Net-zero aviation requires ‘enormous’ amount of agricultural land or renewables

3rd March 2023

A huge amount of agricultural land or renewable electricity would be required to produce the sustainable fuel needed to deliver net-zero emissions for the UK’s aviation sector.

That is according to a new report from the Royal Society, which warns that there is “no single, clear, sustainable alternative to jet fuel” able to support flying at today’s levels with net-zero emissions.

It estimates that meeting existing aviation demand entirely with biofuels would require around half of UK agricultural land, while producing sufficient green hydrogen fuel would require 2.4 - 3.4 times the country’s wind and solar electricity generated in 2020.

The findings underscore the challenges of decarbonising the growing aviation sector, which last year agreed a ‘long-term aspirational goal’ for net-zero emissions by 2050.

“Research and innovation are vital tools for the delivery of net zero,” said Professor Graham Hutchings, Regius Professor of Chemistry at Cardiff University, and chair of the report’s working group.

“But 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.”

UK aviation – both international and domestic – accounted for 8% of the country's greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, while global aviation CO2 emissions represented 2.4% of the world's total.

The Royal Society report explores resource availability challenges, likely costs, life-cycle impacts, infrastructure requirements and outstanding research questions across green hydrogen, biofuels, ammonia and synthetic fuels.

It also identifies significant research requirements in scaling up net-zero fuels, from storage and handling, to environmental impacts.

Addressing these challenges requires global coordination, particularly for navigating the transition period between current and future generation aircraft, according to the report.

“How fossil fuel alternatives are produced is critical, as is how we measure their sustainability across the entire cycle of their use,” said Professor Marcelle McManus, Director of the Institute for Sustainability at the University of Bath.

“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.”

Photo by Emanuel on Unsplash

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