UK’s leadership in sustainable aviation technology accelerates industry’s transition to net zero

Sustainable Aviation publishes updated Net Zero Carbon Road-Map, but highlights UK’s position at risk without targeted Government support

  • The updated Road-Map confirms that UK aviation can continue to grow whilst meeting its commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, reflecting advances in sustainable aviation technology already delivered in the UK which will accelerate the industry’s transition to net zero around the world. This includes the production of sustainable aviation fuel on the Humber, its use in the world’s first 100% sustainable aviation fuel flight, and the world’s first run of a modern engine on hydrogen.
  • These advances have made the UK a global leader in sustainable aviation technology, creating an opportunity to establish Britain as the home of a low carbon aviation industry – creating thousands of jobs and attracting billions in inward investment. In 2023, the world’s first net zero transatlantic flight will take off from London to New York – using solely sustainable aviation fuel.
  • However, the aviation industry warns this opportunity is at risk without Government support and calls for an industry funded price support mechanism – building on the independent report for the Government carried out by Philip New – to help secure private investment in UK sustainable aviation fuel plants. Without urgent Government action the UK risks losing an industry estimated to support 60,000 jobs and be worth around £10bn in GVA benefits by 2050.

Farnborough, April 17: Today, at the Sustainable Skies World Summit at Farnborough, the UK aviation industry has announced higher ambition in its transition to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 with the publication of an updated Net Zero Carbon Road-Map, reflecting advances in sustainable aviation technology made here in the UK.

The Road-Map is published by Sustainable Aviation – the industry coalition of the UK’s leading airlines, airports, aerospace manufacturers, air service navigation providers, and innovation companies in sustainable aviation fuel and carbon removals – and is an update to previous plans published in 2020 and 2021. It highlights the vital role and potential for SAF and zero carbon emission technologies such as hydrogen powered aircraft and carbon removal technologies, together with the immediate advances being made in modernising airspace to help UK aviation reach net zero by 2050.

The UK is the global home of innovation in sustainable aviation, and has delivered a number of world firsts, including:

  • Since 2021, NATS has implemented nine airspace modernisation changes including the first UK implementations of Free Route Airspace and systemisation, saving more than 60,000 tonnes of CO2 per year; and made changes to the North Atlantic track structure saving almost 1m tonnes of CO2 per year
  • In November 2022, the RAF and industry partners carried out a world-first 100% sustainable aviation fuel flight using a military transporter aircraft – an RAF Voyager.
  • UK SAF production started last year on the Humber by Philipps 66 Ltd, with at least eight more producers planning plants in the UK, with the right Government incentive policies.
  • Last November Rolls-Royce and easyJet achieved the world’s first run of a modern aircraft engine on hydrogen.
  • In January 2023, ZeroAvia conducted the successful first UK flight of a 19-seater Dornier 228 with one of the two engines running on hydrogen fuel cells.

Later in 2023, the world’s first net zero transatlantic flight will take off from London to New York – using solely sustainable aviation fuel.

As a result of these current and future advances the UK aviation industry plans to reduce its carbon emissions by almost 70 MtCO2 to meet its net zero targets, with:

Two measures accounting for around three quarters of aviation’s journey to net zero:

  • 4 Million Tonnes of carbon dioxide(MtCO2) saved from sustainable aviation fuel
  • 6 MtCO2 saved by burning less fuel due to better air traffic management and operating procedures and the introduction of known and new, more efficient and zero carbon emissions aircraft.

The remaining 18.4 MtCO2 will be achieved through permanent carbon removals, and also slightly lower growth due to the decarbonisation cost impact on passenger demand, for example through the higher cost of SAF and compliance with global and regional carbon trading and offsetting schemes like CORSIA and EU ETS.

The Road-Map models the reality that the increased cost of decarbonising aviation will inevitably reduce passenger demand. The demand reduction due to the costs of decarbonisation represents around 14 percent of the industry’s reduction in CO2 emissions. However, this modelling also shows that, even with slightly higher costs, people still want to fly, with overall growth in passenger numbers of almost 250 million by 2050.

The UK has the right conditions to lead the world in developing sustainable aviation technologies like SAF and zero carbon emission hydrogen-powered aircraft. It has the third-largest global aviation network, a world-leading aerospace and aviation sector, and geographical advantages in both renewable energy generation and carbon capture capacity.

However, the industry warns that this leadership and the opportunity to make the UK home to a low carbon aviation industry is at risk. Without urgent Government action the UK may miss out on these industries of tomorrow.

Today more than ever, the UK is competing in a global race to capture private investment that will drive development of the technologies to power net zero and create the jobs of the future. The US has passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes hundreds of billions of dollars in incentives for low-carbon technologies, including SAF and hydrogen production, and the EU is distributing billions of euros in carbon allowances to help subsidise the higher cost of SAF for its airlines.

With further targeted policy support in partnership with the Government, the UK can reach net zero and ensure the country captures the full economic benefits of this technological revolution.

