Carbon offsetting is gaining momentum as a way for businesses – and individuals – to minimise their environmental impact. But is it enough, Megan Ramsay asks
An easyJet spokesperson says: “We recognise that carbon emissions from air travel contribute to climate change, so we have a responsibility to minimise the impact of our flights – it’s the right thing to do”.
There is certainly a widespread consensus on that point. But some individuals believe ‘the right thing to do’ is rather more radical: a reduction in aviation activity itself.
The so-called ‘flight shaming’ movement aims to persuade the travelling public to use alternative modes of transport that have a lower environmental impact, or to travel less far or less often – or not at all.
From video conferencing to ‘stay-cations’ to near-sourcing of goods and materials, there are certainly options that could cut aviation-related emissions at a stroke if sufficient numbers of individuals and businesses were to change their habits.
But International Air Transport Association (IATA) director general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac says: “I don’t believe that there is shame in flying. I do believe that we must reduce emissions to make flying sustainable.”
easyJet CEO Johan Lundgren is keen to emphasise that people have a choice regarding how they travel. While passengers are now thinking about the potential carbon impact of different types of transport, many still opt for air over other modes – “and if people choose to fly we want to be one of the best choices they can make”, he says.
According to Karima Delli, Member of the European Parliament and Chair of Committee on Transport and Tourism, “aviation currently accounts for 3% of global carbon emissions and long-term forecasts indicate that air traffic is expected to continue increasing” despite the flight shaming movement.
Other commentators put that figure at 2%. Either way: “Science clearly tells us that of all the greenhouse gases, CO2 is the top contributor to climate change,” says de Juniac. “And that is why it has been the focus of aviation’s climate action.”
IATA’s commitments include improving the industry’s fuel efficiency by 1.5% annually to 2020; capping emissions with carbon neutral growth from 2020; and cutting net emissions to half 2005 levels by 2050.
easyJet is among the airlines working towards those targets. In November 2019, the low-cost carrier became the world’s first major airline to operate net-zero carbon flights across its entire network, by offsetting the carbon emissions from the fuel used for all of its flights – approximately 3.157kg of CO2 for every kilogram of aviation fuel used.
According to easyJet: “By funding projects which directly reduce carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, we compensate for the CO2 easyJet emits into the atmosphere. This is done either by reducing CO2 by physically removing it from the air (eg, by planting more trees) or by avoiding the release of CO2 that would have otherwise been emitted were it not for the project.”
Elsewhere, International Airline Group’s (IAG) ambition to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 involves several initiatives, including British Airways investing in carbon reduction projects – such as solar energy projects and forestation programmes – in order to offset the carbon emissions from all of its UK domestic flights from the start of 2020.
Of course, airlines do not operate in isolation. Willie Walsh, still chief executive at IAG at the time of writing, remarks: “In addition to our own initiatives, there must be a global solution and we’re participating in the new United Nations’ aviation offsetting scheme which allows our industry to invest in carbon reduction in other sectors.”
That scheme, named CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation), will enable the global aviation industry to cut its CO2 emissions by 2.5 billion tonnes between 2020 and 2035 through US$40 billion investment in carbon reduction projects, IAG says.
According to de Juniac, CORSIA is crucial to achieving carbon-neutral growth in the aviation industry. Although there have been “tremendous efficiency improvements” he concedes that “the increase in flights due to the demand to fly has outstripped these efficiency gains” – but adds: “Through offsetting, the industry can cap its net emissions at 2020 levels, until technology levels create the conditions to reduce aircraft emissions at source.”
While carbon offsetting is a popular means for businesses to fulfil their corporate social responsibilities, the approach is not without its critics. It has been described as ‘greenwashing’ or a ‘band-aid’ that allows the root problem of CO2 emissions to continue unchecked.
There are concerns over how meaningful it is to compare long-term projects such as reforestation with the more immediate effects of the flights they are intended to offset. Plus, it is possible that such projects might reduce biodiversity – also a worry with regard to cultivating plants for the production of biofuels.
In addition, there are a multitude of criteria for calculating the quantity of carbon emitted on any given flight taking a particular route using a certain type of aircraft, making this a potentially inexact science.
And while CO2 is the most problematic greenhouse gas, it is not the only harmful substance produced by aviation operations.
In its European Aviation Environmental Report 2019, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) says that besides CO2, the main pollutants emitted by aircraft engines are nitrogen oxides (NOX), sulphur oxides (SOX), unburnt hydrocarbons (HC), carbon monoxide (CO), particulate matter (PM) and soot.
Offsetting or reducing CO2 does not necessarily reduce these other emissions at the same time.
Given the shortcomings of offsetting, Forum for the Future co-founder Jonathon Porritt says that “it will be important to seek out each and every way of reducing carbon emissions”.
