EcoAct UK CEO, Stuart Lemmon talks to easyJet’s Director of Sustainability, Jane Ashton about the airline’s net zero journey, its challenges and how senior buy-in helps to push the sustainability agenda across the business
Can you give us a summary of where easyJet currently is on its net zero journey?
easyJet has always been hugely focused on fuel efficiency and we have actually decreased fuel intensity by about a third since 2003, and this continues to be a real focus. Now though we’re also working on the details of our net zero trajectory. We participated in last year’s project with the SBTi, WWF, the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), other stakeholders and other airline peers to map out what a science-based trajectory would look like for aviation. We are now waiting for that to be published, and then we’ll be able to map our own pathway against that blueprint. However, given the developments happening with low and net zero emissions technologies, we believe that for short-haul aviation, the target of 2050 should be achievable.
And is that industry-wide collaboration, important in making that happen? Is it necessary for the whole industry to agree or is it something that easyJet as an individual airline can drive alone?
Collaboration is essential. Particularly with the engine developers and technological partners that we have, it is absolutely critical. And similarly when working together with the rest of the industry, there is now a lot of collaboration. We sit on the Jet Zero Council and we’re involved in an advisory capacity with a number of organisations – The Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) , The Future Flight Challenge (FFC), Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets, The World Economic Forum’s True Zero initiative, and several others – where we either already play an active role, or as those initiatives ramp up, will play an increasingly active role. And so yes, collaboration is key. We’re also a member of Sustainable Aviation and our CEO is Chair of A4E (Airlines for Europe) this year, who published a European aviation industry roadmap towards net zero earlier this year, Destination 2050.
Across your various stakeholder groups, do you get the sense that the level of ambition is increasing and therefore the level of the pace of change is speeding up?
I think the level of ambition, interest, progress in this area has increased hugely over the last couple of years. Internally, this is a subject that is discussed at a very high level. Our steering committee meets monthly that has several board directors on it. It is also a subject of discussion at the airline board every few months. So yes, in terms of senior management-focus and business ambition, this area has ramped up significantly in recent times ; nevertheless there are still massive challenges ahead.
You have clearly overcome the challenge of getting board-level buy-in. Does that senior-level engagement give you the weight to push some of your partners a bit faster than they may want to go than if they’re only talking to the sustainability team because it’s coming from the top?
Yes, absolutely. I think without the support at the very top of the organisation, you really are on the periphery. Our focus now is on how to solve these challenges now, as opposed to whether we should. And a lot of that has obviously come from the science – the most recent IPCC reports, the ambition that’s being shown by governments and peers, in other sectors and in the aviation industry. The world is definitely a very different place to what it was, even five years ago.
In the past, the business case for sustainability for airlines was always around fuel efficiency because obviously, it’s the largest cost for most airlines but that has clearly changed now, shown by easyJet’s adoption of its offsetting programme. What is it that changed the focus from cost efficiency to more of those external drivers?
I think it’s just general societal expectation and realisation that business as usual can’t continue in any industry sector, and that goes for the aviation sector as well. Customers, shareholders, governments, and regulators, as well as our own people are all pushing for change. It’s not just the senior management but across the whole organisation, that want to see easyJet leading in this field and making some serious steps forward. It’s been really gratifying, to see some of the progress that was made last year. We saw the first electric plane certified by EASA and hydrogen-fuelled flights here in the UK. Some of these technologies are really starting to come to life. And so, the challenge now is scaling it. The announcement from Airbus last September on their ZEROe hydrogen fuelled prototype aircraft was ground-breaking. Through our technology partnership with Airbus we are working with them to help develop the project, and we are expecting to see these aircraft, or at least the first of three, entering the commercial space from 2035 onwards. These are all developments, which we wouldn’t have imagined happening quite so fast two years ago.
What do you see over the short and medium term as the key challenges for easyJet in this space?
Well, obviously right now there’s a huge focus on getting the business back to normal operations and as we ramp up again. But actually the pandemic hasn’t really impacted the work of the sustainability team, or the drive for sustainability across the organisation. Key challenges are mainstreaming and investment in the radical new technologies required for zero emissions aviation. For instance the ramping up of production of green hydrogen, the channelling of that towards aviation, and the whole infrastructure and value chain development required to make that a reality -in addition to actually developing the new generation aircraft and engines. But those challenges also provide the biggest step changes and gains so must be overcome.
Talking of COVID, despite the huge impact on the business, it appears that easyJet’s sustainability programme and the drive towards net zero has carried on. How has this happened and why has it been so important to the business through this time?
I’m pleased to say that the commitment to sustainability has remained undented despite the pandemic. One reason undoubtedly is the management drive and passion for solving these challenges. But I think other criteria such as the interest and concern that our customers show for the challenge of climate change has remained very constant, if not, strengthened throughout the pandemic. And there’s also governmental and investor expectations, that we need to decarbonize both as an industry and as an organisation, and so we are mapping our pathway towards that. And so yes, though the pandemic has had a big impact but it hasn’t really impacted our efforts in the sustainability field, or our belief that it’s a critical part of our future strategy.
Could you share your insight on easyJet’s offsetting programme – why you decided to do it and how you’ve done it?
Since November 2019 EasyJet has offset 100% of the emissions from the fuel on its flights and offset all our ground-based emissions as well. We were the first airline worldwide to do so and the only airline flying in Europe today to do so. And that was really based on the fact that whilst we are absolutely focused on reducing the carbon that we’re emitting – for example our investment in fleet replacement with theAirbus neo family of aircraft,15% more fuel efficient per seat than the aircraft that they replace there was a strong belief that the most impactful thing that we could do today is to offset 100% whilst we drive efficiencies, and whilst we seek to transition to radical new technologies in the next decade and beyond.
It’s a very bold approach. How was how was it and has it been received?
What is most interesting is the response of customers – we can see from the customers who are aware of the offsetting that they are more likely to recommend EasyJet and have higher customer satisfaction. It definitely strikes a chord and we would like to engage more with our customers on it in the future.
And what was the shareholder response? Like because clearly, it’s a significant investment for the business.
It was well received by shareholders who understand the importance of having an interim solution while we support the development of the radical technologies of the future. There a huge programme of work and focus on reducing emissions, driving efficiencies, and also on partnerships for new technologies but as an interim step, our offsetting programme is something very powerful that we can do in the here and now.
Do you see it as your responsibility as a as a leading brand within the airline business to drive the sustainability agenda? How much of this is about self-interest and how much of it is about being responsible and being part of the change for the good of the planet?
easyJet has always seen itself as a bit of a disrupter. There is this feeling that it’s part of the orange spirit and the DNA of the organisation that we should be very active in this front. I believe we have led the industry for instance the initiation of the offset programme was quite a radical move worldwide. Obviously, we continue to drive emissions down as far as possible in our day to day operation and focus on new technologies, but in the meantime, as an interim step, to be offsetting 100% of our operational emissions is something that wasn’t and isn’t being done by the rest of the industry. So yes, easyJet sees itself as a pioneer on that front and we intend to continue to drive this agenda in the industry.