The UK has passed a law mandating zero net emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases by 2050. Airplanes emit a lot of CO2 and cannot run on batteries, or not very far anyway, so what does net zero air travel look like?

We now have two studies on this question, which are diametrically opposed. They illustrate very nicely the fact that climate alarmism has split into two opposing camps — the moderates and the radicals. Let us ignore the fact that both camps are wrong and look at the difference between these two studies. They say a lot about policy debates to come.

The first study is by the airline industry itself, with the apparent blessing of the UK government. This is the moderate view and it is very moderate indeed. In fact it is almost benign.

The title is “Decarbonization Road-Map: A path to net zero” and it subtitles itself as “A plan to decarbonize UK aviation.” See https://www.sustainableaviation.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/SustainableAviation_CarbonReport_20200203.pdf

Under this plan air traffic increases a whopping 70% by 2050, so net zero must be no problem. However, this is because the plan does nothing like decarbonize UK aviation. Instead it make heavy use of the “net” in net zero. That is, about 40% of the CO2 reductions comes from buying indulgences (technically called allowances). The CO2 emissions are reduced somewhere else and the airline pays the bill.

So actual aircraft CO2 emissions are just reduced by about 60%, not 100%. Even this is not true, because about half of this reduction-on-paper is from switching to something called “sustainable aviation fuel” or SAF. Presumably this is a biofuel or some such. The CO2 is still there but since it originated with CO2 being absorbed by photosynthesis, it does not count. I am not making this up.

There is, then, just a projected 30% or so reduction in actual CO2 emissions. This will supposedly come from future airplane technologies, some of which do not yet exist. Lighter panes or more efficient jet engines, for example. For that matter there is at this point no large scale commercial production of SAF. That too is a future technology.

One of these new technologies is in fact battery powered airplanes. But these are limited to very short flights, just a few hundred miles or less, so they play no significant role in the so-called decarbonization plan. The way the emission accounting system works, each country gets all of the emissions on every flight that originates within it, no matter how long.

So much for the moderate plan. The radical plan goes by the chilling name “Absolute Zero” and it is absolute to the point of insanity. It basically allows no new technology and certainly no offsetting allowances. This hummer comes from the halls of academia, where reality is seldom an issue. See https://ukfires.org/absolute-zero/.

Given that jet engines have to emit a lot of CO2 there is no where to go but down, that is not fly. Nor do they just look at 2050, rather they plot trajectories of ever diminishing emissions from now until then.

Given these severe constraints the ruinous results are not surprising. Flying dies, and quickly. First off they shut down almost all UK airports by 2030. All that is left are Heathrow for England, Glasgow for Scotland and Belfast for Northern Ireland. Wales gets nothing.

These big three airports then squeeze down, year by year, until they too close. After all, given that with today’s technology all planes emit CO2 the only way to have absolutely zero emissions is to have zero flying.

This result is ridiculous but it serves a purpose. The actual outcome of the UK’s foolish net zero policy may well lie somewhere between these two extremes, the rosy airline view and the nutty professors.

The airline industry’s extreme dependence on buying allowances is particularly vulnerable. To begin with, the radicals despise it. For example, the (British) Telegraph newspaper recently ran a major hit piece attacking allowance trading as a sham. It specifically quotes Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist denouncing the airlines for buying indulgences.

Then too, the assumption that allowances will always be available, in ever increasing quantities, for affordable prices, is very questionable. In fact if a lot of countries adopt zero emission targets then allowances may cease to exist. After all, a country only has allowances to sell to the degree they exceed their emission reduction target. Or for that matter the world can only plant so many trees. Betting an entire industry on allowance trading may be a bad plan.

Here it should be noted that the air travel industry even contemplates generating allowances by using technology to suck in atmospheric CO2. Given that this stuff is the food supply for all life on Earth, one might want to think about that. Where to put the stuff is another huge issue.

The issue of allowance trading is very here and now. A new UN global trading system under the Paris Accord was blocked by the radicals in Madrid’s COP 25. The same may well happen in COP 26, which as it happens is in Glasgow UK in November. Allowance trading under the Paris Agreement may well be dead.

The airlines are trying to build their own UN trading system, called the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation or CORSIA. It is about to go into pilot mode (no pun intended) but full global operation is years away. CORSIA will undoubtedly be attacked by the radicals as it emerges.

In conclusion, the air travel industry is seriously threatened by the UK’s net zero 2050 law. Most fossil fuel burning industries can at least contemplate electrification, but not flying.

The radicals even seem ready to shut the industry down. (Think Greta’s boat trips.) They tend to talk as though air travel were just a bunch of luxury vacations, not an essential element of global commerce. But then the radicals don’t seem to care much for global commerce either, or any commerce for that matter.

How this net zero craziness will all play out remains to be seen. But if the air travel industry, and the traveling public, thinks the issue is settled they are deeply mistaken. These two studies show just how wild the issue really is.

The air travel fight is on. Stay tuned to CFACT.

Author

  • David Wojick, Ph.D. is an independent analyst working at the intersection of science, technology and policy. For origins see http://www.stemed.info/engineer_tackles_confusion.html For over 100 prior articles for CFACT see http://www.cfact.org/author/david-wojick-ph-d/ Available for confidential research and consulting.