Image credit: stay-grounded.org

Greenwashing

Have you ever seen an airline advert that talks about ‘sustainable’ or ‘greener’ flying? Don’t believe the hype!

Greenwashing is the way companies try to mislead consumers to believe that they are improving their environmental performance while in reality making no significant change. There’s a lot of it around and we’re working hard to expose it wherever we find it!

Many people want to cut their personal carbon footprint. But the truth is that there is currently no such thing as 'guilt-free' flying

There are currently no alternative fuels that can offer ‘guilt free’ flying.

But increasing numbers of people want to cut their personal carbon footprint as they learn more about how bad flying is for the climate crisis.So airlines rely on inference, consumer ignorance and misinformation to make it seem as though their flights are less polluting than they really are. This is greenwashing.

When the aviation industry tries to persuade people that flying can be ‘green’, their marketing often mentions offsetting, carbon neutral airports and ‘sustainable’ aviation fuels.They have even talked about recycling plastic bottles! Recycling plastic is important but doesn’t make any difference to the emissions released by a plane.

Keep reading to find out more about all the different ways that Leeds Bradford Airport, and the aviation industry, is trying to greenwash the damage it is doing to the climate.

"A lot of airlines are making claims about eco-friendly, sustainable choices, greener choices. But air travel is one of the most significant carbon contributors that consumers make every year"

Research published in 2021, found that 44% of claims about voluntary offset schemes were misleading

Carbon offsetting is based on the assumption that passengers can somehow ‘undo’ the climate damage done by their flight, by funding carbon reduction projects elsewhere.

The most well known form of offsetting is when passengers pay airline companies to plant trees. The problem is that the trees may not actually grow, or they may be burned down in forest fires – causing even more carbon to be released. Even if they survive – they will take years to absorb carbon – but the real damage is being done now.

Research published in 2021, found that 44% of the claims about voluntary offset schemes, made by the 37 airlines studied, were misleading. Offset schemes provide an excuse for polluting industries like aviation to keep on polluting. In 2024, the European Union decided that terms such as ‘climate neutral’ that rely on offsetting, will be banned by 2026.

It's a bit like saying that cigarettes are good because the packaging can be recycled

Leeds Bradford Airport makes a big deal of how its new buildings will be carbon neutral. That’s not a bad thing in itself.

What they fail to mention is that the carbon neutrality only includes the passenger terminal building – which is responsible for only 2% of all the greenhouse gas emissions related to the airport. Over 90% come from flights!

So it’s obvious that any increase in the number of flights – and their emissions – would vastly outweigh the reduction in emissions from a carbon neutral passenger terminal. Decarbonising airports is necessary but any PR should be honest about where the overwhelming majority of emissions come from: flights.

There simply isn’t enough raw material - plants and waste cooking oil - to make alternative fuels on the scale needed. It’s very unlikely that’s going to change for a very long time, if ever

So-called ‘sustainable’ aviation fuels (SAF) cover a range of alternative fuels, including electricity, hydrogen and bio-fuels. There are serious limitations with all of them and none are currently in significant use by commercial airlines.

Electric planes are realistic but they can only carry a relatively small number of people a short distance. Electricity is no use for medium or long haul large passenger jets for the foreseeable future – the batteries are too heavy.

Hydrogen could fuel larger planes going longer distances but you need a huge amount of renewable electricity to create hydrogen and we simply don’t have enough. Using hydrogen would also mean redesigning aircraft and airports so, even if it does get off the ground, hydrogen fuelled flying is decades away.

Bio-fuels or fuel made from waste cooking oil is the aviation industry’s biggest hype at the moment, partly because they don’t have to change their planes or airports to use it. But there are two big problems with bio-fuels and waste fuels. First, when burned in a jet engine they release as many greenhouse gas emissions as conventional fossil jet fuel. Second, there simply isn’t enough raw material – plants and waste cooking oil – to make alternative fuels on the scale needed. It’s very unlikely that’s going to change for a very long time, if ever.

You don’t have to take our word for all this. You can learn more about the problems with so-called ‘sustainable’ aviation fuels from the Climate Change Committee, the Royal Society, Element Energy, Cerulogy, Bain & Co, Green Sky Thinking and Stay Grounded. And you can read more about aviation greenwashing from the Aviation Environment Federation.

GALBA has an easy-to-read breakdown of all the ways the aviation industry tries to promote the idea of ‘guilt-free flying’.

Click here for a more detailed explanation on all the different ‘sustainable aviation’ technologies.

Other issues

Leeds Bradford Airport is big enough already