Jet Zero: Airlines' Path to Net Zero Emissions by 2050
Sarah Hodes, Junior Consultant
In an age of escalating environmental concerns, industries are under immense pressure to mitigate their environmental impact. The aviation sector, often seen as a notorious contributor to carbon emissions, has made grand pledges to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. However, scepticism looms large over the feasibility of such goals. This blog examines airlines' journey toward net zero, while shedding light on how these ambitions – and the role of the UK government – might affect consumers.
Airlines’ Pledge to Net Zero
The aviation industry has long grappled with the challenge of reducing its carbon footprint, given that traditional flight operations are inherently carbon-intensive. In response, a growing number of airlines have undertaken ambitious commitments to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. This entails reducing their carbon output to a level that can be offset by carbon removal technologies and nature-based solutions, including switching from kerosene jet fuel to more sustainable, and more expensive, alternatives. Reaching net zero by 2050 is expected to cost the aviation industry an average of $175bn (£141bn) per year between 2022 and 2050, about $5 trillion in total, according to last year’s report from the Mission Possible Partnership.
Several major players in the airline industry, including British Airways, Delta Air Lines, and Qantas, have joined the "Jet Zero Council," a UK government initiative aimed at driving the aviation sector towards net zero emissions. These airlines are making strides in embracing cleaner technologies, investing in sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), improving fuel efficiency, and exploring electric and hybrid aircraft options. The commitment to net zero extends beyond operational changes; it encompasses collaboration with governments, research institutions, and environmental organisations to pioneer innovative solutions.
The UK Government’s Role
While the UK government has aimed to position itself as a champion of environmental causes, its role has been enigmatic, casting a shadow of doubt over its intentions. The government's proclamation of striving for net zero emissions by 2050 is commendable, yet its strategies' efficacy is questionable. Establishing the Jet Zero Council, while hailed as groundbreaking, prompted scepticism about its true impact. Critics argue it might serve as a symbolic gesture rather than a catalyst for tangible transformation.
The government's focus on collaboration with industry stakeholders while sidestepping introducing regulations implies a potential lack of conviction in its approach. Consumers are left wondering whether these initiatives are genuine efforts or mere attempts at greenwashing, as seen in the EU with the The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) and 23 of its member organisations filing a complaint against 17 European airlines back in June.
Consumers Caught in the Crossfire
As airlines grapple with their environmental responsibilities, consumers find themselves in the midst of this intricate transition. The journey toward net zero emissions necessitates operational changes, investments in cleaner technologies, and, inevitably, financial implications. These changes could potentially ripple into the consumer experience.
While SAFs are touted as a promising solution, their current cost and limited availability might lead to increased ticket prices. If airlines choose to offset their emissions through carbon removal technologies, consumers might also bear the brunt of these costs. Then, the shift toward innovative aircraft technologies, such as electric and hybrid planes, could lead to disruptions in flight schedules, capacity limitations, and potential inconveniences for travellers.
The Conundrum of Consumer Choice
Amid the sector's push for sustainability, consumers face a conundrum in making travel choices. Opting for airlines that actively embrace green practices could align with their values but might come at a premium. Balancing personal travel preferences with environmental concerns becomes more complex as airlines navigate their net-zero ambitions.
Willie Walsh, the Director General of the International Air Transport Association, has said that the transition to green fuels is expected to increase airfares 10 to 20 percent over the next couple of decades. In the face of that, consumers might also question the transparency and authenticity of airlines' sustainability claims. With doubts cast on the commitment of both airlines and governments, contrasted against rising prices, consumers have a difficult choice to make.
Is Jet Zero by 2050 viable?
The aspiration of airlines to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 holds immense significance in combating climate change. However, scepticism remains a vital perspective as we evaluate the feasibility of these ambitions, particularly in light of the UK government's involvement.
Consumers are inevitably entwined in this transition, facing potential cost implications and shifts in travel experiences. As airlines and governments strive toward environmental responsibility, consumers must navigate the complex landscape of choices, weighing personal preferences against environmental concerns.
The journey toward Jet Zero necessitates not just industry-wide commitments, but also clear communication, regulatory support, and tangible actions. As travellers, we must scrutinise the developments, demand transparency, and actively participate in shaping an aviation sector that genuinely aligns with a sustainable future. As with many issues, the power of the consumer is strong. In this case, airline passengers can speed the transition or they can slow it. If government is truly committed to net zero, it must make it as easy as possible for consumers to support airlines in making that transition in their behaviours. However, with the Sunak government’s recent net zero U-turn, which signalled the scrapping of taxes to discourage flying, could further set back a Jet Zero reality.