Reduction in flying only way to achieve net zero, warns sustainability expert

The only way the aviation sector will reach net zero by 2050 is if there is a reduction in the number of people flying.

That is according to Cait Hewitt, policy director at Aviation Environment Federation, who warned Travel Weekly’s Sustainability Summit the sector does “not yet have the technologies” required to achieve the target, set in October at an assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

Her statement came after Matthew Gorman MBE, Heathrow’s carbon strategy director, said he thought the goal was achievable if the sector acts quickly and has sufficient government support.

“There are four big things we need to do to take the carbon out of flying, but the most important thing to say is we can do it [achieve net zero],” he told delegates.

“A lot of the debate globally centres around the fact it’s really challenging to decarbonise aviation, and we are told we need to take flying out of society rather than take carbon out of flying.

“We have to anchor back to the fact we can do it as we all know about the amazing things international connectivity brings, but we need to move quickly as an industry and we need the government to act fast to scale up the technologies to take the carbon out of flying.”

Gorman said greater efficiency is a “fundamental baseline” for cutting emissions from aviation, adding it is vital the sector adopts the use of SAF as quickly as possible while modernising aircraft to make it compatible with hydrogen technology.

“We see SAF as vital because it cuts carbon and it’s a drop-in fuel which means it can be used in today’s pipelines and planes,” added Gorman, adding the research and development of hydrogen technologies must be heavily supported.

However, Hewitt was less optimistic that aviation can achieve carbon neutrality within the next 30 years, labelling the target “almost impossible”.

“I’ve heard all kinds of promises from the aviation sector about cutting emissions, and while it’s true that emissions are reducing on a per-passenger basis, overall emissions are not,” she said, referencing research from before the Covid pandemic that showed aviation emissions in the UK were at their highest-ever level.

“To achieve net zero for the climate, an emissions-intensity metric is not going to get us there; we need to have net zero emissions from every activity in our society,” added Hewitt.

“That’s enormously challenging; it’s almost impossible. Aviation does not yet have the technologies ready to roll out that most other sectors do.

“Our view as an organisation is that it won’t be possible to deliver all the reductions we need to see in aviation within 30 years without cutting the number of people flying.”

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