The aviation industry is calling on the Government to work with it by:

  • Maximising short-term operational efficiencies by accelerating the UK airspace modernisation programmewith completion by the end of the decade. This includes reviewing the governance and processes for the programme, looking at how these can be streamlined in order to speed up delivery, and considering whether a different funding model could bring the delivery date forward.
  • Delivering commercial UK Sustainable Aviation Fuel production at scale this decade, meeting the Government’s commitment to seeing five UK SAF plants under construction by 2025, by providing an industry-funded price stability mechanism alongside a SAF mandate, whilst prioritising access to UK sustainable feedstocks.
  • Investing in zero carbon emission flight technology by uplifting matched funding levels to the Aerospace Technology Institute programme through to 2031 – to drive efficiency improvements and the development of zero carbon emission technologies, alongside investing in UK hydrogen supply.
  • Addressing residual aviation carbon emissions by accelerating the rollout of carbon removals, including them in the UK ETS scheme and ensuring aviation’s fair share. 

Delivering accelerated progress towards a UK-wide net zero CO2 emission future requires aligning all of Government on a strategic plan, to ensure sufficient low carbon electrical and hydrogen generation is in place, to meet the increased energy demands with UK aviation receiving its fair share alongside other industries. Sustainable Aviation forecasts that UK aviation will require a maximum of an additional 147 TWh in additional renewable energy need, set out as follows:

Topic 2050 Forecast UK Aviation Renewable energy demand to deliver net zero carbon emissions
Hydrogen and electric aircraft 63 TWh
Power to liquid SAF 50 TWh
Carbon removals 34 TWh
Maximum additional renewable energy need 147 TWh

Matt Gorman, Chair, Sustainable Aviation, said: “This is the critical decade where aviation must prove it will decarbonise. Our updated Net Zero Carbon Road Map shows that we have a clear, credible path to take the carbon out of flying. Through a combination of Sustainable Aviation Fuel, more efficient aircraft and airspace, zero emission planes and carbon removals, we can protect the huge benefits of aviation for future generations without the carbon cost. 

“But we’ll do it faster, and create more jobs and investment in the UK, with the right policies, working in partnership with Government. The US and Europe are surging forwards in the race to create new industries in sustainable aviation fuels and technology. The UK has all the natural advantages to be able to join them – but we need to move quickly.

“An agreed mandate for SAF as soon as possible and a price support mechanism – building on Philip New’s independent report for the Government  – are key policy areas where we can act now to gain a share of the huge prize of making Britain the natural home of net zero aviation.”

Notes to editors: 

About Sustainable Aviation:

Sustainable Aviation (SA) is a unique alliance of the UK’s airlines, airports, aerospace manufacturers, air navigation service providers and innovation companies in SAF and carbon removals. It was the first alliance of its kind in the world and is the industry voice on decarbonisation. Sustainable Aviation’s Decarbonisation Road-Map, published in February 2020, showed how UK aviation can meet 70% increased passenger demand by 2050 while reducing net carbon emissions to zero. Both the Government’s Jet Zero Strategy and the Committee on Climate Change’s projections show that the industry’s plans for net zero can be met alongside passenger growth.

The Net Zero Carbon Road-Map shows how aviation carbon emissions will be reduced to net zero by 2050 via the following ways:

  • Using less fuel by operating as efficiently as possible. This includes billions of pounds of private investment in next-generation aircraft and ground fleet to maximise efficiency on the ground, while accelerating the process of modernising the UK’s airspace, our critical national infrastructure, with completion by the end of the decade. Changes implemented by NATS since 2021 have introduced Free Route Airspace over Scotland, Wales and the west of England; and the UK’s first deployment of systemised airspace over Wales and western England, with further upgrades planned for the rest of the UK. Deployment of satellite-based communications over the North Atlantic has also led to the dismantling of the oceanic track structure. Collectively, these changes are enabling more than 1m tonnes of CO2 savings per annum. More efficient operations also mean introducing airline fleets of the latest lightweight, fuel-efficient aircraft and engines, for which UK aerospace companies are at the forefront of design and manufacture.

Dave Curtis, Director of Safety & Sustainability, NATS, said: “Modernising UK airspace is critical to achieving more optimal flight trajectories and enabling the best use of today’s technically capable and efficient fleet. We are already in action on this and delivering improvements to how aircraft can fly. Since 2006, we have enabled more than a million tonnes of CO2 savings and the work we’ve done in the past two years is now saving over a million tonnes annually. Over the next few years the airspace modernisation and operational improvements programme will continue to deliver, showing the industry’s clear commitment to net zero.”

