Written by Tatiana Lebreton Published on 20 June 2023 ✔ Aviation accounts for 7% of the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions✔ The UK government wants to achieve net zero aviation emissions by 2050✔ Low-emission jet fuel alternatives include biofuel, hydrogen, and synthetic fuelIt’s no secret that aviation is a highly polluting industry. Globally, it only accounts for 2.5% of carbon dioxide emissions – but in wealthy countries, aviation contributes to a much higher percentage of their annual emissions. For example, the industry accounts for 7% of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions.To help it reach its goal of net zero emissions by 2050, the UK government has set out a “Jet Zero Strategy”, which aims to reduce aviation emissions.In this article, we’ll go over what this means, what the government’s key targets are, and how it plans to achieve them. We’ll also consider whether ‘jet zero’ is achievable in the time frame the government has chosen. What's on this page? 01 What does ‘jet zero’ mean? 02 What is the UK’s Jet Zero Strategy? 03 Is jet zero achievable? 04 Have any other countries achieved jet zero? 05 Are hydrogen planes possible? 06 Summary What does ‘jet zero’ mean?‘Jet zero’ is the term the UK government is using to describe the aviation industry reaching net zero emissions by 2050.As a reminder, net zero doesn’t necessarily mean zero carbon emissions. In political terms, it means a 100% reduction relative to 1990s levels, with the remaining emissions being offset.Based on current data, the UK’s aviation industry accounts for around 7% of the country’s annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – or around 39.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year.The government wants to reduce this to 19.3 million tonnes of CO2e by 2050 – a little more than a 50% reduction – by decarbonising not just aeroplanes but airports as well. What is the UK’s Jet Zero Strategy?The government’s Jet Zero Strategy aims to create a sustainable aviation industry in the UK.The plans set out several targets to reach jet zero by 2050. These include improving fuel efficiency by 2% every year, requiring 10% of jet fuel to be made from sustainable sources by 2030, and achieving zero emissions for airports – and net zero emissions for domestic flights – by 2040.To meet these targets, the government is focusing on six key measures:Developing a sustainable aviation fuel industryLaunching zero-emission flights with new aircraftsImproving the efficiency of aeroplanes, airports, and airspace useEncouraging people to make sustainable travel choicesCompensating for emissions with carbon offsetting and carbon captureWorking with specialists to mitigate the non-CO2 environmental impacts of aviationWe’ll provide more details on each measure in the following sections, to give you a better idea of what they involve.Sustainable aviation fuelsThere are two types of sustainable aviation fuels, also called SAFs. There are biofuels made from feedstock – organic waste, and non-food crops – or synthetic fuels (also known as e-fuels), made from hydrogen and recycled carbon dioxide.SAFs reportedly produce 80% fewer CO2 emissions over their life cycle than fossil fuels, and can be blended with jet fuel in existing aircrafts.This means they’re low-carbon, but not emissions free. That being said, since they can be used with existing planes, SAFs are easier to implement than other alternative fuels, such as hydrogen, which requires new aircrafts to be designed.The government is allocating an extra £180 million in funding towards SAF production, testing, and implementation. It aims to have 10% of liquid aviation fuel in the UK be SAF by 2030, and up to 75% by 2050.However, it’s worth noting that although SAFs already exist, they're currently expensive to produce and haven't been tested on long-haul flights. So it’s not clear if they’re a viable alternative on a large scale.If you want to know more about sustainable fuels, you can go to our page on carbon neutral petrol.Zero-emission flightsSo far, green electricity and green hydrogen – called that because making them produces zero CO2 emissions – are the only fuels that could power zero-emission flights.Small electric-battery-powered aircrafts already exist, but so far they can only be used for short distances – ones of 200 to 500 kilometres. Liquid hydrogen is considered a better alternative fuel for long-haul commercial flights, but hydrogen-powered planes are still very much in their developmental stage.The government has allocated £685 million in funding to develop zero-emission hydrogen-powered aircrafts in the UK. Along with this, it’s aiming to double UK hydrogen production and run zero-emissions domestic flights by 2030. System efficienciesTo reduce emissions whilst still using planes that are powered by jet fuel, the government is planning to make aircrafts more energy efficient, and to reduce travel times by providing £9.2 million to improve flight routes. Another key goal is to improve energy efficiency in airports.For example, one of the government’s pledges is to make all airport operations in England emission-free by 2040, by powering them with green energy.Influencing consumersThe government has vowed to try to influence consumers to make more sustainable decisions around air travel. Part of this includes ensuring passengers have access to sustainable transport to and from airports.Airlines might also be required to provide what the government calls “environmental information” about flights to passengers when they book. This is all the detail that has been provided so far, but we can suppose that information about flight emissions might be given to customers.In January 2023, the UK Civil Aviation Authority launched a survey to determine what information should be provided to aeroplane passengers, in order to create a standardised format across airlines. However, there’s no date yet on when, or if, this will be implemented.Carbon offsettingThe government wants to mitigate any remaining emissions, after