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Are airlines really ready for net zero?

21st November, 2019

Airlines currently seem to be jostling to come out with the most impressive headlines on climate commitments. EasyJet this week declared its aim to be the world’s first major airline to operate net-zero carbon flights across its entire network. Last month IAG announced that it was the first airline group in the world to commit to delivering net zero carbon emissions by 2050, quickly followed by Qantas making the same pledge, while both BA and Air France have committed to offsetting all emissions from their domestic flights.

Where’s all this come from?

Aviation conferences this year have, according to several media reports, been laced with murmurings about the growing threat posed to the industry by Flykskam, the Swedish concept of ‘flight shame’, which appears to have started to dent bookings in Sweden and perhaps elsewhere in Europe. Earlier this month, Alexandre de Juniac, head of the international airlines association IATA (who recently asked journalists at a press conference to “stop calling us polluters”) announced plans for “a very, very big campaign” to counter what he called “misleading information” about the climate change impacts of aviation. 

Public concern about the environment, and climate change in particular, is at an unprecedented high. People who have started to cut down on their plastic packaging, to switch away from meat and dairy, and to buy their electricity from renewable sources, are starting to think about the sustainability of their transport choices. Flying quickly stands out as a problematic. Not only is it currently a highly polluting activity (one transatlantic return flight can easily create more CO2 than any other activity in an individual’s annual carbon footprint), but it’s also going to be one of the hardest sectors to decarbonise in future.

Airline ‘net zero’ commitments are new territory for the industry. While many airports have longstanding commitments to be ‘carbon neutral’, historically these pledges have covered only the airport’s operations on the ground – from buildings and staff vehicles for example – and have excluded CO2 from the flights themselves. So what’s in these new airline targets, and do they actually take us forward?

Aviation and net zero emissions

‘Net zero’ is an important, but slippery, goal. Many governments, including the UK, and increasing numbers of large businesses, have pledged to get emissions to net zero by 2050. This is likely to require a massive shift towards renewable energy, sustainable home heating systems, and electrification of road vehicles. The Government’s climate experts estimate that if effectively implemented, these kinds of measures can cut the UK’s carbon emissions by around 96% compared to 1990.

Closing the gap between 96% and 100% will require the remaining emissions to be balanced by “carbon removals” – measures that take CO2 out of the atmosphere and lock it away. Tree planting is one example of a carbon removal measure, though it’s neither a quick nor a permanent solution (trees take time to grow, and when they die the CO2 is released again), and there’s a limit to how many we can plant and maintain. More long-term solutions that remove CO2 from the atmosphere and convert it into a form that can be stored permanently underground are scientifically possible, but we have yet to see if they can be delivered at scale. Aviation is predicted to have the highest remaining level of CO2 emission by 2050 of any sector in the UK, and therefore to be heavily reliant on carbon removals.

In terms of emissions from aircraft themselves, electrification is currently too far away to make a meaningful contribution to a 2050 target, and other technology improvements will deliver only incremental CO2 reductions. Genuinely zero carbon aviation ‘e-fuel’ is scientifically possible to produce with captured CO2, water and lots of renewable electricity, but likely to be extremely expensive and at a very early stage of development.

Airlines and offsets

When airlines say they are committing to net zero, however, they’re not – with the exception of IAG  – talking about investment in permanent carbon removals or in the development of e-fuel. They’re talking – very largely – about offsets.

Carbon offsets fall into two categories: tree planting (discussed above), and measures that reduce emissions in other sectors, such as installing solar panels or low-energy cookstoves in Africa. Many of these schemes are doubtless beneficial. But to get to a net zero future, carbon reduction measures like this will need to happen anyway – in addition to tackling aviation emissions.

Cait Hewitt says:

Buying offsets won’t stop CO2 being emitted by easyJet’s growing fleet of aircraft – those emissions will still take place and will continue to cause climate change. Pretending that offsetting is the same as ‘net zero emissions’ is dangerous, pushing the urgent questions about delivering genuine solutions into the long grass.

Offsets are pretty much the only thing airlines can do at the moment to cut their emissions. Because they don’t know how to eliminate CO2 from their flights, their best idea is to pay other sectors to do it instead, while they carry on burning fossil fuels, and airports keep expanding to meet growing consumer demand, with ticket prices kept low through tax exemptions and loopholes in environmental laws.

So what should airlines do?

 While the CCC has been consistent in calling for measures to limit demand, this is unlikely to be an action that airlines will embrace voluntarily. What, then, would be the kind of steps that would show an airline really was trying to meet the net zero challenge? Here are 3 ideas for starters:

  1. Tell the truth about the scale and cost of the challenge. Don’t let your use of offsets today – which are currently cheap and easily available – hide the fact that you don’t yet have the means to decarbonise flying and that the options available in future are likely to be expensive.
  2. Put some big money and lots of time into working out how to deliver genuine, scaleable, in-sector carbon reductions or removals that will work in the long term.
  3. Tell the Government you’re up for the challenge and ready to play your part in the UK’s net zero legislation. The UK’s official climate experts, the Committee on Climate Change, want aviation and shipping emissions to be included in the UK’s carbon budgets and our 2050 target (which, they say, should be met without offsets). The Government’s undecided on this, and the aviation industry has historically resisted it. If easyJet and others mean what they say in committing to net zero, they’ll surely be ready to be held to that pledge. Right?