EasyJet Ditches Carbon Offsetting in Favor of Actually Cutting Emissions

The budget carrier

EasyJet planes on a runway

Sean Gallup / Getty Images

EasyJet was one of the world's first airline carriers to offset its jet fuel emissions and operate net-zero carbon flights. It was a landmark decision and also controversial. Treehugger design editor Lloyd Alter noted the United Kingdom-based budget carrier's offset scheme is an example of offsetting serving as a fig leaf for continued emissions—providing folks with a permission structure to keep flying, even on routes where train travel was a far less polluting option. Now, EasyJet announced it is no longer offsetting its flights. 

“Today, we’re the first airline to outline an ambitious roadmap in which zero carbon emission technology plays a key role to take us to net-zero emissions by 2050 and ultimately to zero carbon emission flying across our entire fleet,” EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren said in a statement.

When I first read this news, I cynically assumed it was yet another example of a corporation quietly shelving an already inadequate sustainability measure. So I was encouraged to read that this is actually a manifestation of the company’s continued commitment to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050

So rather than paying for offsets that may or may not result in actual emissions reductions, EasyJet says it is shifting its focus specifically to direct reductions in actual operational emissions. That shift in focus includes:

  • Replacement of conventional, kerosene-fuelled planes with Airbus A320neos which are 15% more efficient
  • Retrofitting existing planes with technologies to optimize fuel burn and descent
  • Pushing airspace modernization to improve efficiency on routes
  • Purchases of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) as an interim solution
  • Eventual investment of fully carbon-free aircraft technologies such as hydrogen fuels

Ultimately, the airline says it should reach 35% reductions in emissions intensity by 2035 and 78% reductions by 2050. EasyJet says it will reach actual net-zero by that date through direct air capture of carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere.

Of course, of all industries, aviation is a space that has been extremely high on lofty sounding commitments and far-off goals. So it’s important to scrutinize such announcements carefully. 

Dan Rutherford, the shipping and aviation director at the International Council for Clean Transportation, tells Treehugger that, broadly speaking, EasyJet's commitments seem like a shift toward a more responsible form of corporate, climate sustainability.

“It seems positive in that they are ending offsetting, which as we know has come under considerable criticism," says Rutherford. "In its place, they are moving toward hydrogen and SAF targets, plus their Science-Based Target commitments."

"In that sense, it’s retiring a voluntary commitment to offset in favor of in-sector targets. This reflects the institutionalization of aviation targets—three years ago, there were no benchmarks or standards for airlines to certify to, so offsetting was the easy (and cheap) thing to do.”

Rutherford also pointed out the interim targets being presented—35% by 2035, for example—refer to emissions intensity rather than absolute emissions. That means, technically speaking, EasyJet could meet those targets and still emit more in 2035 than it does today—simply by either capturing more market share or, more worryingly, helping to increase demand for flying in general. (The unsaid part of EasyJet’s announcement is that low-cost airlines in Europe often operate on routes where trains are already a viable and readily available alternative.)

This is where we need to be really careful. While it’s hard to imagine a world where nobody flies anywhere, at least in the short term, we also have to remember that flying more efficiently and flying a lot less are not mutually exclusive goals.

In fact, a new report on the potential for frequent flyer levies to equitably advance sustainable aviation. According to the report, such a levy could result in a modest (7%) reduction in demand but raise significant revenue for low carbon aviation technologies and practices. And it would do so while raising 81% of revenue from frequent fliers, who represent just 2% of the global population and 90% from the richest 10% of the world population.

So yes, let’s hope more companies follow EasyJet’s lead and shift from vague and unverifiable offsetting claims to detailed, transparent, and measurable goals for actually reducing emissions. But let’s not let those announcements distract us from the reality that policy—including frequent flier levies, and supporting alternatives to aviation—can help further reduce emissions while the industry gets its act in gear. 

View Article Sources
  1. "Aviation Climate Finance Using A Global Frequent Flying Levy." International Council on Clean Transportation.