Net zero and the role of the aviation industry

How flying less frequently and less far can buy time for decarbonization solutions
Research paper Published 15 November 2023 Updated 17 November 2023 ISBN: 978 1 78413 592 8 DOI: 10.55317/9781784135928
Aircraft stranded at London Gatwick airport

With growing uncertainty over the approach to net zero, the airline industry is struggling to find a sustainable way of reducing its carbon emissions. Global efforts to stay within the 1.5°C temperature target of the Paris Agreement are off-track, and extreme weather events are more common than ever. While the aviation sector is a critical contributor to the global economy and provides important benefits enabling travel around the world, the sector is notoriously difficult to decarbonize.

Most supply-side options for reducing aviation carbon emissions – such as zero-emissions aircraft and sustainable aviation fuels – are yet to be scaled and are still at the R&D phase. In the context of dwindling carbon budgets, this paper assesses the possibility of managing the demand for flights in order to set the sector on an achievable path for reaching net zero.

The model developed for this paper generates different scenarios that consider the main supply-side decarbonization solutions. The assessment notes the ‘acceptable’ level of aviation demand under each scenario to remain within carbon budgets. The model demonstrates that acting prudently, and reducing demand for flights in the short term, would offer the best chance of enabling the sector to play its role in achieving net zero.