In mid-October, I had the pleasure of calling a Westminster Hall debate on the work of the Jet Zero Council, an industry-government partnership comprising the great and the good of the aviation and aerospace sectors.
Tasked with delivering net-zero emission commercial flight, the Council’s formation in June could not have been more timely.
As we all long for a holiday-filled return to normality, bringing a much-needed boost to our aviation sector, it is vital that we keep our sights set on achieving net-zero aviation by 2050. The Government can take pride in its launch of the Jet Zero Council, but there is still much more to be done.
The UK’s aviation network is the third largest in the world, and has a proud history of designing and manufacturing cutting edge aircraft and engines. Today the sector contributes £52 billion a year to GDP and provides 230,000 high-value jobs, including hundreds in my South West Bedfordshire constituency who work at Luton Airport.
However, when we return to the skies, it’s important that we reconcile heightened demand in air travel with our binding net zero target.
This is another area where we can confidently say we lead the world. We were the first country to set a legally binding climate change mitigation target in 2008, and last year we were the first major economy to introduce a legally binding 2050 net zero target. As we look beyond Brexit and Covid-19, we need to play to our strengths, particularly in areas where we already have a reputation as global pace setters – areas like aviation and climate mitigation.
Thankfully air travel and cutting emissions are not mutually exclusive. We can balance our custodial commitment to the environment with our need for a foreign holiday and reliance on trade through air freight. Commercial flight with a clear environmental conscience is not just possible but within our grasp this decade, thanks to the development of sustainable aviation fuels.
Sustainable aviation fuels are a here-and-now solution that can be used in existing engines and transport pipelines, requiring no modifications to aircraft or refuelling infrastructure. These fuels are also the only option long-term for decarbonising long-haul flights, which account for 80 per cent of global aviation emissions. Battery and hydrogen technology will play a part in decarbonising short and medium-haul flight, but simply will not propel a commercial flight over the Atlantic anytime soon.
Developed from sustainable feedstocks like waste oils, fats, and even solid waste like everyday black bag rubbish, the market is taxiing for take-off – provided there is sufficient Government backing. The first facility planned for the UK, Altalto Immingham, is a partnership between Velocys, British Airways, and Shell and could be fuelling flights by 2025, cutting lifecycle emissions by 70 per cent.
In February the British aviation sector came together through the coalition Sustainable Aviation to become the first national aviation body in the world to publicly commit to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The target is ambitious but achievable, and research from the group shows that the UK can become a world leader in sustainable aviation fuel production.
According to this new data, investing now in these new fuels can deliver over 20,000 jobs and almost £3 billion in GVA from 14 production facilities across the country by the mid-2030s. The ideal locations for these facilities are in seven industrial clusters in Humberside, Teesside, South Wales, Hampshire, the North West, Grangemouth and St Fergus, areas where we have a competitive advantage over other European countries in refining and chemicals infrastructure and skills.
These former industrial heartlands also desperately need to find ways of transitioning away from fossil fuels, so this is a perfect opportunity to not only create new green jobs but save jobs and redeploy skills. Additionally, the majority of these areas are earmarked to become carbon capture usage and storage (CCUS) and/or hydrogen hubs. Sustainable aviation fuel production can benefit from sharing the infrastructure and skills required to develop these new green industrial clusters, so can play a key role in re-focusing and future-proofing these areas.
However, to get the first few production facilities off the ground and seize the first-mover advantage, the Government needs to unlock private investment. Government-backed loan guarantees – a tool already used for other infrastructure projects – could cover capital costs and make these investments more attractive for private investors. The revenue support mechanism, the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation, could also be reformed to give greater price certainty for these sorts of projects. Importantly, these are policy levers rather than capital grants.
Speaking to the International Gas Turbine Institute last September, the Prince of Wales said that “the need to decarbonise flight must remain at the top of the agenda”. His Royal Highness’ words have found added sentiment a year later in light of the ongoing pandemic. We cannot let Covid-19 blow our decarbonisation agenda off course. Nor do we need to let it destroy our aviation sector.
Indeed, aviation – a sector we rely so heavily on as an island – can come out of the current crisis stronger, greener and more resilient. But to do that I urge the Government to build on their Jet Zero commitments this summer, and take swift and pragmatic action now by supporting the development of a sustainable aviation fuels industry in the UK.