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Tomos Owens: Don't clip aviation's wings, drive innovation

Tomos Owens (Climate Programme Intern at CEN)

We took a record 39 million flights in 2019. That's over 100,000 flights a day. I don’t think even the Wright brothers would have imagined how tediously commonplace flying would become. Flying has changed our world, turning our unfathomably large planet into our local neighbourhood. For as little as £25, you can get a plane ticket these days to go almost anywhere in Europe in just a few hours.

The plane has brought the four corners of the globe into reach of everyone. This scale of travel was, until relatively recently, a luxury of the hyper-rich. This widening of access is an amazing success story of mankind, but aviation has a big problem: pollution. Flying currently accounts for 3% of global CO2 emissions - a proportion that is set to rise as other industries go green faster. Planes are an engineering miracle, but they are also very difficult to make environmentally friendly. How can aviation pull its weight on our journey to net zero, and how can the UK lead the world in this area?

Last July, the government released the Jet Zero Strategy - the UK’s roadmap (or flightpath) for an aviation industry that continues to connect people and cultures and does so in an environmentally friendly way. This plan has set the industry’s bearings squarely towards technological innovation and carbon offsetting as the UK’s solution for guilt-free flying.

The 2040 net zero goal for domestic flights will rely on the development of hydrogen and electric flight. The rapid uptake of sustainable aviation fuels will green international aviation. Both of these solutions are pushing the boundaries of current technology and manufacturing capacity but initiatives such as the government’s £15 million Green Fuel, Green Skies competition will help to spark much-needed innovation. It’s a massive challenge for the industry to scale these technologies so rapidly, but it’s better than the other option: demand management.

Some environmental campaigners seek to restrict access to flying by introducing punitive taxation that will price people out of their holidays. Their plans would throw up barriers to people’s movement and interaction across the world. The technology that will make green aviation a reality is nascent and will need support in the near future, but the alternative of a less connected planet is not one worth entertaining.

It is crucial that industry and government do everything they can to avoid this outcome, not just for societal reasons but also for the economic contribution the aviation industry makes to the UK economy. It currently employs nearly a million people in the UK and contributes £52 billion to UK GDP (3.4% of total GDP) - certainly not small change. Additionally, the 50 regional airports around the UK are powerhouses of local communities and economies, supporting thousands of jobs on-site and in the surrounding areas.

Aviation's challenges today are complex and potentially expensive, but crucially, all achievable. The same inventive spirit that bore the aeroplane itself must now be reignited and supported to make guilt-free flying a reality. We owe it to the environment and our global, interconnected society.


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