Ryanair: ‘We’re reviewing everything around environmental sustainability’

The company has faced criticism from green groups but is keen to move forward. Image: Ryanair

Aviation was firmly in the spotlight in 2019 – and for all the wrong reasons. Greta Thunberg’s insistence on not flying over environmental concerns took the so-called ‘flight-shaming’ movement global. Add that to calls to action by Sir David Attenborough, national governments, international bodies and some of the world’s largest investors, and you have a perfect storm – which, the Air Transport Association (Iata) is warning, could limit industry growth.

These trends, coupled with the growing global prevalence of net-zero legislation, have hit companies across the global aviation sector. But for Irish budget airline Ryanair, the hit has been particularly hard. A report by Transport & Environment (T&E) last year concluded that the company was the EU’s ninth-highest corporate carbon emitter in 2018, making it the first corporate without holdings in coal-fired power plants to ever rank within the bloc’s top 10. It made headlines in many of Europe’s major tabloids.

At the time, Ryanair countered the report’s claims by pointing out that the emissions were calculated on an overall company basis and not by its preferred metric – emissions per passenger, per kilometre travelled.

Speaking exclusively to edie, Ryanair’s director of sustainability Thomas Fowler stood by the company’s choice to use that metric and insisted that it was gaining traction among airlines, their investors, and their passengers alike.

“We try and tell investors that yes, in totality, we are going to have a big number, because we’re the largest airline in Europe,” he said. “You ultimately have to measure on a per-passenger, per kilometre basis…. The aviation industry have all agreed on the metric… A lot of investors are realising this is the metric.”

Fowler also took issue with the fact that the T&E report only accounted for emissions reported under the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which excludes international flights departing from or arriving to the bloc from non-member countries.

“We’re in a unique position as aviation in that we already get taxed heavily under the ETS. We’re paying €150m this year in ETS, which isn’t being re-invested in the aviation sector.”

Ryanair’s emissions per passenger per kilometre stood at 66g at the end of 2019. The firm is targeting a reduction to 60g by 2030.

Changing the narrative

In a bid to boost its image in the wake of the T&E report, Ryanair invested in an advertising campaign reassuring customers that it is “Europe’s lowest emissions airline” on a per passenger per kilometre basis.

The adverts ran in ten countries until earlier this week, when they had to be paused in the UK by order of the Advertising Standards Association. The Association received hundreds of complaints which either cited Ryanair’s total company emissions or pointed out that the global aviation sector is, by nature, not low-emission at present.

It ruled that Ryanair would need to be clearer that its calculations were made on a per passenger per kilometre basis and update the data comparisons shown on the adverts. Fowler said Ryanair would make the changes needed because it “definitely wants to keep [its] message out there” in the UK.  

For Fowler, Ryanair’s most interesting communications move in recent times has not been the advertising campaign, but its decision to publish monthly carbon emissions data on its website. Ryanair is the first large airline to do this but, rather than claiming exclusive status, is keen to see other airlines follow suit.

“Once you publish [pledges and data], you have to stand over them,” Fowler said. “Transparency and disclosure are going to become a bigger play for us in the next few years.”

Solving the technology puzzle

Ryanair’s monthly emissions data was first made available at the end of last year, around the time Fowler was appointed as sustainability director. He was promoted to the newly created role after more than two years as director of fuel and facilities and, prior to that, more than two years as head of fuel.

To that end, edie asked Fowler for his take on the UK Sustainable Aviation coalition’s roadmap for reaching net-zero by 2050. Published earlier this week, the roadmap has been signed by a string of corporates across the sector’s value chain, from manufacturers and air traffic control firms, to fuel providers, airports and airlines.

The roadmap has faced criticism for prioritising sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) over electric aircraft and for claiming that the UK’s aviation sector can grow by 70% over the next three decades without breaching climate targets – which the Committee on Climate Change has rubbished. Moreover, concerns have been voiced that SAF accounted for less than 0.5% of global aviation fuel consumption in 2018, while the roadmap requires that proportion to rise to more than 38%.

Fowler said that Ryanair is “reviewing with suppliers” before deciding whether it is feasible to sign the Roadmap. Although the airline is “keen to keep an eye on SAF”, he said, it believes that upscaling supply will take at least ten years.

Fowler also sees the electrification of passenger aircraft as a longer-term play which won’t deliver emissions reductions in the short-term.

“Electric aircraft are probably 20-30 years away,” he said, noting that most electric plane projects are taking place around smaller aircraft than those used by Ryanair and other large airlines.

“You’re carrying people at 30,000 feet so you need to be fully regulated and tested, which is why I think electric aircraft is a longer play. The focus will be on sustainable fuels, but it’s about scaling up supply and where the investment is going to come from to do that. At the moment, there is some sustainable aviation fuel available – but it’s six times the price of jet fuel and the supply chain is really small, and mainly in California.”

Shorter-term solutions

So, if it’s not worth holding our breath for SAF at scale or large electric planes, what can airlines do now to reduce emissions in preparation for a net-zero world?

Staunch green groups say the answer is offering fewer flights, or at least capping growth. Ryanair claims the answer is modernising aircraft to ensure they are fuel-efficient, maximising load to reduce emissions on a per passenger basis and offsetting the remaining emissions.

On the former piece, Ryanair has invested €20bn in a fleet of 210 new planes which consume 16% less fuel per kilometre than the models it used in 2018, despite having more seats.

On the latter, Fowler explained, further policies, targets and investments will be created this year. Ryanair has given customers the option to pay €1 per one-way trip to offset their emissions for several years. Of course, this does not cover all emissions generated, so Ryanair covers the rest of the costs for these passengers.

But in 2019, just 3% of passengers selected this option and Ryanair did not pay for offsetting for the remaining 97%.

In a bid to boost this percentage, Fowler explained, Ryanair is looking to price full offset options this year and to make these options both more visible throughout the online booking process, and available at the airport on the day of travel. Carbon credits purchased by the airline will be used to support charity projects reforesting the Algarve; rolling out clean cookstoves in Uganda; protecting habitats in Wales and planting trees in Ireland.

While offsetting is a requirement of the Iata’s CORSIA scheme and has received vocal public support from the likes of easyJet, Qantas and British Airways, its effectiveness has been repeatedly questioned.

Moreover, Fowler agreed, as time goes on, more corporates will invest in offsetting and nations will increase their carbon pricing – both trends which will push the cost of offsetting higher: “It’s going to be interesting to see how CORSIA plays out for us because that involves a complete offsetting scheme. But, at the moment, we’re still prioritising a younger fleet.”

Sarah George

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