Can we have net zero emissions and still fly?

(The Guardian, 24 Nov 2019) With people taking more flights than ever and the air industry set to grow, can tech advances really help us achieve net zero?

When you think about things that are quintessentially British, you probably would not immediately put “flying” into that category – but you should. We Brits don’t just like flying, we love it.

Data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) shows that more Britons flew abroad last year than any other nationality. Roughly one in every dozen air passengers was British. Britons took to the skies 126.2m times in 2018, beating Americans and Chinese people into second and third place. Needless to say, this comes at an environmental price.

The UK aviation industry pumped 37m tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere last year alone. That’s about 4% of the 918m tonnes that the global aviation industry emitted in 2018. And it’s an upward trend. The aviation industry is currently growing at between 4% and 5% a year, at which rate passenger numbers will double every 15-20 years.

“UK CO2 emissions from aviation have doubled over the last 20-25 years and are predicted to grow into the future,” says Tim Johnson, the director of the Aviation Environment Federation, an environmental campaigning organisation that represents communities who are affected by noise and emissions, primarily around UK airports.

The problem this creates for the aviation industry is acute, especially since in June 2019, the UK government signed into law a commitment to make the UK a “net zero” greenhouse gas emitter by 2050. By “net zero” this means that any greenhouse gases that are still used will have to be offset in some way. Schemes include buying and preserving parts of the world’s rainforests or planting new trees somewhere in the world, or more radical technology to literally pull the CO2 out of the air.

Currently, aviation is responsible for about 2.5% of the world’s CO2 emissions. That may seem a small percentage, but this share of the total could increase significantly with the expected growth of air travel and the drive to greener operations in other industries. Accordingly the industry is looking to technology and engineering to help make aircraft more environmentally friendly. At the forefront of this is the electric engine.

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The Guardian, 24 Nov 2019: Can we have net zero emissions and still fly?