With pressure continuing to mount on the aviation industry to get serious about its sizable carbon footprint, self-interested greenwashing remains the order of the day for many of the world’s major carriers, particularly European ones.
Commissioned by Greenpeace, a report by Observatorio RSC found that Europe’s seven largest airlines—Lufthansa, Air France-KLM, IAG (which represents Iberian Airlines and Aer Lingus), Ireland’s Ryanair, the UK’s easyJet, Scandinavia’s SAS, and TAP Air Portugal—are showing little sincere commitment to climate action, with corporate self-interest trumping responsibility to help keep global heating within livable bounds.
That responsibility is considerable. “Aviation was Europe’s second-largest contributor of transport emissions in 2017,” reports Bloomberg Green, adding that in 2019, the seven airlines “were responsible for emissions equivalent to the annual carbon footprint of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland combined.”
Observatorio used publicly available information on the airlines’ environmental track records between 2018 and 2020 to rank them on a range of indicators including environmental policies, greenhouse gas emissions and targets, and reporting of direct and indirect emissions. They secured an abysmal average of 32 points out of 100, with none scoring above 50.
While company spin doctors have picked up on the discourse of decarbonization, as Bloomberg puts it, the airlines examined in the report are setting the rules and the deadlines, and “only to the extent that they can make this process functional to their interests,” say the report authors.
Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) and carbon offsets are the Big Seven’s oft-cited fig leaves du jour. Other options, like modernizing aircrafts and flying less, both of which would involve a significant hit to profits, are hardly mentioned.
But sustainable fuels remain prohibitively expensive, with the supply decidedly thin on the ground.
With the right policies and support, “sustainable aviation fuels could represent up to 65% of the abatement needed to reach net-zero,” the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) told Bloomberg, with production accelerating from just 100 million litres last year to more than 5 billion by 2025.
Even as it asks for policy and support to advance SAF production, however, IATA is lobbying to weaken the European Commission’s sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) proposal, ReFuelEU.
An April report by Transport & Environment (T&E) found that IATA, working on behalf of four EU legacy carriers (Air France, Lufthansa, Iberia, and Aer Lingus), was looking to weaken ReFuelEU to apply only to flights within the EU, a “disastrous” change which would leave a “mere 28% of emissions from flights departing from Europe” covered by the SAF mandate, down from 92% as ReFuelEU is currently written.
T&E also found IAG lobbying to remove a sub-mandate for e-kerosene, a fuel that T&E describes as “the only fuel capable of being scaled up to meet the sector’s enormous fuel demands.”
In a separate report detailing the promise of e-kerosene, produced by combining green hydrogen with carbon dioxide, T&E forecasts that the amount of the fuel available for airlines could jump significantly by 2025 with the right incentives for its development.
Not everyone in the industry is following IAG in its efforts to ground synthetic fuels like e-kerosene, however. Australia’s Qantas, which has committed to invest US$35 million towards the development of SAFs, is predicting that so-called “power-to-liquid” technology “may prove the ‘nirvana’ for sustainable aviation,” reports the Financial Times.
Remarking on large volume of renewable energy that would be required to create e-fuels, Qantas chief sustainability officer Andrew Parker told the Times that Australia is ideally positioned to become a “power-to-liquid” technology powerhouse given its boundless resources of sun and wind, as well as the vast open spaces available to build wind and solar farms.
While it has pledged to make SAFs 10% of its fuel mixture by 2030, and roughly 60% by 2050, Qantas will still turn to offsets to make up the difference on its emissions targets—at least on paper.
Parker confirmed that offsets “will certainly be a very large element of our 2030 commitment,” adding that “we do not see a path to 2050 without carbon offsetting.”
The EU’s top seven carriers also remain keen on offsets. However, the Observatorio RSC report raised flags about their approach to reporting those deals, commenting that “in some cases, airlines seem to have little control over projects at source.”