British Airways sets off towards its destination of becoming the world's most responsible airline
Jonathon Counsell, Head of Environment, British Airways
Mon 19 Jan 2008 – Once promoting itself as the world’s favourite airline, British Airways has launched a new, no-less ambitious campaign that aims to position it as the world’s most responsible airline. The One Destination programme is the outcome of a year-long strategic review by the corporate responsibility team set up by CEO Willie Walsh. British Airways’ Head of Environment, Jonathon Counsell, outlines the airline’s environmental objectives to Christopher Surgenor.
As far back as 1978, British Airways (BA) has had an environmental department but it took a decision by Chief Executive Willie Walsh and the BA board in November 2007 to create a Corporate Responsibility department and its own board chaired by Walsh. BA also added a fifth goal to its list of overall corporate objectives, focusing on delivering lower carbon emissions throughout its operations.
Despite a considerable shedding of jobs elsewhere in BA over the past year, the new 30-strong department is one of the few to have grown. A myriad of carbon efficiency and community relations initiatives undertaken throughout the organization have now been brought together under one umbrella.
The department, initially under the leadership of Silla Maizey – she was recently promoted to BA’s Customer Director – is now jointly managed by Head of Environment, Jonathon Counsell, and Dr Nigel Dowdell, Head of Wellbeing & Engagement.
“During the year, we have set about developing and embedding a corporate responsibility (CR) strategy that has involved a huge amount of benchmarking and listening to many stakeholders, including customers, NGOs and environmental experts,” says Amy Banks, Corporate Responsibility Manager. “We’ve used this knowledge to define our One Destination strategy.”
One Destination sets out four key areas – environment, community, marketplace and workplace – in the airline’s efforts towards becoming a more responsible and efficient business.
The campaign was rolled out last month to all BA staff through management briefings, internal communication and the company’s intranet. A special edition of BA’s weekly staff newspaper was dedicated to the launch of One Destination.
“We must not forget that CR is important at all times, whether economic conditions are good or bad,” wrote Willie Walsh in the newspaper. “And we must recognize the balance between the interests of the economy and those of the environment.
“Growth and tackling climate change are not mutually exclusive policies. The two issues go hand in hand. We can grow our industry while being responsible environmentally. We have been doing that for some time and will continue to do so.”
A key objective of One Destination has been to set targets for reducing carbon emissions company-wide. A decade ago, BA made a commitment to a 30% improvement in carbon efficiency by 2010, compared with 1990. The airline is on track to deliver this, claiming to have achieved a 28% improvement by the end of 2007.
Counsell’s team undertook a extensive footprinting exercise last year across the entire operation and came up with a very precise figure of 17,714,897 tonnes of CO2 emissions during 2007, aircraft accounting for 95% of the total. A long term goal of reducing net emissions by half to around 9 million tonnes by 2050 – in line with Stern recommendations – and a shorter term aim of improving carbon efficiency by 25% by 2025 have now been established.
Putting the target into a context, the goal is to reduce the number of grams of CO2 per passenger kilometre by 25% from 111g in 2005 to 83g by 2025. In 2007, the figure achieved was 110.3g CO2/pkm.
BA has on order 12 Airbus A380 aircraft and 24 Boeing 787s to replace some of its 767-300s and 747-400s. It is also taking delivery of Boeing 777-200s and -300s, and announced late last month that wholly-owned subsidiary BA CityFlyer had placed orders for a fleet of 11 new generation Embraer 170 and 190SR efficiency jets, known as E-Jets. The new shorthaul aircraft are expected to improve CO2 emissions by up to 56% on the 170 compared with the existing aircraft and the 190SR should improve emissions by up to 28%.
However, year by year, BA’s CO2 emissions have been steadily increasing and Counsell foresees the trend continuing for the next 10 years, but at a slowing rate, and believes this will be mirrored by the aviation industry. “No airline is going to be able to reduce its absolute emissions within the next 5 to 10 years,” he maintains. “In the meantime, we will do everything we can through operational efficiencies.”
Wholehearted support for ETS
Counsell expects emissions to peak between 2020 and 2025 and then come down, with market-based measures like the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) playing an important role in their eventual decline.
“We think emissions trading is the most effective market-based mechanism and BA supports it wholeheartedly,” he says. “The aviation industry won’t be able to play its full part in contributing to a global reduction in emissions without it, simply because within the 2050 timeframe there is no feasible alternative to using fossil fuels. Our priority is to do as much as we can through technology and operational efficiencies, with the remainder of the reductions coming through market tools.”
