How Does Ryanair Use Your Carbon Offset Donation?

By Vivian Duncan | Updated on September 16, 2021

In the face of climate change, companies and industries are looking to find creative ways to mitigate the harm from the emissions and waste their activities produce, like Ryanair carbon offsets program.

The growing use of carbon offset tree planting has been effective as a way to eliminate a certain amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. And although a number of industries embraced the idea early on, there have been some problems.

Ryanair has recently been in the news over criticisms for the way it uses your carbon offset donation.

Many people wonder if the complaints are legitimate, or if Ryanair has addressed the concerns…

An 8 Billion Trees illustration of a Ryanair front desk with carbon offsets written on it, indicating the airline's carbon offset options.

Global Aviation by the Numbers

The Air Transport Action Group asserts that the global aviation industry alone is responsible for no less than 2% of all human-induced CO2 emissions. In 2018 passenger and freight airlines emitted 1.04 billion tons of CO2.1

The situation has been getting worse, and aviation emissions have continued to rise and have doubled since the 1980s.3

It’s an unfortunate reality that airline transportation has one of the biggest impacts on our environment, but humanity is slowly becoming more aware of its own carbon footprint and can now use an ecological footprint calculator to find it, and the industry is starting to put measure in place to reduce that negative impact.

Ryanair’s History of Questionable Climate Stances

In 2018, Ryanair, a budget airline that carries about 142 million passengers each year, pledged to become “plastic free” by 2023, promising to eliminate nonrecyclable plastics from its operations.4 This was a hopeful beginning to the airline industry making positive changes, but their actions since have not aligned with this goal.

In early 2020, a UK advertising watchdog banned an ad campaign from Ryanair for false claims. The ads claim that Ryanair has the “lowest carbon emissions of any major airline,” but the environmental group Transport & Environment accused Ryanair of greenwashing instead of tackling its emissions. The term greenwashing means that they were trying to come across as “green” for marketing purposes, but not actually taking any action.

The airline ran the low-emissions ad campaign just over five months after it became the first non-coal company to be named in the EU top 10 carbon dioxide emitters list.4

Michael O’Leary, Ryanair’s CEO, has been cited as saying some off-putting things. Of environmentalists, he was quoted as saying “We want to annoy the f**kers … The best thing we can do with environmentalists is shoot them.”5 He has also repeatedly denied that climate change is driven by carbon dioxide emissions.

These instances and more have caused many to question the true motives of Ryanair’s commitment to reducing their environmental impact.

An 8 Billion Trees graphic of the climate impact of air travel, charting the pollutants produced, and the contribution to global warming.

Ryanair’s More Recent Carbon Offset Issues: How Are They Using Your Money?

Top officials at Ryanair launched a PR campaign last year in an effort to boost their own green credentials, in which they announced four new ‘carbon offset’ partnerships.

Later in 2020, Ryanair ended two of their offsetting contracts, which resulted in about £172,000 after a BBC Panorama investigation cast new doubt upon the overall effectiveness of the carbon offsetting projects for Ryanair’s emissions.

Ryanair incorporated a program where customers were asked to make donations amounting to £1 when making online flight registrations, claimed as a contribution for ‘carbon offset’ projects. They had just doubled the contribution fee to £2 earlier in the year, before announcing the latest project update. But these, unlike the best carbon offset programs, were lacking in transparency.

In the end, Ryanair was unable to follow through with their commitment/plans to re-forest 7.5 hectares of woodland in Ireland — the project was abandoned due to Ryanair believing the offset effort would have very little impact in reducing total emissions. Ryanair calculated that their two new offset programs only resulted in a 0.01% emissions decline when compared to Ryanair’s 2019 emissions, all while remaining Europe’s 9th worst polluter.4

Ryanair also dropped another project — a dolphin and whale counting effort that was set to take place in the Atlantic Ocean. Charity bosses admitted, again, that the project did not contribute to a significant CO2 reduction.

Ryanair does have other projects that are still active, including a reforestation project aiming to plant 75,000 trees on the Algarve in Portugal, as well as an effort to provide fuel-efficient cooking stoves to struggling families in Uganda. Both of these projects are still active and underway.

Ryanair Efforts Criticized as Inadequate

Even those who have criticized Ryanair in the past called Ryanair’s offset efforts woefully inadequate.

