The transport secretary has announced plans for a ‘Jet Zero Council’ which will be asked to prove that net-zero emission transatlantic flying is possible “within a generation”.

Grant Shapps used the government’s daily coronavirus briefing to unveil the new group as he acknowledged the aviation sector has had “an impossible few months”.

“Despite these obvious challenges there’s a real determination within the industry to have a greener restart,” he said. “So we are bringing together leaders from aviation, environmental groups and government to form the Jet Zero Council.

“This group will be charged with making net zero emissions possible for future flights. Our goal, within a generation, will be to demonstrate flight across the Atlantic without harming the environment.”

Shapps said the government would be backing a company called Velocys that is building a plant for aviation biofuels in Lincolnshire, and a Cambridge University project accelerating technologies for zero-carbon flight.

“This crisis has tested our nation. Yet through adversity comes possibility. A greener transport future within our grasp,” Shapps said.

“The challenge is to make transport, currently our biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, part of the solution, not of the problem.”

Airlines UK chief executive Tim Alderslade, welcomed the announcement, saying: “It’s an excellent initiative and the Transport Secretary should be applauded for demonstrating such a willingness to work with the aviation industry to achieve our commitment to net zero emissions by 2050.

“There are huge opportunities for the UK to be a world-leader in sustainable aviation fuels production and electric aviation, creating thousands of high-skilled jobs and major export opportunities in the process. We’re looking forward to taking part.”

Manchester Airports Group, which has signed the industry’s commitment to reaching full net zero carbon by 2050, also backed the announcement.

A spokesman said: “This is a challenging target but one we can achieve by working collaboratively with Government. We therefore strongly welcome the new Jet Zero Council as a vital part of reaching that goal, and look forward to contributing to its work.”

Virgin Atlantic also welcomed the announcement, with a spokeswoman pointing out that UK airlines, airports and manufacturers signed up to the Sustainable Aviation Net Zero 2050 Roadmap in February.

She said: “The airline sector has a long and successful track record of cross industry collaboration, including on safety and sustainability. At Virgin Atlantic, being a sustainability leader is a core ambition of ours.

Virgin said it had reduced aircraft carbon emissions by 20% since 2007, and has invested billions of dollars to now fly a purely twin-engine fleet, as the first airline to fly sustainable aviation fuel in 2008 and has partnered with cleantech fuel company LanzaTech which is working on a demonstration plant to recycle gases from heavy industries into jet fuel.

“The Covid-19 global pandemic has led to unprecedented pressure on the aviation industry. However we know that as the crisis subsides, air travel will be a vital enabler of the UK’s economic recovery,” the spokeswoman added. “Building a dynamic, diverse sustainable fuel industry will require further public investment alongside industry commitments. With this support the UK has the opportunity to become a world leader in the sustainable aviation fuel industry, creating much needed jobs and GDP through export to other countries.”