Loading

Aviation sustainability: how effective is carbon offsetting?

As scrutiny and criticism of the global aviation industry continues to grow, JetBlue Airways’ recent declaration that its US domestic flights will be carbon neutral in 2020 is the latest declaration by an airline that it is taking climate change seriously.

Airlines need to continue their work to reduce their carbon footprints, including operating newer, fuel efficient aircraft, using more fuel efficient navigation techniques, and eliminating single use plastics from their operations. Airlines also need to stay at the forefront of biofuel development. 

But the pledges by JetBlue and others to become carbon neutral or decrease their carbon footprints result in questions arising over accountability and costs to airlines of their environmental programmes. Those questions will rise in importance as the industry works to demonstrate its commitment to battling climate change. 

Summary

  • Concern about air travel's impact on the environment is growing fast and sustainability is quickly rising in importance for investors. 
  • JetBlue started 2020 by pledging that it will go carbon neutral on all its domestic flights in 2020. The airline will no doubt market its commitment to net zero emissions in the future.
  • 'Quartz', the international business news magazine, has stated that “to be credibly carbon-neutral, airlines need to be prepared for a significant financial outlay, and be extremely transparent about every step of the process”.
  • As JetBlue and other airlines work towards carbon neutrality, the methods used to achieve their carbon targets will be closely watched. There may need to be global standards in place to guide those efforts. 

Offsetting is one of the few rapid response options available to airlines

In many ways, 2019 could be dubbed as the year that concern about air travel’s impact on the environment developed its crescendo, and the momentum continues to grow in 2020.

In the second half of 2019 there was “an increasing amount of media coverage about the environmental impact of air travel”, said American Express Global Business Travel in its recently released ‘Air Monitor 2020‘ report.

Curators of the report explained that some of the world’s largest airlines, including Lufthansa, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines, had introduced carbon offset or biofuel surcharges. And easyJet has pledged to become carbon neutral, offsetting its emissions by investing in forestry, renewable energy and water projects.

Across the airline industry, notably in Europe, airlines are taking measures to "offset" and prepare for the impending the social and economic attacks that Flygskam and likely government environmental taxes threaten to deliver. The battle is about both responding coherently and about actually producing seriously valuable and responsible changes.

For the time being, and in the absence of other sufficiently rapid and obvious responses, the most prominent feature on both counts remains offsetting. Other potentials, such as substantially greater use of biofuels and renewables, or for example hydrogen or battery powered flight, are still many years away.

Meanwhile, as noted previously, the major US airlines are still operating very old fuel inefficient fleets, averaging as much as 10 years older than the best practice competitors. As new aircraft are added, these average ages reduce, making it easier to show a net improvement in emissions. (Please see Aviation sustainability: US ageing fleets under the spotlight).

An environment-complacent US administration does little to raise corporate enthusiasm for rapid action. Instead, the greatest pressures are coming from popular feeling.

JetBlue declares bold carbon neutrality targets: will that breed customer goodwill? 

JetBlue, one of the leaders in this field in the US, started 2020 by pledging that it will go carbon neutral on all its domestic flights in 2020, and has calculated that the expansion of the carbon offsetting scheme that it began in 2008 would offset an additional 15 to 17 billing points (7 to 8 million metric tons) of emissions per year, which the airline explained is the annual equivalent of removing more than 1.5 million passenger vehicles from the road.

JetBlue’s declaration of achieving carbon neutrality on domestic flights occurred just as the CEO of the investment firm BlackRock, Laurence Fink, stated in his annual letter that sustainability would be at the centre of the company’s investment approach.

He said: “Even if only a fraction of the projected impact [from climate change] is realised, this is a much more structural, long-term crisis. Companies, investors and governments must prepare for a significant reallocation of capital”. 

There is no certainty that JetBlue’s decision to make all of its domestic flights carbon neutral will make the airline attractive to eco-conscious travellers, but the airline will no doubt market its commitment to net zero emissions in the future. 

Accountability and costs for carbon offsetting are grey areas in the climate fight 

The carbon offset scheme being adopted by JetBlue includes maintaining its relationship with its long-standing partner carbonfund.org, and adding two new partners: EcoAct and South Pole. 

The bulk of JetBlue’s offsetting projects will focus on forestry, landfill gas capture and solar/wind, and the airline has stated that its purchased carbon offsets are audited, verified and retired on the airline’s behalf.

“The offsets will benefit physical projects and are verified and enforceable, as reputable carbon offset auditors have confirmed the claims behind a program and the project is on a public database. These projects are also permanent and ongoing”, the airline explained. 

After JetBlue outlined its carbon neutrality pledge, an article in Quartz stated that “to be credibly carbon-neutral, airlines need to be prepared for a significant financial outlay, and be extremely transparent about every step of the process”. 

The need for a formal platform for registering offsets

Quartz rightly points out that there is, as yet, no equivalent of the SEC (US Securities and Exchange Commission) for carbon offsets.

But as scrutiny of the industry’s environmental track record intensifies, should that equivalent be created? 

In its article examining JetBlue’s planned carbon offsetting, Quartz stated that there were three important factors “to differentiate offset gold from offset dross”. Those are permanence, transparency and additionality, which, according to the publication, is essentially: “If no one had paid anyone else money, would this project have happened anyway?”

Those are all important factors that airlines must consider as they work toward their carbon off-setting goals, and accountability on how airlines manage, or task others to manage, their offsets will be closely watched. 

At the same time, airlines need to continue their work to reduce carbon footprints in other ways, including operating newer, fuel efficient aircraft, using more fuel efficient navigation techniques, and eliminating single use plastics from their operations.

Airlines also need to stay at the forefront of biofuel development, not just when oil price spikes rear their ugly heads. 

Will standards be necessary for airlines in their carbon offsetting schemes? 

As 2020 unfolds, there won’t be a shortage of airlines bolstering their efforts towards better communication of the way they are working to combat climate change. Most operators realise that environmental stewardship and responsibility need to be integral to the way that they approach their business in the present and future. 

Airlines also need to realise that their investments in carbon offsetting will be watched closely, and at some point, there may need to be global standards in place to guide those efforts. 

Want More Analysis Like This?

CAPA Membership provides access to all news and analysis on the site, along with access to many areas of our comprehensive databases and toolsets.
Find Out More