EasyJet says it will operate net-zero carbon flights

European budget airline easyJet says it will become the first major carrier to operate net-zero carbon flights, offsetting carbon emissions from the fuel used on every flight.

The company says Tuesday it will offset the carbon “by investing in projects that include planting trees or protecting against deforestation.” The cost of the program is estimated at 25 million pounds ($43 million Cdn).

The airline described the effort as an “interim measure” while new technologies are being developed, including efforts to develop hybrid and electric planes. The measure is part of other initiatives to reduce emissions, such as using a single engine when taxiing.

EasyJet says that as part of a goal to de-carbonize aviation, it has signed a preliminary deal with Airbus to jointly research hybrid and electric aircraft.

Air travel is responsible for about two per cent of global CO2 emissions. If aviation were a country, that would put it among the top 10 emitters in the world. And it’s growing fast. By 2020, emissions from global international aviation are projected to be about 70 per cent higher than in 2005 due to rising travel demand. 

Concern about aviation’s carbon footprint prompted Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg and others to publicly give up flying altogether as part of the “flygskam” or “flight shame” movement.

Controversy over offsets

Because electrification is far from being technologically feasible for larger aircraft that create the bulk of emissions, airlines have largely looked to carbon offsetting to reduce the environmental impact of air travel. Carbon offsetting involves “cancelling out” emissions by funding emissions reductions through projects such as green energy or tree planting. But they’re controversial because:

  • It’s hard to prove they lead to genuine, permanent emissions reductions that wouldn’t have otherwise happened, and there’s evidence that emissions reductions are often overestimated.  
  • They don’t reduce global net emissions (since emissions reductions get cancelled out by the airline emissions.)
  • The airline emissions happen immediately, but the offsets don’t reduce emissions until some time in the future.

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