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OPINION: The fight for flight. Can air travel ever be sustainable?

There are six hard-to-abate industries in the climate challenge: cement, steel, plastic, heavy goods road transport, shipping and aviation. These are the big nuts to crack; the areas that today lack immediate, large-scale sustainable solutions.

Our latest Electric Forecourt® at London Gatwick Airport has been designed to focus on the ecosystem of the latter and will support the airport’s commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions for its internal operations before 2040, as well as its broader ambition to become the UK’s most sustainable airport.

Today, aviation accounts for around eight per cent of UK carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. If global aviation were a country, it would rank in the top 10 emitters. More concerning is the fact it’s one of the world’s fastest growing sources of CO2 emissions, notably as other sectors successfully decarbonise. Flying also has other damaging impacts beyond CO2, with nitrogen oxides (NOx) and water vapour in the upper atmosphere creating contrails, meaning the total climate impact is thought to be three times that of CO2 alone.

If you were thinking about switching to a vegan diet, or possibly giving up driving in 2024, those significant personal gestures could be wiped out by taking one long haul return flight this year.

Now before you read any more, I’m not telling you not to go to Barcelona this summer. Hey, I want to go to Barcelona this summer. Living on this affluent and relatively wet island, it’s fair to assume we all crave a bit of vitamin D in our lives, plus a chance to take pics of our legs looking like hot dogs. Travel gives us that buzz, plus it lets us experience different places, people, cultures, foods and, importantly, world views. People shouldn’t have to choose between seeing the world and saving it.

But knowing what we now know, it’s fair to say that airlines need to start providing consumers with the environmental performance data of its aircraft, the sector should be covering the costs of its environmental impact and we need to be telling role models like Neymar that chartering Boeing 747s all to yourself is not a good look.

In the last decade, the airline industry has made marginal gains through more efficient routing, reduced engine taxiing and increasing both the number of seats and load factors – the share of seats sold on a given flight. But currently, and despite more than 99 per cent of all flights using oil-derived kerosene, aviation is exempt from fuel duty for international travel, there is no VAT charged on tickets and the tax on air passenger duty is relatively small to what the sector should be paying.

Importantly, things are changing. In December, COP28 hosted early discussions into the development of a global aviation tax, France has already banned short-range domestic flights across some routes where the same journeys can be made by train and Norway has mandated all domestic flights be fully electric by 2040.

In July 2021, the UK Government launched its own consultation, Jet Zero, setting out its vision for aviation reaching net zero emissions by 2050. It features plans to set gross and net zero emissions reduction trajectories to track progress, proposals to decarbonise domestic flying by 2040 (although this accounts for only four per cent of total UK aviation emissions) and carbon pricing that supports the ‘polluter pays’ principle. This should be viewed through the lens that 10 per cent of the most frequent flyers in England take more than half of all international flights.

It’s that last stat that fills me with the most hope. Eliminating planes from modern life is an impossible task, but if a relatively small number of people were willing to change a little, that could change a lot.