The UK aviation industry has announced carbon targets that allow emissions from planes to increase into the mid-2030s. It says buying carbon offsets will result in overall emissions falling compared with 2019 levels.

The move was welcomed by government ministers. But environmental groups said the industry was “trying to have its cake and eat it” and said only reducing flights would guarantee the carbon cuts needed to tackle the climate crisis. Aviation caused 7% of the UK’s emissions in 2018.

The UK’s climate change laws use 1990 as a reference year and, compared with this, the aviation industry is planning for emissions to be about double by 2030. The sector’s peak year for emissions was 2019, which is the year it has chosen to use.

The industry said sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), electric and hydrogen aircraft, and changes to flight routes to make them shorter will reduce the emissions from flying in the future. But under the sector’s plan, emissions rises in the mid-2030s because the number of flights increases. Paying other sectors to remove CO2 from the air cuts emissions by 15% by 2030 and 40% by 2040, compared with the peak year of 2019.

But compared with the 1990 baseline, when aviation emissions were much smaller, the level of future emissions targeted by the aviation industry equate to an increase of approximately 45% in 2030 and 105% in 2040, according to Simon Evans at the Carbon Brief thinktank.

Matt Finch, at the Transport & Environment campaign group, said: “The UK aviation industry is trying to have its cake and eat it, by trying to pay its way out of its emissions addiction via offsets instead of targeting the real-world emissions cuts that increasing SAF levels and zero emission aircraft would bring.

“UK aviation is optimistically relying on removals technologies which simply do not exist in the UK currently,” he said. “The 2050 end point for UK aviation should be to get its total emissions as close to zero as possible. Instead it still plans on emitting well over half of what it does today. That is simply not ambitious.”

Cait Hewitt, at the Aviation Environment Federation, said: “To make net zero a reality we need interim targets. But the industry’s plan is to allow the emissions from aircraft not just to rebound after the pandemic but actually to continue growing, peaking in the mid 2030s.”

“Until airlines start paying for and delivering carbon capture technology, the only way to avoid aviation emissions is not to fly,” she said. “The government’s net zero aviation consultation will need to recognise the need to go beyond technology and include measures to limit aviation demand and airport capacity. It will not be OK to allow aviation demand and emissions to grow as we come out of the pandemic in the hope that future fuels and technologies will save the day.”

But Adam Morton, chair of the industry’s Sustainable Aviation group said: “The [targets are] ambitious but achievable, and require meaningful cooperation between industry and government, as well as the necessary policies and funding to ensure the UK can build a world-leading SAF industry, create new clean aircraft, and modernise British airspace.” The group said aviation provided major economic and social benefits to the UK.

Grant Shapps, secretary of state for transport, said: “The commitment shown by industry today embodies the forward thinking attitude we need to decarbonise the sector and put the UK at the forefront of green aviation.”



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