Not one but two of the UK’s biggest budget airlines-slash-holiday providers had big news to share in the last week: easyJet Holidays and Jet2 have both announced the launch of shiny new “sustainability” strategies. Ooh la la!
A lot of buzzwords and phrases were thrown around with these launches, as you might expect. “Positive impact”, “offsets”, “responsible travel”, “carbon neutral”, “sustainable aviation fuels” – all the usual suspects were in attendance.
But what does it mean when airlines and their associated package holiday arms make these commitments? When companies whose current business models are inherently unsustainable – based on the growth of an industry reliant on generating huge amounts of carbon emissions – purport to want to “do their bit” to decarbonise and save the planet?
I suppose first off we should note that at least these guys have bothered to put together and advertise sustainability strategies at all – plenty of businesses haven’t. But, that being said, we have to put our very sceptical, cynical hats on when looking at any sustainability claims, particularly coming from an industry as emissions-heavy as the aviation sector.
It’s time to take a deep dive into these new strategies and see which bits could actually make a difference – and which bits are likely doing no more than paying lipservice to the concept of sustainability.
Both easyJet and Jet2 (and Jet2 Holidays) are going big on the idea of offsetting as a means of counteracting emissions.
“All our carbon will be covered,” says Jet2’s strategy. “We are combining our commitment to existing carbon pricing mechanisms with a new voluntary offsetting scheme, launching on 1 January 2022. By doing this, we are taking full responsibility for all carbon emissions, including those not covered by the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation or the UK and EU Emissions Trading Schemes, as such ensuring there is a price on every ton of carbon we emit.
“We know that carbon offsetting programmes based on customer choice are not the future of sustainable travel. Despite many airlines offering customers the ability to offset their flights, data suggests that customer offsets achieve less than 1 per cent uptake across the airline industry. That is why we have made carbon offsetting an intrinsic part of our business strategy.
“It means our customers don’t need to think about carbon offsetting, because we’ve got their carbon covered.”
(This last sentence is enough to make the hairs on the back of any climate campaigner’s neck stand on end. Its placatory nature is evident – Don’t worry about your flight emissions, we got you.)
EasyJet has also taken this approach in recent years: “This new sustainability strategy follows the company’s recent announcement that it is the first major UK tour operator to offset the carbon emissions associated with its holidays, so the fuel from its flights, transfers and the energy from hotel stays. This move will also be applied to all trips since easyJet holidays launched in November 2019,” it says.
And then comes the real clanger: “In 2019, it was the world’s first major airline to operate carbon-neutral flying across its entire network.”
Reader, I don’t want to alarm you, but “carbon neutral flying” does not exist yet. It may do, at some stage in the nebulous future: when we’ve honed synthetic hydrocarbons as aircraft fuel, or managed to make electric planes that are advanced enough to fly a decent number of passengers a decent distance. But it certainly isn’t happening now.
Reader, I don’t want to alarm you, but ‘carbon neutral flying’ does not exist yet
What easyJet means here is that it is offsetting its emissions.
Offsetting, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing – but it doesn’t mean what many people think it means (and it certainly doesn’t equate to “carbon neutral” flying). In essence, Jet2 and easyJet are buying up carbon credits – projects that have removed or reduced carbon emissions via a certain activity, such as tree planting, or initiatives swapping fossil fuels for clean energy, for example. It’s arguably better than not offsetting, as many airlines choose to do.
But in Jet2’s case, there’s currently a complete lack of transparency about which offsetting schemes and verifications it will be using; and in easyJet’s (which does provide information on the projects it funds and the verifications, Gold Standard and VCS), the schemes are problematic if you’re claiming offsetting as a means of being “carbon neutral”. The first one listed is forest regeneration – the “ultimate result will be the slowing and eventual halt of deforestation in South America and Africa,” reads the blurb.
The only truly “neutral” offsets are those that literally scrub carbon from the atmosphere using expensive removals technology. Protecting forests that already exist in no way tackles the emissions produced by the flight you are taking today. That carbon – plus the other harmful gases released when fuel is burnt at altitude that also have a warming effect – will stick around in the atmosphere for aeons to come.
Both companies are also committed to investing in newer aircraft: Jet2 with a “new order for up to 60 Airbus A321 NEO aircraft, which is in our view the most efficient and environmentally friendly aircraft in its class today”; easyJet by “transitioning its fleet to increasingly more modern, fuel-efficient aircraft, flying them in ways which maximise fuel efficiency, and optimising passenger loads as much as possible” (it also favours the A320 and A321 neo models).
These are measures that actually can reduce carbon emissions per passenger on a flight – high load factors and more fuel-efficient aircraft in particular. The main issue here is that this as a reductions strategy won’t be enough if it sits alongside uninhibited growth – ie, it doesn’t matter if you’ve cut CO2 emissions by 20 per cent per passenger, as Jet2 is aiming to do, if you’re planning on increasing your passenger numbers by that amount or more.
“With regards to waste we will turbocharge our waste and recycling schemes,” says Jet2. “We will remove 11 million single-use plastic items by 2023. We’ve already removed the equivalent of 9 million single-use plastic items per year prior to 2019, and are committing to going further, with an 80 per cent reduction on all remaining plastic items Jet2.com purchase for use on board eg cups and bags.”
It also plans to “have onboard recycling monitoring in place by 2022 that will enable us to set targets to increase recycling rates.”
Until we have measurable data that they are reducing their carbon in their entire supply chain, what do any of these promises really mean?
It’s hard to get a sense of how much plastic stuff has been removed without knowing the “before” number; perhaps more helpful is the stat the airline has switched “nearly a quarter of the onboard plastic items to more sustainable alternatives”. That still leaves three quarters.
Meanwhile, on the recycling front, the main aim is currently to “measure” first before it can set targets and reduce. Measuring is the first vital step in any sustainability strategy, but it does mean there’ll be quite a wait before the next steps can be implemented.
“One key area for the holiday firm will be supporting 100 per cent of its directly contracted hotels to achieve certification by a GSTC accredited certification body or certification to a GSTC recognised standard by the end of 2025,” says easyJet Holidays.
Jet2 is also focusing on GSTC as an accreditation, with plans to “set a target to develop its own Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) recognised certification scheme, a Hotel Sustainability Charter, by 2023. Once in place we will look to roll this out across our hotel portfolio.”
“The GSTC framework is legit, believe it or not,” sustainable hotels guru Juliet Kinsman tells The Independent. “They do seem to assess it properly.”
However, she points out that much of the companies’ statements focus around “targets” set in the future. EasyJet still has four years before it needs to hit its stated goal (and doesn’t mention hotels that aren’t directly contracted), while Jet2 won’t even have developed its certification until 2023, and doesn’t mention when it expects all its hotels to meet the criteria.
“Until we have measurable data that they are reducing their carbon in their entire supply chain, what do any of these promises really mean?” she says.