Lundgren agrees. “Carbon offsetting is only an interim measure while new technologies are developed, so easyJet will continue to support innovative technology, including the development of hybrid and electric planes, working with others across the industry to reinvent and decarbonise aviation over the long term.”
Examples of new technology available right now to airlines include more efficient aircraft. IAG, for instance, will replace older aircraft in its fleet with 142 new planes over the next five years. “These [aircraft] are up to 25% more carbon efficient than those they replace,” the group says.
New York-based JetBlue has 85 new Airbus A321neo aircraft on order, which will help reduce the airline’s carbon emissions through improved fuel economy.
Flying existing equipment more efficiently can also reduce emissions. IATA’s Turbulence Aware data sharing programme, launched in December 2018, helps airlines avoid turbulence. This makes for a safer, smoother flight – as well as optimising fuel efficiency.
Chris Goater, assistant director, corporate communications at IATA, explains: “A study by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University reported that turbulence results in an additional 160 million gallons of fuel per year for US carriers alone. So there would seem to be a clear environmental benefit from adopting Turbulence Aware or similar systems.
“It’s important to note that the system does not route aircraft around turbulence – it enables aircraft to fly at an optimum flight level more often, avoiding constant changes in flight level to avoid turbulence,” Goater points out.
Delta Air Lines has reported that its own turbulence awareness system has led to a reduction in carbon emissions of around 80,000 metric tons in a year.
In a similar vein, Airbus has unveiled fello’fly, a project inspired by biomimicry that aims to demonstrate the technical, operational and commercial viability of two aircraft flying together for long-haul flights.
“Through fello’fly, a follower aircraft will retrieve the energy lost by the wake of a leader aircraft, by flying in the smooth updraft of air it creates. This provides lift to the follower aircraft allowing it to decrease engine thrust and therefore reduce fuel consumption in the range of 5-10% per trip,” Airbus says.
The airframe manufacturer is due to commence flight tests with two of its A350 aircraft in 2020.
Reducing weight onboard also makes a difference to fuel burn. easyJet’s Recaro seats, for example, are 26% lighter than previous seats. Plus, its pilots use Panasonic Toughpads rather than laptops and printed navigational charts. This switch has removed 27kg of paper from each aircraft, delivering a reduction of over 2,000 tonnes of carbon emissions for easyJet each year.
And then there is alternative fuel. JetBlue – which is to offset the CO2 emissions of its domestic flights from July 2020 – will begin flying with sustainable fuels out of San Francisco International Airport later this year.
The carrier will use Neste MY Renewable Jet Fuel, which is produced from waste and residue raw materials. Over its lifecycle, its carbon footprint is up to 80% smaller compared to fossil jet fuel.
JetBlue views SAF as a critical part of the industry’s transition to a lower carbon model and hopes its decision to use Neste’s fuel will help “to kick-start the SAF market and lead the economics on these lower carbon fuels”.
AirBP, the aviation fuel division of petroleum giant BP, notes that the challenge is to increase the scale and efficiency of production of SAF. Its BP Biojet fuel, made from sustainable feedstocks such as waste oils or biomass, is available at 15 airports around the world. AirBP was the first operator to supply SAF in 2016 (at Oslo airport).
IAG, meanwhile, is to invest US$400 million in SAF over the next 20 years. This includes British Airways’ partnership with Velocys to build Europe’s first household waste to jet fuel plant in the UK. Starting operations in 2024, the plant will produce sustainable fuel that emits 70% less CO2 than fossil fuel.
Aircraft manufacturers are already working on developing hybrid and electric aircraft to enable a move away from fossil fuel dependency.
Start-up Wright Electric is working with easyjet to produce an all-electric 186-seater aircraft. Wright 1 could be used for short-haul flights by 2030.
easyJet has also entered into a partnership with Airbus to identify the technical challenges and requirements for electric and electric hybrid planes when deployed for short-haul flying around Europe.
“We hope this will be an important step towards making electric planes a reality,” says Lundgren, noting that battery technology is advancing rapidly.
For now, with aviation still dependent on fossil fuels, government support for decarbonisation is a must.
In particular, governments must reform aviation taxes to incentivise efficient behaviour, fund research and development in new technology and ensure that early movers such as easyJet are not penalised, Lundgren says.
Airlines and their partners are clearly aware that the current stop-gap of carbon offsetting is less than satisfactory, and are pulling out all the stops to cut CO2 emissions.
Some are even exploring new carbon capture technology. IAG is partnering with US company Mosaic Materials via the group’s start-up accelerator, Hangar 51. The start-up has created an innovative adsorbent material to remove CO2 emissions directly from the atmosphere.
Ultimately, if it is to persuade an increasingly environmentally conscious customer base to keep flying, “Aviation will have to reinvent itself as quickly as it can,” Lundgren says.