Aviation emissions are to be the biggest issue facing the airline industry in the 2020s - the anti-flying movement has gained greater momentum in the past year. This comes almost as a surprise, but it should not have. This is a story that has been brewing for years. In particular, flight shaming, the practice of “shaming” individuals into not flying, will become more important in Europe.
A young Swedish girl has captured the imagination of much of the public and given a major boost to the environmental movement. It is a grass roots, individual-responsibility call to action, which makes it potentially far more pervasive than typically slowly developed regulatory and legislative initiatives. It has already seemingly had an impact on air travel in Sweden, as passenger numbers and airline capacity have declined in 2019 – at the same time as most other European countries continued to grow. The battle has escalated extraordinarily rapidly in Europe – and airlines are fragmented.
Attempts at a global consensus are – understandably – lagging. IATA, previously a proud leader in developing an industry standard of halving emissions by 2050 (more or less in line with the Paris Agreement goals), has quickly been overtaken by events. Over the European summer, with the usually quiet news period fuelling Sweden’s Greta Thunberg momentous sailing trip across the North Atlantic – instead of flying – for a UN Climate Summit in New York. There will be few, in Europe at least, who have not seen or heard her say “how dare you!” to complacent politicians and others.
Most recently, in late-Nov-2019, easyJet trumped the market by announcing that it would, with immediate effect, go carbon neutral.
“We’re the first major airline to offset the carbon emissions from the fuel used for every single flight,” said easyJet. Sweden’s regional airline, BRA Braathens Regional Airlines, was actually the first to do this. The measure will reportedly cost easyJet GBP25 million in the first year of operation. Its move is highly unlikely to remain ‘unique’ for long.
At government level a set of recommendations has now been presented to the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (the CCC), an independent, statutory body established under the Climate Change Act 2008 to look across the board. In mid-2019, the CCC commissioned a report from London’s Imperial College. The resulting academic report recommends the government should “introduce an Air Miles Levy which escalates as a function of air miles travelled by the individual traveller” (and “factors in larger emissions for first class tickets”), adding, “This would send strong price signals against 15% of the UK population responsible for 70% of flights…It would also encourage shifting from long haul to short haul leisure destinations…”
More threateningly in many ways, as airlines across the board rapidly improve their revenue streams through leveraging frequent flyer programmes, the report recommends “Introduc(ing) a ban on air miles and frequent flyer programmes that incentivise excessive flying.”
Although it is an academic report and a long way from becoming legislation, it was commissioned by a key government authority. Perhaps more importantly, it has been seized upon by the media and by climate activists.
Whatever happens in the Dec-2019 UK General Election, the outcome is likely to produce some form of populist government, which would probably be eager to take up recommendations that make it appear to be taking the lead on such a crucial and popular issue.
As a result, the recommendations need to be treated with more care than would usually attend an academic report.
easyJet's stance is undoubtedly and admirable one but the danger is that - as has been commented on before - that air transport is, for politicians especially, an easy target.
Yet there has also been no acknowledgement (however grudging) of the benefits brought not only to the UK, but also globally, that commercial aviation provides.
Our ability, as free people living in free and democratic societies, is under threat from politicians eager to be seen to be doing something about anything, to seize upon any opportunity to garner 'popular' votes. Especially from those who shout the loudest.
That the world needs to pay attention to humanity's ability to poison the atmosphere is not in dispute. However, little will be gained by making people's ability to travel and do business more costly. The reverse is surely the case - the emphasis needs to be placed on continuing to develop cleaner, more energy-efficient engines to power the aircraft that link countries and their people to each other.
easyJet plans to become the first major airline to operate net zero carbon flights across its entire network after confirming this week that it will offset the carbon emissions from the fuel used for all of its flights, with immediate effect. This will cost the airline an estimated GBP25 million a year, but taking the lead in responding to growing flight shame movement in Europe may ultimately be worth even more to the carrier.
Air France and British Airways have recently announced they would offset emissions on domestic flights within France and the United Kingdom, respectively, while Lufthansa and others are offering passengers the option to pay extra for the environmental impact of their flights. easyJet says it will undertake carbon offsetting through schemes accredited by the Gold Standard and VCS. These schemes will include forestry, renewable and community based projects.
As the industry still works to find a collaborative solution, easyJet says its carbon offsetting will remain “only an interim measure” while new technologies are developed. It says it will “continue to support innovative technology, including the development of hybrid and electric planes, working with others across the industry to reinvent and de-carbonise aviation over the long-term”.
To support this, easyJet has signed an MoU with Airbus to jointly research hybrid and electric aircraft. The airline and manufacturer will cooperate in three different areas to define the impacts and requirements necessary for the large scale introduction of sustainable aircraft on infrastructure and everyday commercial aircraft operations.
The partnership supports the two years of work already completed by easyJet and US start up company, Wright Electric, which will continue alongside this new collaboration. This has been working to produce an all-electric ‘easyJet sized’ plane which could be used for short haul flights. easyJet is also already working with Rolls Royce and Safran on new technologies to reduce the carbon footprint of flying.
easyJet says it will also aim to stimulate innovation in carbon reduction by supporting the development of technologies which will enable hybrid electric and electric planes and championing advanced carbon capture technologies. “We will look to use these technologies as well as sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) as they become available and commercially viable,” it confirms.
In 2013 easyJet established a public target to reduce its carbon emissions per passenger kilometre. The target was strengthened in 2015 to a 10% reduction on carbon emissions per passenger kilometre by 2022 on its 2016 performance.
Since 2000 easyJet has achieved a reduction in carbon emissions for each kilometre flown by a passenger by over a third (33.67%). Initiatives have included introducing light weight carpets, trolleys and seats, single engine taxiing and removing paper manuals from aircraft.
With the move to electric technology still in development and a longer term goal, easyJet plans additional short and medium term actions to drive a reduction in carbon emissions. This, it says, could include the introduction of technologies such as e-taxiing and electric APUs and the reduction of carbon emissions from easyJet’s non-flying activities through, for example, the use of renewable energy.
“We also plan to encourage both governments and industry to focus in this area, most notably on airspace efficiency improvements and ensuring that the regulatory regime supports further reductions in emissions by incentivising more efficient flying and supporting innovation – for example through tax incentives,” it adds.
Climate change is an issue for us all and flight shaming is already having a significant impact on the aviation industry as passenger habits begin to change as this movement gains momentum.
Images - Tyler McDowell
London's Heathrow Airport's expansion plan is also under fire for increase in emissions. yet the airport is also in the forefront of efforts to reduce these as well as noise.
Read its history and observartions in Kevan James' book,
Heathrow Airport 70 Years and Counting,
available now at £19.99: