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Britain is in turmoil – and the government wants to dramatically expand British aviation |  Leo Murray


Iit’s here. The climate crisis has landed in the UK. We are in a dangerous heatwave that is forcing schools to close, hospital appointments to be cancelled, trains to cut service and flights to halt as the trail melts. Extreme weather conditions are not only a threat to our infrastructure, but a threat to our lives. There is only one answer: urgent action to address the climate crisis.

And yet, on a day that broke a temperature record set just three years ago, the government did the opposite. As the tarmac sizzles beneath our feet, the sky above us is still full of airplanes spewing greenhouse gases. What will it take for the government to take reducing flight emissions seriously?

The ‘jet zero’ strategy recently released today aims to tackle spiraling emissions from the UK aviation industry. Yet it allows for airport expansions and a huge increase in passenger numbers (by three quarters more than pre-pandemic levels), while hoping that technologies will emerge by 2050 to clean up the resulting emissions that warm our planet. But the reality is that there is no technology available now, or on the horizon, that would allow mass commercial aviation to continue at current levels without producing dangerously high emissions.

The strategy sets out a dazzling array of low-carbon technologies, which the government hopes will enable the aviation industry to grow over the next three decades while meeting our climate targets. All are either extremely expensive, almost physically impossible, require a ridiculous share of the planet’s limited resources, or would not actually reduce emissions. It’s incredibly difficult to fly without using fossil fuels for anything other than a very short trip with a very small number of passengers – which is the main reason why almost all of the aviation industry’s climate targets have been missed at date – usually by a country mile.

The weight of the batteries makes it very difficult to power an electric plane if you want it to take off. The same goes for the storage volume needed for a hydrogen-powered aircraft. But even if solutions were found, it usually takes decades to develop, safety test and deploy an entirely new type of aircraft – and clearly our climate cannot wait that long. Airliners rolling off current Boeing and Airbus production lines will still be in service in 2050, when the global economy should already have reached net zero.

Then there are the so-called “sustainable aviation fuels” or SAFs. It’s usually nothing like that, because burning huge amounts of biomass or waste is also extremely detrimental to the climate. The jet zero strategy also relies heavily on greenhouse gas removals to balance the books. This concept would allow airlines and airports to continue polluting for decades, postponing any real action to reduce emissions now in the hope that unicorns will one day arrive to suck those extra millions of tons of pollution from the skies and store underground.

The truth is that there is only one method to reduce aviation emissions that we know works, but the government refuses to do: reduce the number of flights.

The Committee on Climate Change, the government’s own climate advisers, has just warned that it is likely that the technologies on which its plan for aviation is based will not be commercially available by 2050, and called for an urgent plan to reduce flights. Today, the government has ignored their warning, in favor of a fantasy of unlimited growth on a finite planet close to its limits.

If demand management was done fairly, it wouldn’t affect most of us that much. Access to flying is wildly unequal, with the UK’s wealthiest flying frequently while the rest of us rarely, if ever, fly. Only 15% of people take 70% of all flights, and in a typical year almost half of us don’t fly at all.

We need sensible policies to reduce frequent theft that mean our really important trips – like seeing family abroad once in a while – don’t become something only the richest can afford, and that ensure that cleaner means of transport, such as the train, are cheap and accessible. This would reduce emissions and allow people to continue to travel. The public can see this makes sense, with the government’s own poll revealing that a majority of the population is in favor of a frequent flyer fee, with less than one in five opposed.

Government plans for aviation threaten to crush our climate. They are stepping up and betting the farm on magic beans when we could reduce thefts right now in a way that is effective, popular and fair to everyone. If the government can’t take bold climate action during a record heat wave, will it ever take this crisis seriously?


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