 2030.
  4. Offsetting emissions through carbon markets and greenhouse-gas removal technologies. 
  5. Informing consumers about sustainable travel options.
  6. Researching non-carbon-dioxide related aviation pollution, such as nitrogen oxides. 

The plan is part of the UK’s overall strategy for achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It also set a goal of breaking ground on a minimum of five SAF plants in the UK by 2025 and making sure aviation emissions do not exceed their pre-pandemic levels. 

“We want 2019 to be remembered as the peak year for aviation emissions. From now on, it should all be downhill for carbon emissions – and steadily uphill for green flights,” Shapps said in the government release. 

However, a coalition of green groups including Green Alliance, Friends of the Earth, Possible, T&E and Flight Free UK argue that the plan does not go far enough to effectively reduce aviation emissions, The Independent reported. They observed that the government’s own Climate Change Committee said last month that plans for reducing aviation emissions were “insufficient” for achieving net-zero. Currently, the sector is responsible for around 2.5 percent of global emissions, according to the government.

“The truth is there is only one method for reducing aviation emissions that we know works, but the government refuses to do it: reduce the number of flights,” Possible co-founder and director of innovation Leo Murray wrote in an OpEd for The Guardian. 

He argued that the plan relied on technologies that might not be commercially available until 2050 in the first place while still expanding airports and increasing the number of passengers by 75 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels. 

In its statement, the government emphasized the importance of the aviation industry to the economy, saying that it contributes £22 billion. 

“Rather than clipping the sector’s wings, our pathway recognises that decarbonisation offers huge economic benefits, creating the jobs and industries of the future and making sure UK businesses are at the forefront of this green revolution,” Shapps said.

However, Flight Free UK said the plan was “pure greenwash,” according to The Independent. 

“The Jet Zero plans show an absolute lack of reality when it comes to cutting aviation emissions,” Flight Free UK Director Anna Huges told The Independent. “The government is dead set on the continued growth of the sector, whilst presenting false solutions that won’t achieve the rapid emissions reductions that we desperately need to see. Jet Zero relies on techno-fixes that won’t be commercially viable for at least another 10 years, so-called ‘sustainable fuels’ which have no net benefit for the environment; and offsetting, which is just another way of kicking the can down the road.”

The New Economics Foundation, meanwhile, said that the plan would result in aviation emissions in  2035 that would be around 50 percent greater than 1990 emissions. 

 “At best, this plan will deliver peak carbon emissions in 2019, but with its plan for unlimited air travel growth, non-carbon aviation emissions will rise, and will persist all the way to 2050,” Dr. Alex Chapman from the New Economics Foundation said, as The Independent reported.

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