The Irish airline has released a series of adverts flaunting its green credentials, but it’s still the EU’s tenth-biggest polluter. The solution? Reducing demand
Of the European Union’s ten biggest carbon dioxide (CO2) emitters, nine of them are coal-fired power plants. The tenth is Ryanair, the low-cost Irish airline which released 9.9 megatonnes of greenhouse gases in 2018 – a 6.9 per cent increase from 2017.
But Ryanair has its own spin on the data that contradicts the EU Transport & Environment group’s report. According to a series of TV, print and radio adverts promoting the airline, Ryanair should be the airline of choice for carbon-conscious flyers.
“Everybody knows that when you fly Ryanair you enjoy the lowest fares. But do you know you are travelling on the airline with Europe’s lowest emissions as well?” reads one advert, part of a series that has attracted more than 100 complaints to the UK advertising regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The ASA is currently assessing whether to open an investigation into the adverts.
Ryanair isn’t the only airline flexing its environmental credentials. On October 10, British Airways announced it would offset carbon emissions for all domestic flights starting in 2020, a first step towards its eventual goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. EasyJet, too, says it’s reducing per passenger carbon emissions by investing in lighter seats and decreasing fuel consumption with better planes and engines.
But is there really such a thing as an environmentally-friendly airline, or is Ryanair just the latest to partake in a little self-indulgent greenwashing? It all comes down to whether the airline industry can innovate its way out of climbing emissions, or if passengers will just have to accept that the only low-carbon flight is no flight at all.
While Ryanair might have been a little generous with its adverts, it’s not totally wrong to say that does produce low emissions, for an airline. The key metric here is CO2 released per passenger kilometre, not overall emissions. So if you had 200 passengers on a plane that traveled 1,000 kilometres, that journey would amount to 200,000 passenger kilometres. Dividing the total emissions for that journey by the number of passenger kilometres will give you CO2 emitted per passenger kilometre.
Ryanair’s figure – and the reason why it can lay claim to being Europe’s “lowest emissions” airline – is 67 grams of CO2 per passenger kilometre. That’s the lowest for any EU airline, beating Virgin’s 78.2g in 2017 andEasyjet which was 81.05g in 2015, despite the fact that Ryanair’s total 2018 emissions were almost 60 per cent more than Easyjet’s.
Although these are impressive figures – by the aviation industry’s standards – they don’t mean that Ryanair has actively been trying to reduce its carbon footprint. “They are almost certainly nothing to do with Ryanair’s environmental strategy,” says Christian Jardine, a research analyst at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute.
Instead, Ryanair’s numbers come down to three factors: the age of its planes, how full they are and how far they fly. The airline has one of Europe’s youngest fleets, consisting of over 450 Boeing 737-800 planes with an average age of 6.5 years. Since newer planes are more fuel efficient they release less carbon dioxide, cutting down the overall emissions from each flight.
Ryanair is also very good at packing those planes with people. “Ryanair’s sole business model is to grow passenger kilometres,” says Jardine. The airline fills more of its seats than any other EU airline, with an average load capacity of 96 per cent, thanks to its bargain basement prices. Most Ryanair planes have 189 seats and, on average, they’re filled with 181 (and a half) passengers per journey. The more passengers Ryanair has, the higher the number of passenger kilometres it racks up, meaning it divides up its carbon emissions further.
The distance that Ryanair flies also helps. In 2010 the average Ryanair plane flew just over 1,000 kilometres per journey, although that’s likely to have increased since then. The relatively short distance means that Ryanair’s planes don’t need to carry lots of excess fuel, which would increase weight and makes the planes less energy efficient. And it’s also more fuel efficient than very short haul flights (such as UK domestic flights) since taking off is the most fuel-intensive part of the flight.
While that all adds up to Ryanair being the most carbon efficient airline, it is already hitting the limits of how far it can drive that number down. The airline wants to reduce its CO2 per passenger kilometre to 60g by 2030, but if you compare that to something like high-speed rail – which weighs in at six grams per passenger kilometre – even optimistic efficiency gains are woefully inadequate.
“The improvements year on year are decreasing because we’re reaching the limits of technology,” says Andrew Timmis at Loughborough University’s School of Architecture, Building and Civil Engineering. The aviation industry has agreed to improve its fuel efficiency by 1.5 per cent per year up until 2020, but this is outweighed by the annual growth of the aviation industry of around four per cent.
“Although the relative efficiency is improving, the total [carbon footprint] is increasing as flights are getting cheaper,” says Timmis. And as Boeing and Airbus are still struggling to deliver the thousands of planes that they still have outstanding orders for, it’s likely that the current generation of planes are going to hang around for decades to come. Electric planes – unlike electric cars – are still highly speculative and don’t offer any realistic route to decarbonising the aviation industry at scale.
So what might an environmentally-friendly airline actually look like? If it can’t innovate its way out of carbon emissions, the only option left is to simply fly less. “If we were super serious about tackling climate change, we would be tackling the demand issue. Which we’re not,” says Timmis.
One proposed solution is charging levies to people who fly more than once a year. The so-called frequent flyer tax was detailed by the UK Committee on Climate Change in September in a series of policy options to help the UK reach its net zero target by 2050. Aviation, the committee warned, is set to become the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
“We’re now in a time where a lot of the easy wins have happened, mostly without any political action,” says Matt Winning, an environmental economist at University College London. But frequent flying levies might not be totally unpopular in the UK. In 2012, 57 per cent of the UK population didn’t take a flight at all while 70 per cent of all flights in the UK were taken by just 15 per cent of adults.
For Winning, this is the crux of the aviation problem. Although airlines are becoming increasingly keen on parading their green credentials – the Dutch airline KLM is running a “fly responsibly” campaign allowing people to carbon offset their flights and directing would-be flyers to lower carbon transport options – this is just a distraction from the real challenge: cutting down flights altogether.
“[Aviation] either has to not exist or it has to exist in a radically different way,” says Winning. “I think the only solution really is pricing changes within the airline industry.”