Around 80% of aviation carbon emissions come from long-haul flights (over 1,500km) and there are no viable alternative forms of transport for journeys to the other side of the world.

While aviation accounts for less than 3% of global carbon emissions today, that figure is forecast to increase significantly as demand rises post-covid recovery, and other sectors decarbonise – unless action is taken.

The UK aviation industry has pledged to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. That challenge may seem huge, but it’s worth remembering that CO2 emissions per seat per km are already just 50% of 1990 levels.

Achieving net zero

 So, how will the industry reach net zero?

  1. More fuel-efficient aircraft (both new and existing) could account for 25%  of the reduction. This applies to the airframes as well as the engines. The next generation of Rolls-Royce engines, for example, will use around 25% less fuel than the ones they replace.
  2. Sustainable aviation fuel – both bio and synthetic – could account for 30% of the reduction. Vital for long-haul routes beyond the range of any new electric aircraft, these fuels will have to grow their market share from the current less than 1% to around 50%.
  3. Improving operational efficiency could provide around 5% of the reduction. This will include measures such as modernising air space, harnessing jet streams, adjusting speed in flight to avoid stacking, adopting continuous take-off and landing techniques, and manoeuvring planes on the ground using fewer engines or with electric tugs.
  4. Offsetting and capture will need to provide around 35% of the reduction. ICAO’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) tackles this very important mechanism. In addition and back on the ground, we also have the Airport Council International’s scheme Airport Carbon Accreditation programme (ACI ACA)  – this helps airports drive their operations onto a Carbon Neutral state.
WSP is co-creator and administrator of the UN recognised global Airport Council International (ACI) Airport Carbon Accreditation programme. This now covers 45% of global passengers across 311 airports worldwide, 62 of which are already carbon neutral.

       5.  Demand management – through taxation and incentives not to fly unnecessarily – could provide the final 5% of the reduction. As WSP moves towards becoming a zero-carbon business by 2025, we have introduced a £200 domestic flight carbon levy .  We encourage our people to use voice and video conferencing, and to take the train if face-to-face meetings are required. The money raised is reinvested into decarbonisation initiatives for the business.

Responsible growth

To date, around 5% of the world’s population has taken a flight and it’s simply not possible to deny that mobility, with the benefits it brings, to a wider range of travellers. The genie can’t be put back in the bottle. Governments, regulators and the industry know this and, rightly, are focussing on how aviation can grow responsibly and sustainably. As we work to 'build back better' in the wake of Covid-19, we must redouble our efforts to reduce carbon emissions in the sector by bringing together our collective imaginations and know how.

It’s a challenge in which we can all play our part. On personal level, I will continue to fly once we re-open our skies – but only when it’s completely essential. For everything else, I'll continue to champion video conferencing now that we have proven undoubtedly that it works.