As travellers begin to turn their backs on air travel in favour of more eco-friendly options such as trains, airlines are responding to a growing sense of ‘flight shame’ among passengers by paying to offset CO2 emissions from jet fuel. Emily Eastman reports

Thanks to continued pressure from climate change activists such as Extinction Rebellion and teenager Greta Thunberg, 2019 was the year that flygskam – the Swedish concept of “flight shame” – entered common parlance. And it looks like it will be a defining term for the new decade.

In fact, a survey by Swiss bank UBS of 6,000 people in the US, Germany, France and the UK, found that one in five people (21 per cent) had cut the number of flights they took over the past year out of concern for the environmental – and that expected growth in passenger numbers could halve if this continued.

The number of people flying globally has grown by between 4 per cent and 5 per cent a year, according to UBS. In other words, the number of planes in the sky doubles every 15 years, and if nothing changes, experts believe it will continue in this fashion until 2035 when there could be as many as 8.2 billion annual passengers.

Fighting climate change with carbon offsetting

In response, airlines are taking action. In November, Easyjet announced it would begin carbon offsetting fuel burned on its flights by investing in Gold Standard and Verified Carbon Standard schemes that plant trees, for example, which consume CO2 and release oxygen. The move will make Easyjet the world’s first major airline to operate net-zero carbon flights across its entire network.

However, Johan Lundgren, Easyjet’s chief executive, says longer-term solutions are also needed. “We recognise that offsetting is only an interim measure, but we want to take action on our carbon emissions now,” he said. “Aviation will have to reinvent itself as quickly as it can.”

Lundgren adds: “Customers increasingly expect companies to do something about it and it is fundamentally the right thing to do.”

The problem, of course, is that carbon offsetting doesn’t put an end to the pollution of our skies and although other airlines are starting to take steps to mitigate their footprint, only the most ambitious of measures will have enough of an impact.

Flight shame is forcing airlines to take responsibility

IAG, the parent company to British Airways, promised in October to be carbon-neutral by 2050, with carbon offsetting for all BA domestic flights from 2020 (it will be putting money into solar energy and forestation programmes for example). But what about European and international flights? Passengers need to pay for it themselves.

It has also pledged to spend US$400 million on sustainable aviation fuel over the next 20 years, including plans to build a plant capable of converting household waste to jet fuel that will start operations in 2024.

Australian flag carrier Qantas also wants to reduce emissions from jet fuel to net zero by 2050. In a statement, chief executive Alan Joyce says climate change concerns were “real” and “We’re doing this because it’s the responsible thing to do”.

Qantas aims to cap net emissions at 2020 levels and will invest A$50 million (£26.6 million) over ten years to develop sustainable jet fuel, with the goal of reducing carbon emissions by 80 per cent compared with traditional fuel. (In 2018 it flew a jet from Los Angeles to Melbourne using mustard seed biofuel.)

Speaking to Australian Broadcasting Corp, Joyce said: “We know the technology is possible. It’s to actually do it commercially and to do it at scale and not impact the other environmental concerns like taking away from food crops or increasing the cost of food crops. That’s why it’ll take some time to get there.”

About 10 per cent of Qantas customers choose to offset their flights – and reduce flight shame – by putting money into conservation and environmental projects. According to Qantas, this makes it the operator of the largest carbon offset programme in the aviation industry, and it has now said it will match every dollar spent on offsets.

Carbon offsetting is only part of the solution

Meanwhile, Germany’s Lufthansa Group has introduced a business fare that automatically offsets European flights for corporate customers from 2020.

Air France has also joined the movement, announcing in October that it will offset 100 per cent of CO2 emissions on all domestic flights from January 1, 2020. This represents an average of more than 450 flights each day. It aims to reduce emissions by 50 per cent per passenger/km by 2030.

The airline is also introducing selective waste sorting on board its flights – following the complete elimination of single-use plastic items on board its aircraft from the end of 2019 – and investing in research for credible fuel alternatives. (Click here to read more about what airlines and hotels are doing to eliminate single-use plastic.)

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents almost 300 airlines, is launching a campaign with the industry aimed at countering flight shame. It coincides with plane and engine manufacturers working on plans for hybrid and electric engines to help lower emissions.

Finally, there is now a business case for improving an airline’s environmental footprint. Consumers have more choice than ever, and a poor track record of environmental action could drive customers elsewhere.

However, “green washing” is real. Carbon offsetting is all very well, but Easyjet recently came under fire for launching an air service between Birmingham and Edinburgh when the two cities are already connected by rail.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg has driven the issue of air travel pollution (flying produces about 2 per cent of global, human-produced CO2 emissions) up the political and mainstream agenda. But while she eschews air travel entirely, airlines want to avoid the rest of the public following her example.

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