Budget airline easyJet chose Valentine's Day earlier this week to declare its love for the environment, unveiling three "promises" that will see it enhance the fuel efficiency of its aircraft, improve the energy efficiency of its ground operations and support legislation that encourages green aviation.
The promises came as the company published its corporate and social responsibility report, which argued that far from being an environmental pariah the company already boasted a relatively green business model.
It claimed that its commitment to new aircraft had allowed it to cut CO2 emissions per passenger kilometre by 18 percent since 2000, while the strategy of cramming more seats into each Airbus A319 than traditional airlines meant that the typical European airline operating the same plane would burn 27 percent more fuel per passenger.
Speaking on the publication of the report, easyJet chief executive Andy Harrison called for "a more balanced debate" on airline sustainability that starts to explore practical means of reducing the industry's environmental footprint.
"Given that aviation CO2 only accounts for 1.6% of global greenhouse gas emissions, grounding every aircraft in the world would have a miniscule impact on climate change yet a vast impact on our economies," he said. "So, airlines have a responsibility to do what they can and governments have a responsibility to ensure that their policies incentivise the right behaviour."
Harrison argued that the government's recent decision to double air passenger duty was a prime example of how ill-conceived legislation was failing to drive the environmental improvements the industry required.
"Governments should recognise that some airlines are already more efficient than others - something that the UK's Air Passenger Duty (APD) dramatically fails to do," he said. "APD provides no incentive for airlines to operate the cleanest aircraft; it completely omits airfreight and private jets; the proceeds are not allocated to any scheme to improve the environment; and it is disproportionate - on a UK domestic return flight, the £20 APD is now 25% of the average fare and about 10 times the cost of off-setting the carbon emitted on an easyJet flight."
Advocates of passenger duty would argue that making the tax disproportionately high for domestic flights is a wise move designed to encourage domestic passengers to take the train instead. However, it is far harder to object to Harrison's assertion that "it would be better to incentivise consumers to choose airlines... operating the cleanest aircraft available".
Perhaps unsurprisingly Harrison stops short of suggesting a tax on airline fuel to help achieve this - even if a levy on fuel, rather than a flat tax on passengers, would reward the most fuel efficient operators, punish those airlines that use older fleets and bring airfreight and private jets into the green tax system.
Instead, easyJet has identified the European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme as the best means of achieving this and has called for the scheme to be extended to include aviation "as soon as possible". Meanwhile, Harrison also urged European governments to mandate minimum environmental standards for aircraft.
It is interesting to note how even airlines - for so long villified by the environmental movement - can perceive a competitive advantage from greener business models.
EasyJet will have recognised that any laws banning the most fuel guzzling aircraft would have little impact on its fleet while costing its rivals billions and possibly even driving a few of them out of business. Similarly, any extension of the emissions trading scheme would be likely to cost its more inefficient opponents far more than it would easyJet's relatively modern operation. In fact, if the company's aircraft are as efficient as it claims it may even get money out of the scheme by selling carbon credits to its gas guzzling competitors.
Furthermore, easyJet will have realised that it is bound to gain some customer goodwill by taking a position diametrically opposed to that of archrival Ryanair. While Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary has vowed to boycott the emission trading scheme if it is extended to include his company, easyJet can present itself as an environmentally responsible operator genuinely striving to find a legal framework that helps reduce emissions.
Staunch environmentalists, however, are unlikely to be won over by easyJet's green commitments, and will note that without any published targets for emissions reductions its three promises look more like rhetoric than a concerted action plan.
But while easyJet still has its faults Harrison should be applauded for his willingness to engage with the issue of environmental sustainability and actually take the unusual step of advocating legislation.
A reduction in air travel may ultimately be necessary to tackle climate change, but in the short to medium term there is no way governments will back any move that leads to planes being grounded. Given this scenario we instead need to ensure the airline industry is as green as it possibly can be and Harrison's recommendations for a regulatory framework that rewards the cleanest airlines and bans the most inefficient is as good a place to start as any.
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