Compensatory behavior - Frans-Jan W. Parmentier

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Forget about flying shame, SAS is now offering climate-friendly flights. Or not?
Compensatory behavior
Klassekampen, 28 June 2019
The time has finally arrived: We are going to fly climate-friendly! That is, if you can believe the PR talks of Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) which adorn billboards acrosse the country, with texts such as "On the way to more sustainable travel". Is it true that we will soon be able to fly with them, on return trips to Bali or New York, without a large impact on the climate? Or is that too much to be expected from a company whose core activity it is to launch kerosene-powered aluminum tubes into the air?
It looks good on paper. SAS invests in new, more energy-efficient aircraft and will use as much biofuel as domestic flights need ("Paving the way for fossil-free travel" according to the campaign). The emissions they cannot (yet) reduce, they will compensate by purchasing CO2 quotas. In 2030, their emissions should be a quarter lower than in 2005. At the moment the reduction is only 3%.
The advertising campaign depicts SAS as a company that has made the climate problem leading in their decisions. In reality, it's just sound business. This marketing campaign cannot be seen in isolation from the fact that in Sweden, their home market, people flew a lot less last year – especially domestic. At the same time, train travel strongly increased. The environmentally friendly ambitions of SAS are a logical answer to the Swedish "flying shame", which they are losing customers to.
SAS advertises with "sustainable air travel", but they cannot ignore the fact that airplanes are polluting.
Unfortunately, the turnaround by SAS is also a bit of old wine in new bottles. The purchase of more fuel-efficient aircraft was planned years ago, long before flying shame became a term. SAS still uses a few old types of the Boeing 737, some from the late 90s, which are due for replacement anyway. They consume a lot of fuel and are therefore expensive to use. Moreover, the rest of their fleet is made by Airbus, and it is inefficient to train pilots for two different types of aircraft.
Switching to new aircraft was a logical step anyway. The environmental bonus is nice, but I doubt it was the main reason to purchase them. Then again: I don't care much about the motivations of SAS as long as emissions go down. But if their campaign has a lot of effect, and people put their flying shame aside, emissions will still not diminish.
That is why SAS also advertises with another measure: the use of biofuel, in order to ensure climate friendly growth. That sounds like a good solution, but the current aircraft cannot fly on a full tank of this stuff. It can only be mixed into the kerosene. SAS's promise that domestic flights will fly on biofuel is therefore nuanced: by 2030, 17% of the fuel of all flights must be in the form of biofuel. This is equivalent to the emissions of all domestic flights. But per aircraft, including the domestic ones, emissions will still come primarily from kerosene. Certainly now, because the production capacity for all this biofuel does not exist yet, and there is hardly any mixing in of biofuel – apart from a few flights from Stockholm.
The purchase of more efficient aircraft was planned years ago
Until that situation is improved, a different solution is deployed: to compensate travelers' CO2 emissions. Not for all travelers, but for frequent flyers and youth tickets. For them, SAS purchases CO2 quotas from Natural Capital Partners, a company that invests in climate-friendly projects worldwide, including a wind farm and hydroelectric power plant here in Norway.
Unfortunately, it is precisely these types of projects that lead to little or no climate gain because they are also successful without the extra investment. At the beginning of this year, an article in Nature Climate Change concluded that climate gain only follows from investments in new projects that otherwise would not have existed, or in projects that otherwise cease to exist. It is not clear whether SAS only invests in these types of projects.
SAS still has a lot more work to do before it can boast in their ad campaigns about their climate awareness. Incidentally, their competitor isn't doing any better. Norwegian also talks about buying fuel-efficient planes, but they mainly use them to expand their fleet – which means that emissions keep on rising. Of the 22.000 trees they planted as CO2 compensation two years ago, half have died, as was revealed recently. It is typical for a polluting industry where symbolic or ineffective solutions are used to raise a climate-friendly smoke curtain. In the meantime, it remains very simple for the consumer: the most environmentally friendly flight is the one you didn't take.
This text originally appeared in Klassekampen on 28 June 2019