  • Rapidly scaling up sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). SAF is a replacement for traditional jet fuel derived from a variety of feedstocks, converted into fuel via industrial processes that currently deliver, on average, 70% fewer emissions. It is forecasted to achieve 100% lifecycle emissions savings by 2050. SAF has similar physical properties to traditional jet fuel, meaning it can be used in today’s aircraft and refuelling infrastructure with minimal modifications. SAF is a proven technology that is commercially ready today. SAF is currently the only proven solution by 2050 for flights longer than a couple of hours, and these flights account for up to three-quarters of global aviation emissions. It can create new sustainable jobs across the UK – a UK SAF industry could create over 60,000 jobs and generate £10bn GVA by 2050, according to newly published industry analysis, in areas earmarked for regional development including the Humber, North West, South Wales and Teesside. In November last year, the RAF and industry partners carried out a world-first 100% sustainable fuel flight using a military transporter aircraft – an RAF Voyager, the military variant of an Airbus A330 – and the first of any aircraft type in the UK. This year, the world’s first net zero transatlantic flight will take off from the UK, with Virgin Atlantic set to fly a Boeing 787 aircraft from London to New York using solely SAF. In 2022, British Airways also began powering selected flights with SAF following the delivery of its first supply from Phillips 66 Ltd’s plant on the Humber.

The Government successfully implemented a Contract for Difference price stability mechanism scheme for offshore wind and is proposing the same mechanism for hydrogen and CCUS. Urgently introducing a price support mechanism for SAF is essential for unlocking investment and ramping up UK SAF production. This will ensure UK supply of SAF is available to help meet the UK demand created by the Government’s 10 per cent SAF mandate by 2030. We believe funding a UK price stability mechanism for SAF could be achieved through the recycling of revenue gained from the end of free aviation carbon allowances in the UK ETS from 2025 or 2026. This follows the polluter pays principal of decarbonisation, means no taxpayer subsidy, and stops the economic benefits of SAF production from being captured by other countries with incentive schemes already in place.

Such support would follow the same principle as to how innovation is already supported within the EU and in the US, the latter surging ahead via the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). For example, the IRA includes a new set of tax credits for SAF production, equivalent to approximately £1.40 of support per litre. Some US states are offering additional incentives for SAF production over and above the support via the IRA. Within the EU, under proposals announced in December last year, 20 million allowances (worth roughly 2 billion Euros at current prices) are to be distributed to EU airlines between 2024 and 2030 in order to close the price gap between SAF and traditional jet fuel. Allowances will be distributed to airlines on the basis of reported SAF uptake and will cover 95% of the price difference between efuels and kerosene, 70% of the price difference for advanced biofuels, and 50% of all other SAFs.

Shai Weiss, CEO, Virgin Atlantic, said: “This Road-Map highlights the critical role that Sustainable Aviation Fuel will need to play in decarbonising UK aviation. As well as helping to meet our collective net zero 2050 goal, a UK SAF industry supports our energy security and creates economic growth through an innovative new green industry. With the right level of Government support and partnership across industry we can make this vision a reality, securing a more sustainable future for the UK’s world leading aviation sector.”

  • Developing zero carbon emission flight technology. With the right investment support, we can make zero carbon emission flight a reality through hydrogen and electric-powered aircraft. The Government has committed £685m in matched funding between 2022-25 for the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) to drive technological innovations to deliver zero carbon emission flight. Ministers have set out a target for the first zero carbon emission flights on domestic routes by 2030 and we believe this is possible. In January this year, SA member ZeroAvia successfully completed the first flight of a Dornier 228 converted to run partly on hydrogen fuel cells, with the aircraft conducting a 10-minute flight from Kemble airfield in southwest England.

Julie Kitcher, Executive Vice President Communications and Corporate Affairs, Airbus, said: “Alongside a focus on operational efficiencies and scaling up SAF solutions, our sector is making great strides towards developing the disruptive technologies necessary for a hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft. Investment in these strategic innovations is critical if we are to continue our fast-paced research and development. Equally important is investment in the associated ecosystem, making sure aviation has access to the right energies, at the right price and at the right locations. Only if Government and industry work together will we succeed in revolutionising our sector.”

  • Demand impact of decarbonisation costs: There is, additionally, an estimated demand reduction in UK aviation due to decarbonisation costs from SAF, carbon removals, UK ETS and CORSIA. This equates to 14% of the industry’s reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050. However, the modelling also shows that, even with slightly higher costs, people still want to fly, with overall growth in passenger numbers of almost 250 million by 2050.
  • Accelerating the roll-out of carbon removals technologies. The above steps will cut carbon emissions by around 85 per cent in absolute terms. However, our projections show that aviation will still be emitting some CO2 by 2050. If we are to achieve net zero, we will need to be removing anything we still emit. This means scaling up carbon removals, particularly “direct air capture” where carbon is captured directly from the atmosphere. Last year Airbus and seven airlines signed letters of intent to explore opportunities for a future supply of carbon removal credits to be issued by 1PointFive, using Carbon Engineering’s direct air capture technology. Additionally, captured carbon will be an important feedstock in and of itself for synthetic SAF combined with green hydrogen.

Amy Ruddock, Vice President, Europe & Middle East, Carbon Engineering, said: “Highly verifiable forms of carbon removal – like Direct Air Capture (DAC) with geological storage – offer a straightforward approach to addressing aviation’s toughest residual CO2 emissions. Sustainable Aviation has identified a clear and defined role for removals to work alongside reductions in achieving true net zero, while also recognising technologies like DAC that can uniquely create an abundant CO2 feedstock for low carbon aviation fuels.”

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