reducing them to lower levels, by using carbon offsetting and carbon capture technology.It’s planning to develop a regulated network of carbon offsetting certifiers, to ensure airlines are investing in reliable carbon credits. It recommends that UK airlines use the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) to offset international flights, and the UK Emissions Trading Scheme (UK ETS) for domestic flights.It’s worth noting that carbon offsetting isn’t considered an effective climate strategy by many environmentalists. Greenpeace, for instance, has said the only way to solve the climate crisis is to drastically reduce emissions.The other solution is carbon capture technology, which the government is providing £100 million in research for. It also promised to provide an extra £1 billion to have more carbon capture technology developed before 2030.Addressing different types of emissionsAircrafts don’t just emit CO2, they also emit other gases and particles, such as nitrous oxides, sulphur dioxide, water vapour, and soot. They also create contrails (condensation trails) – those thin cloud lines planes leave in the sky.Studies have shown that some of these aviation emissions, and the contrails aeroplanes leave behind, can contribute to global warming. However, we need more research to identify the scale of the impact, and how to mitigate it.And unfortunately, the government hasn’t announced concrete plans to tackle the impacts of aviation in the near future, besides working with the scientific community to gain a better understanding of them.The crux of their strategy to mitigate the emission impacts of aviation appears to mainly be switching to SAF. And some studies support this by showing that SAF has a lower climate impact than jet fuel – emitting 50% to 70% less water and soot, for example. Is jet zero achievable?Jet zero is achievable, but maybe not by the government’s 2050 deadline. This is mainly because it will be difficult to produce enough alternative aviation fuel to meet the current demand for flights.The UK currently consumes around 14 billion litres of jet fuel per year. To match this with hydrogen, the UK would need to more than double its renewable electricity production, according to a February 2023 report by the Royal Society.The same report found that if the UK were to use biofuel, it would need to dedicate over 50% of its agricultural land to grow crops for it, since organic municipal waste would only meet 10% of the demand. Given that farmland already covers around 70% of the UK, there’s very little extra space that could be used to grow crops for biofuel.While these figures may seem overwhelming, it doesn’t mean that decarbonising the aviation industry is impossible. Dr Guy Gratton, an associate professor of aviation and the environment at Cranfield University told the Guardian that creating hydrogen planes is possible, but it will require a lot of investment in research and infrastructure.So if the government wants to achieve jet zero by 2050, it will need to invest billions of pounds in the years leading up to the deadline. Have any other countries achieved jet zero?No countries have achieved jet zero so far – but several have pledged to decarbonise the aviation industry.For example, the United States, Canada, Japan, Turkey, and the European Commission, are all part of the Decarbonising Aviation Common Interest Group. This group holds regular meetings with member countries to discuss strategies for increasing production of SAF.The United States also released its own version of the Jet Zero Strategy, called the Aviation Climate Action Plan, in 2021. A separate report commissioned by the government also estimated that developing SAFs would cost over $30 billion USD.Meanwhile, the EU put forward a proposal in April 2023 that set targets for aircraft operators, including one that 2% of aviation fuel be SAF by 2025.The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is also running a programme to help developing countries produce SAF. The list of countries receiving help includes India, South Africa, and Egypt. And in May 2022, the European Commission pledged to provide €4 million in support for the programme. Are hydrogen planes possible?Hydrogen-powered planes are possible, and we could start using them as soon as 2035. However, the main challenge isn’t getting them in the air, it’s producing enough hydrogen fuel and hydrogen infrastructure to meet the current demand for flights.Airbus – a European aerospace company – is one of the leading developers of hydrogen-powered planes, and has promised to have them ready to fly by 2035.But the company has admitted that this plan might already be delayed because of a lack of supply of green hydrogen.Green hydrogen is the cleanest form of hydrogen, and is considered carbon-free because it’s produced using renewable electricity. Other categories of hydrogen, such as blue, grey, or brown hydrogen, aren’t considered carbon-free because they rely on gas to produce them.To achieve net zero aviation using hydrogen, aeroplanes would need to be powered by green hydrogen.Other companies that are developing hydrogen-powered aircrafts include ZeroAvia and Universal Hydrogen, which are both startups. SummaryCreating a sustainable aviation industry is not only crucial for the UK to achieve net zero emissions, it’s also an important part of slowing down global warming.But whether the UK achieves its jet zero goal will largely depend on how much it’s willing to fund the research and development of new aviation technology and infrastructure.The impact of using alternative fuels also needs to be carefully considered. There’s no certainty yet that flying hydrogen- or biofuel-powered planes won’t also have a warming effect on the atmosphere, even if these alternative fuels produce less CO2. Written by: Tatiana Lebreton Tatiana has written about multiple environmental topics, including heat pumps, energy-efficient household products, and solar panels. She is dedicated to demystifying green tech to make eco-friendly living more accessible.