Getting back down to earth: Why ‘Jet Zero’ won’t work

By - World Infrastructure Journal

Getting back down to earth: Why ‘Jet Zero’ won’t work

The recent launch of the Zero Emission Flight Infrastructure (ZEFI) competition, part of the ‘Jet Zero’ initiative, looks to stimulate the development of the infrastructure required to support electric and hydrogen aircraft. While this may seem like a positive move for the UK considering the urgency of the action required to meet the Net-Zero 2050 targets, the reality is that the technology required to ‘green’ the aviation industry is years away from being able to make the necessary impact. If the UK is to significantly curb transport emissions, then it must begin to look beyond technology and start creating policies that actively promote greener forms of transport and demand greater action from the private sector.

The launch of the ZEFI competition arrives after the third meeting of the Jet Zero Council and signals the government’s intent to act in the face of the looming climate crisis. Offering money towards UK-based innovation and stimulating innovation within both businesses and universities, the competition is ostensibly the exact sort of thing that the government should be doing. However, upon closer inspection, there are two pressing issues with the ZEFI competition, and indeed the entire idea of making the Jet Zero Council an integral part of the UK’s climate response plans – they hold unrealistic expectations of the capabilities of technology, and they’re underfunded.

Advances in AI, hydrogen, electric batteries, and recycled fuels all promise to transform the aviation industry and minimize the emissions output of what is currently (by far) the most environmentally costly form of transport – but only in due time. According to even the most hopeful estimates, the use of electric planes is at least 20 years away – and hydrogen will take even longer. Even where the technology is closer to being implemented there is a tendency to exaggerate the potential immediacy of the impact.

Take, for example, the recent news of British Airways (BA) completing the ‘first net zero carbon freighter flights powered by a mix of sustainably sourced waste such as cooking oil. ’ The first flight of a new hybrid fuel that can offer emissions savings of up to 80 per cent is, of course, hugely positive – even more so given that it has laid the groundwork for the ‘first-ever net zero carbon freighter flights powered by waste materials'. However, the degree to which these victories are benefitting the pressing goal of achieving the Net-Zero 2050 goals has been oversold. According to the website BA’s seminal use of recycled fuels in aviation was ‘the first of many,’ and the fact that BA ordered 1.2 million litres of said fuel shortly after the success of that first flight would seem incredibly promising. It is less impressive, however, considering that a Boeing 747 consumes about 150,000 litres of fuel over the course of a 10-hour flight.

Even optimistic and committed agencies, such as the Port of Seattle, say that the use of “a 10% blend of sustainable aviation fuel in every flight in and out of the airport” is only possible by 2028 at the earliest. This means that even as the UK continues to be a world-leader in sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) and the development of ‘zero emission aircraft and infrastructure,’ the strides they have made are not particularly pertinent to reaching the net-zero 2050 goals – or assuaging the potential impact of the impending climate crisis. Urgent action is needed, according to the Climate Change Commission’s (CCC) most recent report, and the Jet Zero Council offers little in that way. Beyond only supporting projects that will take years to become implementable, let alone commonplace, the roughly £30 million of funding it has offered by the council thus far is a paltry sum given that they have set themselves and their partners the task of completely transforming one the UK’s largest industries.

Implementing sensible policies that actively look to encourage consumers to use more environmentally friendly modes of transport where possible will be crucial. Stimulating other industries and ensuring that environmental costs are more accurately reflected in the prices of tickets, is a much more effective and realistic way to reduce transport emissions. That is not to say that investment in UK-based innovation should be cut back, but rather that technological “aspirations shouldn’t provide continued cover for the industry to get away with no effective accountability, tax or regulation on its emissions,” as Tim Johnson, the director of the Aviation Environment Federation, put it.

According to the CCC, there is a widening gap between the reality of the climate risk faced by the UK and the capability of the UK government (given its current plans) to cope with it. While Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised a no carbon transatlantic commercial flight by 2025, if he delivers on that promise, it will only be on a technicality. Given the current technology such a flight is possible, maybe even by as early as next year. However, such a flight would only be a one-off and would likely only reinforce the industry’s suggestion that problems will resolve themselves if we “keep flying,” as Stefan Gössling, a professor at Linnaeus University in Sweden, has pointed out. The only solution is to accept that air travel is years away from becoming environmentally friendly enough for us to continue using it as we do, and to begin planning accordingly.

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