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24 November 2021

Head of the UK Air Force outlined ambitious Net Zero 2040 plans to audience at King's

Ideas being developed include plans for carbon-zero military aircraft by the end of the decade and greater use of alternative fuels.

CAS lecture 2

Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, yesterday shared his ambitious plans for making the UK Royal Air Force carbon neutral by 2040 to an audience at King’s College London and online.

He acknowledged the vital importance of tackling emissions produced by British air power, which accounts for just under half of the Ministry of Defence’s carbon footprint. Defence as a whole makes up almost half of the UK government’s emissions.

Responding to this significant challenge, Sir Mike outlined a number of cutting-edge initiatives being developed by the RAF. Most significantly, how to tackle emissions caused by jet fuel used to power aircraft, which accounts for up to three quarters of the RAF’s carbon footprint.

Solutions put forward in his lecture included the production of cutting-edge synthetic fuels, the use of sustainable aviation fuel, made from feedstocks such as ethanol or recycled waste oil, and the development of first zero emission aircraft powered by electric or hydrogen by the end of the decade, which he said “will be the first military registered and certified zero-carbon aircraft in the world.”

Hosted by the Freeman Air and Space Institute in the School of Security Studies at King’s, the lecture welcomed over 250 attendees in person and online to hear from the Chief of the Air staff about the RAF’s 2040 Net Zero challenge, 10 years head of the UK government.

Explaining this decision, Sir Mike said: “Some of you will also have heard me acknowledge that I could be seen as crazy, as an air and space chief, to be talking about sustainability. Five years ago, I would probably have agreed.

“But now, the imperative for change could not be clearer: our politicians demand it of us, our public demands it of us and the young people in the Royal Air Force today demand it of the leadership team and me.”

Sir Mike also discussed the ambition to establish Net Zero airbases, with the first planned to launch in 2025 at RAF Leeming in Yorkshire, powered by solar, geothermal and hydrogen energies. The adaptations aim to make the most of the large land area and infrastructure at RAF bases, with projects including the use of ground source heat pump technology for runway maintenance and installing solar cells on rooves of buildings.

On the benefits Net Zero will bring the air force, Sir Mike said:

“Our NetZero ambition will have the dual effect of reducing our impact on the environment, while also giving us a better understanding of how our people, equipment, critical resources and supply chains will need to adapt to operate in a climate-changed future environment.”

Sir Mike Wigston


Whilst he acknowledged the importance of the RAF making strides on this target, he also identified the ‘complex and wicked’ challenges ahead:

“I am conscious this is not something the Royal Air Force can achieve in isolation. It will take decades, it will require collaboration, it needs ambition, and we need to start now.”

A former graduate of the MA in Defence Studies in the Defence Studies Department at King’s, ACM Mike Wigston has served as Chief of the Air Staff since July 2019. Wigston was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) in the 2020 Birthday Honours.

The Chief of the Air Staff was the inaugural speaker in an annual lecture series hosted by the Freeman Air and Space Institute, a research centre dedicated to generating original knowledge and understanding of air and space security and defence issues.

Read the full version of his speech on the RAF's website

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