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Ireland’s Ryanair to reach net-zero by 2050

21 March 2022 Cristina Brooks

Irish airliner Ryanair's 21 March announcement of a 2050 net-zero carbon target makes it one of the only large airliners to make a pledge individually. German airliner Lufthansa Group has set a similar goal.

Reaching the goal will see Ryanair fuel planes with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), buy carbon offsets to counteract emissions from flights, and fly more efficient routes.

For 10% of planned emissions reductions, Ryanair will rely upon the latest version of the EU's industry-led air-traffic reform program to boost operational efficiency, SESAR 3 Joint Undertaking.

The EU program plans for wider use of navigation software that will cut emissions from air-traffic control corrections.

For 24% of its emissions reductions, Ryanair will use offsets. Three years ago Ryanair's regional rival, Britain's EasyJet, pledged to become the "first major airline to operate net-zero carbon flights across its whole network" using offsets.

In 2020, a coalition of UK airport and airliners that includes EasyJet, but not Ryanair, committed to cut its aviation-related net carbon emissions to zero by 2050, in line with the UK government goal of reaching net-zero GHG emissions nationwide.

So far, Ryanair's SAF commitments remain vague. The airliner plans to continue its research in SAF through a partnership launched with Trinity College in Dublin last year. That partnership is researching not only SAF but also zero-carbon propulsion systems.

Ryanair's vision to use SAF to eliminate 34% of its emissions would leave it less dependent upon SAF than signatories to a global pledge made last October.

The airline membership of trade body International Air Transport Association (IATA), which does not include Ryanair, has pledged to use SAF to reduce 65% of its CO2 emissions as part of a 2050 net-zero carbon goal.

Last year, global aviation alliance Oneworld — which includes British Airways, Qantas and American Airlines — pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

On the less formal side, Spain-registered International Airlines Group (IAG) of airlines and US group Airlines for America (A4A) have promised to "work" towards cutting emissions to net zero.

SAF, compatible engines yet to ramp up

While aviation sector pledges foresee the use of greener aviation fuel, IATA's Director General Willie Walsh has said fuel production mandates are required because there isn't enough SAF to provide a short-term solution.

Trade body Airlines for Europe has warned against current EU proposals aiming to expand carbon trading obligations for airlines because SAF is expensive.

There are technological barriers to using SAF, too. SAF made from cooking oil or hydrogen may be the solution, but it is not possible to use it unblended. Under current regulatoins, SAF blending up to 50% is permitted. However, US airliner United Airlines tested engine technology using 100% SAF in a demonstration flight in December.

The UK is one of the countries looking into ways to stimulate SAF production. It aims to require airliners to increasingly blend SAF into all aviation fuel from 2025. However, a consultation on the SAF mandate suggested SAF production should be subsidized.

The UK also launched a joint industry council aiming for zero-emission trans-Atlantic flight "within a generation" and a strategy to cut national aviation emissions.

Reliance upon offsets

Not only corporations like Ryanair but also countries like France are seeking to lower the climate impact of flights using offsets.

Brussels-based green group Transport & Environment (T&E) has criticized the IATA's planned use of offsetting to reach net-zero through a controversial scheme called CORSIA.

"Many assessments have shown that CORSIA is the worst option for the climate, not only because it relies on cheap offsets that will never incentivize airlines to stop burning fossil fuel, but also because there is no guarantee that these offsets will actually permanently reduce CO2 emissions somewhere else in the world," said T&E in October.

As land for nature-based offsets competes with land for farming food, there may not be enough land available for offsets without imperiling food security for countries. "Those limited capacities are often exaggerated … scientific assessments just don't look at political constraints and they don't look at social constraints," said Duncan McLaren Research Fellow Lancaster University, speaking at an event on 14 hosted by Chatham House.

Companies can be even less certain about offsets they want to use in the future, McLaren argued. "When these corporations set out their plans to have residual emissions in 2030, or 2040, or even 2050, that are offset, they are making claims on the future capacity to remove carbon."

Posted 21 March 2022 by Cristina Brooks, Senior Journalist, Climate and Sustainability

This article was published by S&P Global Commodity Insights and not by S&P Global Ratings, which is a separately managed division of S&P Global.


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