Increasing scrutiny of the aviation industry’s decarbonisation plans has exposed a systemic overreliance on carbon offsets and future technologies to try reach net zero by 2050. Last week, EasyJet announced its intention to move away from offsets in a new roadmap – what prompted the change, and will others follow suit? 

On 26 September, in an industry ‘first’, EasyJet unveiled a new roadmap to net zero, which moves away from offsets and compensation to focus on hydrogen-powered jets, sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), carbon capture technologies, and greater efficiency. EasyJet was the first airline to commit to zero carbon flight in 2019 and to have its interim 35% emissions intensity reduction target validated by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi).

EasyJet says the plan will reduce operational CO2 emissions by 35% by 2035 and will reduce the carbon intensity of its flights by 78% by 2050 compared to 2019 levels (on a per-passenger, per-kilometre basis), with carbon capture neutralising residual emissions. Although SBTi usually requires a commitment to reduce 90% of absolute emissions, limiting residual emissions to less than 10%, EasyJet claims the plan is “SBTi-aligned” and consistent with its 2021 Race to Zero target.

Like many major airlines, EasyJet’s long-term focus is on zero emissions technology like hydrogen-powered aircraft and carbon-negative technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS). But these technologies are reported as not yet commercially available, productive, or scaleable – by the end of 2021, less than 10,000 tonnes of CO2 had been permanently sequestered using man-made CCS technologies - less than 1% of global emissions in 2021.

Instead, the interim emphasis is on efficiency measures and upscaling the use of SAFs. EasyJet will invest around USD 21 billion retrofitting and renewing its fleet and has already ordered 168 new planes that are 15% more fuel-efficient than its current kerosene-fuelled aircraft. It will also escalate its use of SAF, which comprises biofuels (from organic materials) and synthetic fuels, and is currently certified for use up to a 50% blend with kerosene. EasyJet has flown some flights on a 30% SAF blend since 2021 but plans to ramp up this ratio.

Perhaps the most significant announcement is EasyJet’s departure from offsetting. As we reported during COP26, the aviation industry relies heavily on carbon offsetting schemes, like CORSIA, as an interim measure to reduce net emissions whilst pursuing absolute emissions avoidance or reductions through zero emissions technology.

EasyJet was the first major airline in 2019 to offset the carbon emissions from all its flights through nature based credits, but has now announced that it will stop automatically offsetting emissions for bookings made after December 2022, when its 3-year offsetting contract expires. EasyJet will switch instead to voluntary compensation. The airline claims to have offset 8.7 million tonnes of carbon credits to date.

The shift away from offsetting is another industry first, demonstrating the airline’s commitment and progress towards zero emissions technologies. But it also comes after an investigation revealed that many major airlines, including EasyJet, were purchasing unreliable “phantom” credits, which do not deliver additionality, to claim carbon neutrality.

The industry is coming under wider scrutiny. Advertising standards boards around the world are investigating allegations of airlines’ greenwashing (for example, Ryanair and Easyjet in the UK, or Austrian Airlines in Austria), and this year the first greenwashing aviation lawsuit was filed against KLM.

The KLM writ of summons makes wide-ranging assertions regarding the industry’s decarbonisation efforts, highlighting key issues with offsetting, SAFs, and increased efficiency measures as well as its failure to date to meaningfully address harmful “non-CO2 emissions” from aviation (including methane, nitrogen and “contrails”) which exceed the warming effect of CO2 by up to three times.

But is the problem systemic? The key contention seems to relate to industry growth. For example, the UK Government’s Flightpath to the Future and Jet Zero strategy for net zero aviation reflect the sector-wide goal to simultaneously drive growth and deliver net zero. These strategies commit to sustainable growth through “robust and balanced frameworks” with “strict environmental criteria”, using technological developments to transform aviation into a resilient, innovative, and sustainable sector.

But as it stands, many claim that delivering growth and net zero is impossible (or, at least, according to the Climate Change Committee, “very risky”). In April 2022, an Aviation Environment Federation report argued that the UK’s Jet Zero strategy is overly reliant on emerging high-risk technologies and calls for “targeted aviation demand reduction”. A recent judicial review of the Jet Zero strategy launched by the Leeds Bradford Airport Action Group (GALBA) echoes these concerns. 

Although the court’s attitude towards the claims against KLM is yet to be seen, increasing sectoral scrutiny from regulators and activists alike means increasing risks of liability. In the circumstances, it is more important than ever to seek legal advice on decarbonisation plans to navigate this new landscape and deliver on ‘Jet Zero’.