Jet Zero Council announced by UK government to develop greener air travel and awards Velocys SAF grant
(photo: Heathrow Airport)
Mon 15 June 2020 – Following calls from the aviation industry, the UK government has created a Jet Zero Council to help develop greener air travel towards a net-zero target by 2050. The new body will be made up of representatives from the aviation sector, environmental groups and government officials. The industry’s coalition group Sustainable Aviation recently called for UK aviation “to be at the heart” of the government’s economic and green recovery strategy. It urged the government to support the emerging sustainable aviation fuels sector by committing £500 million ($600m) to early-stage projects. The government has responded by announcing a £500,000 of grant funding for the Velocys Altalto waste-to-fuels project under its Future Fuels for Flight and Freight Competition. Meanwhile, UK trade unions have called for retraining of laid-off aviation workers in low-carbon sectors with better long-term prospects.
Speaking at a Downing Street daily Covid-19 briefing on Friday (June 12), Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “There’s a real determination within the industry to have a greener restart so we’re bringing together leaders from aviation, environmental groups and government to form the Jet Zero Council. This group will be charged with making net-zero emissions possible for future flights.
“Our goal within a generation will be to demonstrate flight across the Atlantic without harming the environment.”
The move was welcomed by trade body Airlines UK, which represents carriers such as British Airways, easyJet and Virgin Atlantic.
“It’s an excellent initiative and the Transport Secretary should be applauded for demonstrating such a willingness to work with the aviation industry to achieve our commitment to net zero emissions by 2050,” commented Chief Executive Tim Alderslade. “There are huge opportunities for the UK to be a world-leader in sustainable aviation fuels production and electric aviation, creating thousands of high-skilled jobs and major export opportunities in the process. It’s a win-win for all of our regions who will stand to gain from this and for the UK’s decarbonisation efforts, and we’re looking forward to taking part.”
A spokesperson for Virgin Atlantic added: “We welcome the government’s announcement that it plans to establish a Jet Zero Council for aviation and we share their vision to see zero impact transatlantic flights in a generation. The airline sector has a long and successful track record of cross-industry collaboration, including on safety and sustainability.”
In addition to supporting sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), a letter from the Sustainable Aviation group earlier this month also called for the government to work with the industry to develop aircraft and engine technology R&D capabilities on hybrid and electric aircraft, accelerate UK airspace modernisation and progress “robust” carbon offset measures and carbon removal technologies.
“In February this year, UK aviation committed to net-zero emissions by 2050 and laid out a plan to achieve this through investing in cleaner aircraft and engine technology, smarter flight operations, sustainable aviation fuels and high-quality carbon offsets and removals,” said Adam Morton, current Chair of Sustainable Aviation and Head of Environmental Technology at Rolls-Royce. “Three months on, these actions all remain essential to delivering sector-wide decarbonisation, particularly given the role UK aviation can play as an engine for rebuilding the economy.”
The £500 million in government investment called for by Sustainable Aviation would be matched, it said, by industry and would support commercial SAF plants across the UK, as well as a ‘centre of excellence’ for SAF development. The group also recommended a cross-government body with appropriate governance structure and resources to progress SAF development and commercial deployment.
“The Altalto project is a key step towards a substantial supply of sustainable aviation fuel in the UK, which is essential for meeting net zero carbon targets. This grant, particularly at the present time, underlines the importance of our project to the government’s plans for a green recovery,” said Henrik Wareborn, Velocys CEO. The company was recently granted planning permission to build its Immingham plant in north-east England, in collaboration with British Airways and Shell, and is seeking further finance for the project (see article).
A proposed SAF from waste-based ethanol project submitted by LanzaTech has also been shortlisted for a Stage Two grant, which remains under consideration, according to the DfT. “We will continue to provide updates on the project as it progresses,” said a DfT spokesperson.
One environmental group that would be expected to be included in the Jet Zero Council is the Aviation Environment Federation, which responded to the announcement in an open letter to the Transport Secretary. In conjunction with other NGOs that included Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Transport & Environment, AEF has issued a briefing paper on how the UK government could create a more sustainable and resilient aviation industry in a post-Covid recovery.
The paper says the sector needs to be fully accounted for in the economy-wide drive to achieve net-zero emissions; be equitably taxed to help fund the green recovery and to reduce demand for flying; and use technology to mitigate remaining emissions.
The NGOs call for international aviation (and shipping) to be included – as is the case with domestic aviation – in carbon budgets under the UK’s Climate Change Act and that the government should set a policy framework through which the aviation industry is held to account for its own promises to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. They also urge higher taxes on flights from the UK through a combination of a frequent flier or air miles levy, VAT on plane tickets, introducing excise duty on aviation kerosene and raising air passenger duty.
On technology solutions, the NGOs say they should be funded by the aviation industry alone, with government setting the policy framework. Carbon offsetting is not a solution and electric or hybrid planes are likely to make only a marginal contribution until after the 2050 net-zero target date, they argue. On the other hand, they recommend SAF, particularly electrofuels, can provide an opportunity, along with a small but growing mandate on the sector to use an increasing share of such fuels.
Meanwhile, the Trades Union Congress, which represents 5.5 million UK workers across 48 member unions has called on the UK government to convert its existing coronavirus job retention scheme into guaranteed retraining for laid-off aviation sector workers in low-carbon sectors. They quote analysis showing UK aviation is facing job losses on the scale of the coal-mining industry in the 1980s and that employment in the sector is unlikely to ever return to pre-crisis levels.
The report by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a social, economic and environmental justice think-tank, finds that at least 70,000 jobs are at risk in the aviation industry and its supply chains over the next two to three months, with 39,000 from aviation. At least 17,000 workers will need to permanently transition out of employment in aviation, it estimates. The study shows that in 2014, seven years on from the previous financial crisis, passenger numbers had returned to their pre-crisis levels but job numbers remained 17% lower.
“We cannot consign these workers to the despair of unemployment,” commented Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress.
“Aviation is a critical part of our economic infrastructure and it supports tens of thousands of good jobs. The sector has already been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic and the implementation of the quarantine period is a further blow.”
The proposed plan by the unions calls for a workers’ bailout for the aviation industry that uses the already established government job retention scheme to support those in roles that are vulnerable and ensure any bailouts given to airlines would support workers transitioning out of the sector, while reducing aviation emissions in line with the UK’s climate commitments.
“Aviation needs immediate support – and not just to protect the incomes of billionaire airline owners,” added O’Grady. “Government must act now to protect workers’ jobs and livelihoods, to support the longer-term viability of the sector and facilitate a just transition to lower-carbon operations.”
Alex Chapman, Researcher at NEF, said: “There are rock solid social and economic reasons for preventing the spike in unemployment which is being threatened by aviation bosses, and instead investing heavily in retraining and upskilling aviation workers to prepare them for a new normal, and the rapid decarbonisation of the UK economy.”
This article has been updated to include responses to the Jet Zero Council announcement from Virgin Atlantic and the Aviation Environment Federation, and LanzaTech’s F4C shortlisting.