To solve the problem, Ryanair said it will invest in ‘certified’ carbon offsetting projects. These new projects will offer a ‘verification’ stamp that allows organizations to successfully and convincingly claim that their carbon footprint is being plausibly and effectively offset.

Ryanair’s change of direction comes at a cost to more than just the environment. Small organizations that expected major funding from the £2.1 million that Ryanair gathered in airline passenger contributions are now left without any of the funding they were originally counting on.

Airlines all over the world have been scrambling in recent years to either meet or exceed very strict global guidelines which require airline companies to drastically reduce emissions as well as their overall carbon footprint.

Despite Ryanair holding fast as Europe’s 9th worst polluter, the airline itself continues to insist that it’s the “greenest, cleanest major airline,” in Europe. In 2018 alone, however, Ryanair emitted over 9.9 megatons of CO2 and there has been no evidence since that the amount has gone down.2

Questionable Green Credentials: Identifying Greenwashing

Efforts by big polluters (aviation organizations among them) have often been criticized by people like Gilles Dufrasne (who is involved in a Carbon Market Watch think-tank) as “Nothing but greenwashing.”

Greenwashing, which has also been labeled as “green sheen,” is categorized as a form of marketing deception where organizations put a green spin on what they do, which can be deceptively used to alter public opinion about an organization’s products, an organization as a whole, as well as its aims and policies.

Ryanair has received public criticism recently and in the past for advertising false green credentials — which is a condition which is seen as symptomatic of the global aviation industry as a whole.

Native Woodland Trust (NWT) had to send Ryanair an invoice amounting to £13,000 for work on the project that has since been classified as “wasted.”

Ryanair posted a video on their YouTube account in which the trust’s chairman, Jim Lawlor, gave thanks, saying: “We’d like to say a big thanks to Ryanair and to all of their customers who have chosen to offset their carbon when booking their tickets.”

However, NWT suddenly lost Ryanair’s support and now faces a bill of over £21,000 in order to successfully complete the project.

Experts like Professor Simon Lewis of UCL have gone on record saying that in order for Ryanair to offset its own carbon footprint it would have to plant trees that will cover 12% of the UK.

Differentiating between a green gimmick and a serious attempt to curb climate change is essential when analyzing an organization’s environmental impact, and when calculating what can be done to offset such negative impacts. To avoid greenwashing, verify that the organization is truly striving to be carbon neutral.

Successful Carbon Offsetting: Verifying Organizations Are Key

Using ecological offsets that are government or third party verified is extremely important in mounting a successful carbon offsetting program, unlike the ones conducted by Ryanair. With so many companies wanting to change their impact on the earth, more and more offset providers are emerging. It is important to make sure that any offsets bought, whether that involves flights or energy, are certified through one of the reputable organizations who do this, to ensure it is a legitimate offset provider.

The programs Ryanair had originally set up could have had great potential, but without being held accountable to follow through with a feasible plan, the company wasted an opportunity to help the planet.

However, with verification and vetting, there are solutions to the relevant criticisms raised from Ryanair’s actions.

Going forward, airlines and other organizations can avoid making Ryanair’s carbon offsets mistakes by using government verified offset projects, to make a real difference in the planet’s health.


References

1BBC News. (2021). ATAG Beginner’s Guide to Aviation Efficiency, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Qantas. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from atag.org: https://www.atag.org/facts-figures.html

2Neslen, Arthur. (2019, April 1). “‘Ryanair is the new coal’: Airline Enters EU’s Top 10 Emitters List.” The Guardian, Guardian News & Media Limited. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from thegaurdian.com: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/apr/01/ryanair-new-coal-airline-enters-eu-top-10-emitters-list#:

3Air Transport Action Group. (n.d.). Air Transport Action Group – Facts and Figure. Retrieved May 26, 2021, from atag.org: https://www.atag.org/facts-figures.html

4Payne, T., & Norton, J. (2020, February 28). Ryanair’s carbon cop-out: Passengers paid to ‘offset’ emissions and fill this field with trees – but the airline pulled the plug on the scheme after critics branded it a ‘green gimmick.’ Retrieved May 27, 2021, from Dailymail.co.uk: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8057739/Ryanair-passengers-paid-offset-emissions-field-trees-airline-pulled-plug.html

5Crace, J. (2009, June 3). John Crace on Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary in his own words. The Guardian. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from theguardian.com: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2009/jun/04/michael-oleary-ryanair-airline-industry.