After decades of ‘tips’ and ‘small steps’ that you and I can take to ‘do our bit’ for the environment, there’s been something of a backlash against personal action recently. A number of high profile authors and commentators reject the idea of individual action altogether. If action is to be meaningful, it has to be at a bigger scale. Anything else is a distraction. This was certainly a theme in Assaad Razzouk’s book Saving the Planet Without the Bullshit, which I reviewed last week.
I’ve written before about the enabling role that personal actions play in wider change, so we don’t want to take things too far. But it is also true that corporations use personal actions and concepts such as individual carbon footprints to make it about us. Easyjet gave us a useful case study in that recently.
Last month the airline announced new climate change plans, including the ambition of being zero carbon by 2050 – mainly using hydrogen planes. But a few sentences into the press release, it changes tack and starts talking about us instead. According to their research, most people are excited about flying on a hydrogen plane and think its the best way to decarbonise aviation.
The questions are visibly tilted to back up Easyjet’s plan – apparently holiday makers are seeking to reduce their impact by choosing local destinations rather than long-haul. How convenient for a short-haul operator. 30% of people like to choose airlines which fly sustainably, which they define as “operating efficiently, with a high load factor and a young fleet”. Putting aside that laughably generous definition of sustainability, I just don’t believe that there is anybody on earth who looks at ‘load factor’ when choosing an airline.
Then the press announcement wraps up with a “top ten actions Brits undertake to help the environment when flying abroad”. This piece of PR guff includes switching lights off in the hotel room to save energy, and saving paper by using your phone instead of printing out hotel bookings.
There’s no way to check the survey questions because it was carried out by Easyjet rather than a third party, but I’ll bet you they didn’t ask about my favourite eco travel choice, which is to take the train instead.
In my view, it’s pretty obvious what Easyjet are doing here. They are announcing a plan that they know is inadequate – despite being industry leading, I might add. And they want to get ahead of the only real short-term solution to aviation emissions, which is to fly less.
That’s not just my view. The Climate Change Committee, Britain’s official scientific advisory body on climate change, says that limiting growth in aviation is vital to meeting carbon targets. The government won’t hear that, neither will Luton Airport or its owner Luton council, and neither will Easyjet and their shareholders. So Easyjet have used their press announcement to shape the debate and exclude that obvious solution. Instead, they use smaller actions to push environmental action back towards the consumer, while normalising flying on holiday. For the sake of their business model, the fundamental consumer habit must go unchallenged – so tell us about what you do for the environment when you fly on holiday.
This is exactly what commentators are talking about when they say that corporations use personal action to deflect attention from their own responsibility.
That’s not to say that Easyjet aren’t serious or that it can’t be done. We should all hope that Easyjet can and will deliver on net zero aviation. I very much look forwards to flying on a hydrogen plane at some point. But I also plan to take the train until such a time as genuinely sustainable aviation emerges.
I don’t think everyone needs to do that. After all, if everyone stopped flying immediately, Easyjet goes bust and the hydrogen planes never get developed. I don’t have any desire to destroy the industry. But can we do better than flying on holiday and then feeling good about switching off lights? Absolutely.