Flying more sustainably? Michael O’Leary, CEO of the Irish budget airline Ryanair, knows how. “The biggest step you can take to reduce your emissions is to stop flying with airlines like British Airways (BA) and Lufthansa.
Anyone who switches to Ryanair, O’Leary said Monday at a conference in Brussels, will reduce their carbon footprint by “50 percent on flights in Europe”. According to the Irishman, his devices are much younger than those of the competitors. And the newer, the less emissions.
The battle between O’Leary and Europe’s national airline companies has been going on for years. In 2019, Lufthansa boss Carsten Spohr called Ryanair’s rock bottom prices “economically, environmentally and politically irresponsible”. According to Spohr, Ryanair’s dirt-cheap fares encourage “unnecessary” air travel, making aviation an easy target for climate activists.
Who is right? And what can the air passenger do with it?
First, the age of the aircraft. According to website Airfleets.net, Ryanair’s aircraft, approximately three hundred, are on average 10.9 years old. That is slightly younger than that of BA (13 years), KLM (11.7 years) and Air France (14.5 years). Lufthansa’s aircraft are 9.2 years old. Ryanair is working on a major renewal of its fleet. This winter 55 Boeing 737 Max aircraft will be delivered.
During the conference in Brussels, O’Leary denounced the climate programs that airlines use to compensate passengers for their emissions. According to him, last year only 1 percent of his travelers wanted to pay more for CO2to buy off emissions. According to O’Leary, customers only want one thing: low rates. He sees more in a mandatory CO2-levy for the entire aviation.
Now carbon offset plays, carbon offset, an important role in aviation’s strategy to become carbon neutral by 2050. Now, but also in thirty years. Cleaner fuels and more fuel-efficient aircraft cannot eliminate all emissions.
The idea is simple and sympathetic: book a ticket, plant a tree. Buy a stove for a family in Africa. Subsidize a windmill in India. The polluter pays, in this case all passengers of an aircraft together.
Does that work? That is difficult to answer. If you want to calculate the emissions of your flight and then fully compensate for them, you should love apples and pears, beer coasters and cigar boxes.
An example: one-way Amsterdam-Alicante. You can get a ticket to the Costa Blanca from 37 euros, comparison sites say. If you want to buy off your emissions, you pay 2.62 euros extra at KLM. That goes to forestry in Panama. Whoever flies from London to Alicante wrote the Financial Times last, can compensate his (return) flight from London with BA for 2 euros; Ryanair charges 5.67 euros.
According to the KLM site, a single Amsterdam-Alicante ticket costs 62 liters of fuel per passenger, which amounts to 154 kilos of CO.2. That doesn’t seem like much: the Dutch comparison site FlyGRN reports 500 kilos of CO2, “5 percent of the average annual consumption of a Dutch person”. The German Atmosfair.de even comes out at 915 kilos.
Now not everyone calculates in the same way. For example, the flight type can sometimes differ. And sometimes the emissions are omitted at higher altitudes. However, it seems clear that aviation charges little money per ton of CO . emitted2. For BA and KLM that is roughly 10 euros, for Ryanair 18 euros. Other companies – for example buying emission rights in the EU emissions trading system – now lose roughly 70 euros per tonne. On this basis, calculated on a beer mat, the market price for the CO2-emissions per passenger to Alicante approximately 35 euros – half a ton of CO2, the middle of the three estimates. That is almost as much as the cheapest ticket.
The low CO2price is not the only criticism of voluntary compensation in aviation. This carbon offset comes afterwards. Your flight is now emitting greenhouse gas, but ‘your’ tree will only absorb enough CO . in (decades) years2 on. Moreover: will that tree continue to do this for the rest of its life or will it disappear in a fireplace after a few years? And can you count the cooking appliances, windmills and biogas installations that are funded as extra effort? Or do countries count this against their own climate targets?
Critics praise the side effects – who cooks on a stove, do not have to light an open fire indoors, breathe healthier air – but the claims that airlines derive from their climate projects are not always substantiated.
Research by Greenpeace and The Guardian from May shows that there is a lot of uncertainty about projects that BA, easyJet and Delta support in developing countries. According to the researchers, aviation should in any case not advertise ‘climate neutral flying’.
„We find CO2compensation is currently the best interim solution for our industry,” said an easyJet spokesperson. “All our projects undergo a rigorous selection led by independent experts. We only choose projects that are Gold Standard or VCS certified.” Both are commonly used certificates; the Gold Standard is supported by the World Wildlife Fund.
EasyJet is the only major European airline to use the CO2emissions for all flights. “Without extra costs for our customers,” said the spokesperson. Passengers cannot choose themselves. Since the start of the program at the end of 2019, this has cost easyJet almost EUR 30 million per year.
Planting trees will only lead to a reduction in years to come, while we now have a very urgent climate problem
Koenraad Backers program leader aviation of the organization Natuur & Milieu
Koenraad Backers, aviation program leader of the organization Natuur & Milieu, shares the objections to most compensation programmes. “Planting trees will only lead to a reduction in years to come, while we now have a very urgent climate problem.” He calls many programs “very intransparent” and “not very effective”.
Backers sees more in letting passengers pay to fly on more sustainable kerosene (sustainable aviation fuel, SAF). According to him, SAF produces 65 to 70 percent less CO2emissions. This is possible at KLM and Lufthansa, among others. “In this way you invest in making aviation more sustainable, instead of in projects outside it. You increase the demand for cleaner fuel.” Very little is flown on it at the moment. Less than 0.1 percent of all kerosene used is SAF. That keeps the price high. Backers: “But let’s not see SAF as the holy grail for making aviation more sustainable. The range is and remains far too small for that. Flying significantly less is the only way to achieve the climate goals.”
Greenpeace sees little in biokerosene. In response to an aviation plan during the climate summit in Glasgow, the environmental organization says that aviation “relies too much on techniques that do not yet exist or will not be available in the coming years”. With ‘compensation’ you do not undo the damage to the climate, according to Greenpeace. “Policymakers should ban short-haul flights if a good alternative is available,” said Greenpeace campaign manager Klara Maria Schenk. “They need to invest in trains to build a transportation system that is good for the planet, affordable and accessible to everyone.”
Will air travelers increasingly opt for the train in the coming years? The Knowledge Institute for Mobility (KIM) of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management does not yet see this happening on a large scale. “Not the train, but the car, is the main competitor of the plane at distances of up to 750 km,” the KIM wrote in a new study last week. “Measures aimed at getting people off the plane are expected to lead to more car kilometers rather than more train kilometers.” According to the KIM, the space created at airports that are close to the capacity limits (Schiphol, Eindhoven) will probably be filled by flights over longer distances. „The vast majority of the CO2emissions from aviation are in long-haul flights, not short-haul flights.”
Book a ticket, plant a tree? It’s not that simple
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