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Scientists warn guilt-free flying remains out of reach in the UK

A new report from the Royal Society has found that sustainable aviation solutions still need a great deal more research, resources, and investment before Britain can meet its ‘jet zero’ targets.

Unless you’re a member of the Kardashian family, you’ll know that flying is terrible for the environment.

Although it’d be unrealistic to assume we may eventually give it up altogether, foregoing this mode of transport – which accounts for 2.5 per cent of global atmospheric pollution – is one of the most impactful things we, as individuals, can do to reduce our carbon footprints.

Alas, air travel is convenient, fast, and (most often) cost-effective.

Which is why in the fight to prevent the Earth from heating any further, the responsibility shouldn’t fall on us alone to limit the quantity of fossil fuels being burned to power the 9,700 plus planes that are in the sky at any given moment.

Unfortunately, according to a new report from the Royal Society, it doesn’t look like those in power are on track to tackle this issue anytime soon.

In the UK, at least, where guilt-free flying remains out of reach because a great deal more research, resources, and investment is required before Britain can meet its ‘jet zero’ targets.

Chart showing emissions from different modes of transport

As the Royal Society explains, the nation would have to devote half its farmland or almost triple its total renewable electricity to make enough aviation fuel to achieve these ambitions.

Yet there doesn’t exist a single, clear, sustainable alternative to traditional kerosene fuel that could support the current level of flying (the demand for which is expected to increase in the coming year).

‘We need to be very clear about the strengths, limitations, and challenges that must be addressed and overcome if we are to scale up the required new technologies in a few short decades,’ says Graham Hutchings, chair of the report working group.

‘We need consistency, and we need to apply this globally, because adopting any of these new technologies will create demands and pressures for land, renewable energy or other products that may have knock on environmental or economic effects.’

Looking at four replacement options – hydrogen, biofuels, synthetic fuels, and ammonia – the study concluded that none could do so in the short-term.

To produce enough biofuel (which is made from crops), half of the UK’s agricultural areas would need to be used, which would put pressure on food supplies country-wide.

Additionally, making sufficient hydrogen or ammonia would require well over double Britain’s entire renewable electricity generation capacity and synthetic fuels (which are made by capturing and converting CO2 from the air) would require five to eight times today’s UK capacity.

The Royal Society said the findings underscored the challenges of decarbonising aviation, and that a significant amount of work on how such fuels are stored and handled is essential for future efforts, as well as their actual environmental impacts in production and when used in flight.

‘There is no magic bullet, but by modernising airspace to make flying more efficient, by introducing new zero emission technology like hydrogen aircraft and by upscaling the use of sustainable aviation fuels this decade, it can be achieved,’ said a spokesperson for the industry in response.

‘The sector is working closely with the government to maximise both the environmental and huge economic opportunities from leading the jet zero transition.’

All hope isn’t lost, however, because the Royal Society argues that a long-term solution will probably be developed, but that it will require planes and airports to be redesigned.

It’s calling for a more thorough investigation into the problem, suggesting that the UK could become a world leader in this sphere if it invested in solving it.