RAF chief: ‘We’ll hit net zero by 2040’

The Royal Air Force (RAF) is planning to meet the government’s net zero carbon emissions target a decade early, according to air chief marshal Mike Wigston, the force’s top commander.

In an interview with the US-based DefenseNews website, he said that this means that all British military aircraft will be zero-emissions within two decades, and he will be pushing for allies to take similar action.

“I recognize that sounds crazy to some, that we’ve got an Air Force chief talking about being net zero,” Wigston said. “But I think the imperative is clear: our politicians will demand it of us, are demanding of us. Our public demands it of us. And the young people in the Royal Air Force today demand it of me and the leadership, that we should be taking a lead in this.”

The RAF’s official deadline remains 2050, in line with the UK as a whole. But Wigston said he has a “hunch” that both the public and politicians will press for that deadline to be brought forward as climate change continues to bite, so it would be wise to prepare in advance.

“That will require additional investment. It will require me diverting investment from equipment and platforms into infrastructure and into how we operate,” Wigston said. “But I think that’s a price that we’re going to have to accept that we’re going to have to pay, and I see a leading role for the Royal Air Force in that,” he said.

The commitment is not insignificant. Two thirds of the military’s fuel is consumed by aircraft, while the Ministry of Defence accounts for half of all government emissions. Recognising this, a new aviation fuel standard was introduced in November, allowing the likes of F-35 jets and Chinook helicopters to fly on 50% sustainable fuels, such as from waste fats, biomass or even household waste. The move should also give civilian aviation more confidence in using them, the ministry said, and hence promote investment by industry.

Related to this effort is the government’s civilian sector Jet Zero Council, Wigston noted. “A large part of that is about commercializing synthetic fuel production and making sure that it’s available at the pumps around the civil airspace infrastructure. So military air forces can take advantage.”

Wigston hopes to extend the 50% standard across the world’s air forces, and said he will be in discussions with his counterparts across the world over the next few months.

“The way we power our aircraft, the way we power our bases, the way we talk to our supply chain, [to] our industrial suppliers about their carbon and sustainable practices, are all going to be things that are important for all air forces,” he said. “And it’s something that I want the Royal Air Force to take a lead in, and it’s something that I will be coming back to with my fellow air chiefs around the world to reach a common understanding of what we’ve got to do. And then declare a common ambition of how we will get there,” the marshal added.

His comments, given during a recent visit to Washington DC, came shortly after the US-hosted Leaders Summit on Climate. During it, American defense secretary Lloyd Austin described the climate crisis as “a profoundly destabilizing force for the world” by threatening millions in Africa and Central America with drought, hunger and displacement.

Austin also admitted that the ‘Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach’ adopted last month by the UK military “raises the bar” on how to operate more sustainably while advancing capabilities and resilience. “The benefits of action extend well beyond the climate, and include opportunities to improve our own operations. For example, when we operate more sustainably, we become more logistically agile and ready to respond to crises,” he said.

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