Fearghal O’Connor: Ryanair’s huge numbers show the size of aviation’s climate problem

Imagine a barrel of oil. Now, imagine 50 million barrels of oil. That’s the size of the problem that just one airline – Ryanair – must overcome if it is to be truly sustainable in the years to come.

Last week the airline revealed it had swung to an annual profit of €1.43bn as travel demand bounced back and it continued to grow its dominance of the European market. It is a truly impressive performance.

But the annual results also contain some other very big numbers that highlight the immense challenge that the entire aviation industry – not just Ryanair – faces in the years and decades to come.

Ryanair spent €3.9bn on fuel last year. It hedged a good chunk of its fuel at $89 (€83) a barrel. So – very roughly – that’s the equivalent of just under 50 million barrels. Calculating the emissions from any particular flight is complex. But when jet fuel burns inside even the most efficient engine, as an aircraft ferries passengers back and forth for business, pleasure and all the other crucial and not-so-crucial reasons we now take to the skies for, it will spew out a lot of CO2.

The impact of Ireland’s success in aviation was evident in Eurostat’s latest quarterly emissions figures. This country had the largest increase in greenhouse gas emissions in the EU last year. The State’s emissions were estimated to have increased by 12.3pc, one of just four EU member states to increase emissions annually. The reason? The post-Covid rebound in business for Irish airlines.

There is, it must be said, debate about this calculation. Eurostat counts emissions from domestic European flights as accruing to an airline’s home country tally but does not count the emissions on flights leaving the EU. So, in other words, a Ryanair flight from Warsaw to Milan will count towards Ireland’s tally but a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to New York is not. That means Ryanair’s big European operation contributes more to the statistics even if the much bigger jets flown by Europe’s longhaul giants are contributing more – in carbon terms – to the skies.

And highlighting the carbon problem facing aviation is not to pick on Ryanair. In fact, when it comes to sustainability, Ryanair is at the very top of the pile.

It leads the way when it comes to partnerships with the big aviation fuel suppliers on adding biofuel to its fuel mix. It spends money on innovations such as new wing tips that lower emissions from its fleet. And, most importantly, Ryanair continues to spend massive amounts of cash on buying the latest and most sustainable aircraft, Its most recent purchase involves 300 new Boeing 737-MAX-10 aircraft that burn 20pc less fuel than those they will ultimately replace.

It is, in a very real way, prioritising capital expenditure ahead of satisfying the clamour from its shareholders for a dividend that would undoubtedly push up its share price. Indeed, both Ryanair and Aer Lingus have targeted net zero emissions by 2050.

But removing carbon from the aviation mix is slow, complicated and expensive. If the worst fears of climate scientists come to fruition and innovation does not keep up, what impact will that have on aviation? Where would aviation be in a world that demands a reckoning on the real cost of burning a barrel of oil?

Betting that aviation can weather an increasingly disruptive climate storm is a bet that technology and innovation can keep pace.

There are other dirtier, more problematic industry sectors. But aviation – with its low fares, high volume, highly visible business model that promotes travel that often is not strictly necessary – will face a particular pressure if the climate hits the tipping point that keeps scientists awake at night.

There are hints already as to how that would play out. The Dutch government has proposed a reduction in the number of flights to and from Europe’s fourth busiest airport, Amsterdam-Schiphol, from 500,000 a year to 440,000 a year by the end of 2024, 11pc less than in 2019. The move hit a speed bump in April when a Dutch court ruled on procedural grounds in favour of IATA, KLM and other airlines in their bid to stop the measure for at least the coming year.

But the direction of travel is clear. Closer to home, Dublin Airport faces scrutiny on the use of its new runway in the shape of potential planning enforcement. That move relates to noise problems rather than carbon emissions but shows how pressure on environmental issues from local residents and councillors can begin to put very real limitations on the sector.

Airports as well as airlines are, no doubt, very mindful of how difficult things could become. Last week, DAA, for example, announced a new incentive to lower landing fees for airlines that use more fuel–efficient aircraft.

That could suit an airline such as Ryanair, that has both the desire and financial wherewithal to keep setting standards in cutting back on the fuel it burns. But no one should underestimate the challenges that lie ahead.

Get ahead of the day with the morning headlines at 7.30am and Fionnán Sheahan’s exclusive take on the day’s news every afternoon, with our free daily newsletter.

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