BA was one of the few airlines to advocate the ETS being restricted to intra-European traffic only initially and Counsell is concerned about competitive distortions arising through carbon leakage as the scheme currently stands and may not deliver the carbon reductions planned. He says the airline is talking with EU policymakers to find ways of solving the problem, for example looking at the level of auctioning applied to international flights.
Counsell estimates the ETS will cost the airline “hundreds of millions of pounds” in the first few years of operation “but that’s what we have to do to play our part”.
“It’s not a question of whether we can afford it or not, we have got to do it,” he states. “As long as we are not commercially disadvantaged through distortions, we see supporting the ETS as the most responsible position to take.” He says there must be an environmental cost to flying reflected in the ticket price in which the passenger understands that he or she is paying for the environmental damage.
“It is unsustainable for aviation to continue without incorporating the full cost of this damage – the alternative is that we won’t survive long term.”
As far as the passenger is concerned, the cost of mitigating that environmental damage remains voluntary until the introduction of the ETS in 2012. BA was the first airline to introduce a passenger carbon offset scheme back in 2005. Counsell admits the initial take-up was poor but this has improved considerably, he says, since it was re-launched in January 2008. By late 2008, around 150,000 passengers – representing a 3.6% take-up rate – had chosen to offset around 53,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions last year.
Counsell says there is a big difference between the take-up on short-haul compared to long-haul flights, the former achieving an average 8 to 9% take-up compared to just 1.5% on long-haul, which he suggests is mainly down to the higher cost factor of offsetting a longer flight, especially if families are involved. Findings suggest that around £5 (about $7) – which can cover approximately 2,000km-worth of emissions per passenger – is the point at which customer resistance is felt.
BA is looking to increase the take-up to 10% and Counsell’s team is looking at ways of achieving this ambitious target. Under consideration is making available points at check-in and departure lounges for passengers to offset their journey’s carbon emissions, and developing the ba.com website so that customers can offset at the point of online check-in through the ‘Manage My Booking’ tool.
BA’s research shows that there is still uncertainty in the minds of customers over airline carbon offset schemes, principally doubts about where the money is going to. The airline has increased its efforts to provide as much transparency as possible on its website and explain that the CDM projects supported through the scheme are “copper-bottomed” and UN-backed.
With the advent of the ETS in 2012, the future of the scheme is under consideration as passengers could not be expected to pay for their carbon emissions twice over. However, Counsell sees the scheme as playing an important role in engaging with customers on the wider climate change debate.
Global deal on emissions target
Another key objective of the BA strategy, says Counsell, is to persuade the global airline industry to sign up to the 50% by 2050 reduction target, which he admits will be “challenging”. He acknowledges this is a key year for the industry in the lead up to the UNFCCC Copenhagen summit in December.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has come in for considerable criticism on its inability to come up with a consensus on global measures to reduce aviation CO2 emissions but Counsell understands that its Group on International Aviation and Climate Change (GIACC) has made a good deal of progress in recent months.
BA’s attitude to alternative jet fuels has been somewhat ambiguous over the past year, with Willie Walsh famously describing the first biofuel demonstration flight last February undertaken by Virgin Atlantic as a publicity stunt. However, BA has since entered into a programme with Rolls-Royce in which engines belonging to the airline are sent to the manufacturer for testing with biofuels.
Counsell outlines the current approach: “We absolutely support the development of alternative aviation fuels, including the recent initiatives. As a responsible airline, we won’t make any claims on such fuels until they have been substantiated but we acknowledge there has been some significant progress.
“There are still a number of interesting questions that need to be faced, such as how these fuels will be treated under market-based mechanisms like the ETS and whether airlines will be able to specify blends at airports, where different blends could be available at different airports.
“However, I have become more encouraged over the past 18 months and there has been a shift that is more interesting than we first thought. These fuels won’t be an overnight solution but in my view they could play a significant role by around 2030.”
On the wider environmental and climate change debate, Counsell says aviation has been on the ‘back foot’. “The media and NGOs have been able to take control of the message and have created an emotional argument that it’s bad to fly. Clearly, aviation has a negative effect on the environment but we believe there are huge economic benefits to flying and people love to travel.
“There is an environmental price to be paid but we will make sure that the cost will be met in full.”