British Airways has pledged to review its practice of making aircraft carry tonnes of excess fuel to avoid filling up at destination airports, which saves money but drives up CO2 emissions.
Willie Walsh, chief executive of BA’s parent company IAG, admitted that using the method – called “fuel tankering” within the industry – was “maybe the wrong thing to do” despite the financial incentive behind the practice, because of its environmental impact.
Critics said the widespread use of fuel tankering called into question airlines’ commitment to reducing their impact on the environment.
The information of excess fuel carriage came from a BA insider during a BBC Panorama investigation.
IAG recently tried to burnish its environmental credentials with a commitment to become the first airline group worldwide to commit to net zero emissions by 2050.
What zero emissions in 2050 would mean for the UK
The Committee on Climate Change says cutting greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 is necessary, affordable and desirable. Here are some of the actions needed to make that happen:
• Petrol and diesel cars banned from sale ideally by 2030 and 2035 at the latest.
• Quadrupling clean electricity production from wind, solar and perhaps nuclear, plus batteries to store it and connections to Europe to share the load.
• Connection of new homes to the gas grid ending in 2025, with boilers using clean hydrogen or replaced by electric powered heat pumps. Plus, all homes and appliances being highly efficient.
• Beef, lamb and dairy consumption falling by 20%, though this is far lower than other studies recommend and a bigger shift to plant-based diets would make meeting the zero target easier.
• A fifth of all farmland – 15% of the UK – being converted to tree planting and growing biofuel crops and restoration of peat bogs. This is vital to take CO2 out of the air to balance unavoidable emissions from cattle and planes.
• 1.5bn new trees will be needed, meaning more than 150 football pitches a day of new forests from now to 2050.
• Flying would not be banned, but the number of flights will depend on how much airlines can cut emissions with electric planes or biofuels.
However, documents seen by the BBC showed a recent BA flight to Italy took on board nearly three tonnes of extra fuel: a cost saving of just £40 but which meant an additional 600kg of CO2 was emitted.
Speaking to analysts last week, Walsh said BA often did fuel tankering in order to save money, citing the example of Glasgow airport where jet fuel is 25% more expensive than at Heathrow.
BA’s early dive into carbon offsetting gives it an edge in the climate PR battle
However, Walsh said BA was now considering its position on the practice. “We continue to do tankering today. We’re challenging that, we’re asking ourselves whether this is sustainable, and whether we should be pricing in the environmental impact of that.
“Clearly the financial savings incentivise us to do tankering. But maybe that’s the wrong thing to do.”
BA said that its fuel tankering generated 18,000 tonnes of additional CO2 per year – less than 0.1% of its overall emissions – and that it accounted for 2% of tankering in Europe.
A report from Eurocontrol, which coordinates air traffic control for Europe, estimated that airlines save a total €265m (£229m) a year through using the practice within Europe – but at the cost of an additional 901,000 tonnes of CO2.
John Sauven, Greenpeace UK’s executive director said it was a “classic example of a company putting profit before planet … they’ll happily pour extra fuel on the fire for a small boost to their profit margin.”
Meanwhile, a climate expert described a carbon offsetting scheme offered to customers by Ryanair as “woefully inadequate”. Passengers can pay a voluntary €1 donation when booking.
Simon Lewis, professor of global change science at University College London, said that tree planting schemes funded by Ryanair in Ireland and Portugal would offset just 0.01% of the airline’s emissions. He said: “To me, that’s a green gimmick.”
Michael O’Leary, Ryanair’s chief executive, told Panorama: “From little acorns grow mighty trees.”
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