"At 05:20 this morning, easyJet flight EJU5841 took to the skies and made history."
So began easyJet’s announcement that it will now offset the carbon emissions from the fuel used for every one of its flights.
As a headline grabber, it has clearly worked. Press and consumers around the world have picked up on the story as a symbol of easyJet’s climate leadership.
On many levels, we have to applaud the commitment. Investing £25m in tree-planting and fuel-saving initiatives is indisputably a good thing. Taking a climate leadership position in an industry in desperate need of it is a good thing. But that hasn’t stopped an array of scientists and NGOs from quickly calling the news out as "jumbo-size greenwashing".
Why? Not because the commitment itself is flawed, but because of the way it has been communicated.
EasyJet framed the story in some impressive language. It claims to be "making history" as "the first major airline to operate net-zero carbon flights". Yet this language is inaccurate; in reality, nothing about these flights will be net-zero. EasyJet is forecast to emit seven million tonnes of CO2 next year (that’s equivalent to the annual emissions of Costa Rica). Once they come out the back of the plane, these emissions will exist in the Earth’s atmosphere for the next few hundred years.
Far from "making history", what easyJet is doing is actually very familiar; instead of dealing with its own pollution, it is investing money on schemes to reduce emissions elsewhere, including energy-efficiency schemes and the building of low-carbon infrastructure, such as windmills. Note "reduce" emissions, not "remove". The company’s commitment is to help other industries become a little less polluting to distract from the fact that there is at present no low-emission way to transport a 80,000kg piece of metal from London to Birmingham via the sky.
Yet, by using the "zero carbon flight" language, easyJet is framing its programme like a game-changing carbon-capture programme that will somehow suck the carbon out of the air as it is emitted – a feat that isn’t going to be possible any time in the near future. And to the extent to which carbon capture and storage is possible, it would cost about 100 times the £3.50 per tonne of CO2 that it has committed. As one Twitter commentator put it: "Greenwash ratio: 100:1."
So why does this matter? Isn’t a bit of hyperbole par for the course in our industry?
Because, when it comes to the climate, words matter. The actual "net zero" commitments made by countries, cities and companies around the world are the result of years of work from climate scientists to calculate the scale of commitment required and years of negotiation to achieve hard-reached compromises between world leaders. EasyJet has taken the scientific language designed to describe the unprecedented shift required and casually appropriated it to describe a compromise-free continuation of the status quo.
When our industry misuses language in this way, it has the effect of removing the efficacy from these words, rendering them meaningless over time – as has already happened with the term "sustainable". As climate researcher Kevin Anderson says of the concept of carbon offsetting: "It is without scientific legitimacy, is dangerously misleading and almost certainly contributes to a net increase in the absolute rate of global emissions growth." The word "offset" itself delivers a false sense of security when the science isn’t capable of any such security.
We are at a pivotal point in history. Activists and scientists across the world have worked tirelessly towards one goal – to help people see the truth of the urgency of the climate crisis. And now, after years of denial, our culture is waking up to the scale of the climate crisis, with 85% of Brits now "very concerned". Every day, people are beginning to feel the feelings that an emergency of this scale should naturally induce: fear, panic, the need for drastic action. Naturally, these feelings are uncomfortable – meaning that people are also looking for reassurance. People are still hoping that someone will tell them it will be OK, that there are easy fixes that mean carrying on as usual is fine.
It is in advertising’s power to give people that reassurance – to keep them comfortable with the status quo. Thanks to easyJet’s message, thousands of people will now have booked flights, with their "flight shame" soothed by knowing that their flight will be a zero-carbon one. But this reassurance will be entirely false. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s climate science states that only "unprecedented change" to our systems and lifestyles will be enough to save us from catastrophe. In the case of the airline industry, that has to mean radical behaviour change to slow the rate of aviation emissions growth that is forecast by the International Council on Clean Transportation to triple by 2050.
Now, our industry faces a choice. We can use the language of climate scientists and activists to help us with our day jobs (in this case, using words such as "net zero" to bump up the easyJet share price).
Or we can use the skills of our jobs to actually help tackle the climate crisis, telling the truth of what will and won’t make the necessary impact. We have the power to shape lifestyles and culture, to shape what is perceived as "acceptable" and "normal". We can be the accelerators of truly net-zero ideas and we have the power to make people comfortable with the unprecedented change required.
I look forward to seeing how easyJet goes on to communicate last week’s announcement in the media, but there’s plenty to be learned from the way KLM communicated its own (far less ambitious) offset programme. Instead of using offsetting to reassure people it is fine to fly, "Fly responsibly" borrowed a few tricks from the alcohol industry. The airline acknowledged the seriousness of air travel’s climate impact and urged consumers to make more conscious and considered decisions about their flight choices. All neatly promoted by a film for which "no flights were taken in the making of this advert".
Perhaps our industry should develop our own version of this slogan: "Communicate responsibly." It’s in our power to make or break the emerging climate movement, meaning it’s incumbent on us to choose our words wisely. We must avoid normalising the wrong things. We should save "moment in history" talk for the real breakthroughs and tough decisions of true leadership. And we must avoid appropriating words such as "net zero" or "crisis" unless they are being used in the appropriate way. As Greta Thunberg tells us, now more than ever "we must speak clearly, no matter how uncomfortable that may be".
Ben Essen is chief strategy officer at Iris