Qantas frequent flyers will be awarded loyalty points and “green tier” status if they offset emissions from their flights, cars and homes as part of the airline’s efforts to improve its sustainability credentials.
Amid growing scrutiny of the global aviation industry’s environmental impact, Qantas said on Friday it would be the world’s first airline to reward customers who minimise their carbon footprint in the air and on the ground.
“We do know that points influence behaviour,” Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said. “Now we think that the green tier will incentivise many of our frequent flyers to be more sustainable, and that’s a great thing.”
About 11 per cent of Qantas customers currently pay a small amount ($1 on a Sydney-Melbourne flight) to offset the emissions from their travel, which goes towards revegetation projects, renewable energy projects and other carbon abatement schemes.
Mr Joyce said on Friday that Qantas was expanding its offset scheme so that customers could pay the airline to counter emissions from their homes and vehicles. It will cost around $200 on average for a family of four with two cars to offset their annual emissions.
“From our research of our customers, we know they believe it’s fundamentally the right thing to do,” he said.
From next year, Qantas loyalty members can also achieve “green tier” status if they offset emissions from flights and home electricity use, install solar panels, or take other steps to reduce their footprint. That will unlock bonus Qantas points and status credits, along with the feel-good recognition of a green digital Qantas loyalty card.
Qantas’ green push comes as the global airline industry grapples with its large carbon emissions, which threatens to make flying socially unacceptable at a time when other parts of the economy are rapidly decarbonising. Europe, for example, has seen a major uplift in overnight train travel as holidaymakers suffering from so-called “flight shame” shun air travel.
Climate Council senior researcher Tim Baxter said using offsets to mitigate emissions from essential air travel was “better than nothing”. But it was misguided to use them to tackle home electricity and car emissions, he said, when alternatives such as solar panels and electric vehicles were available.
“Encouraging consumers to offset stuff where they could easily replace their use of fossil fuels is a wrong-headed way to deal with the problem,” he said. “In that regard this program, while well-intentioned, kind of misses the target.”
Mr Baxter said tree-planting projects that often generated carbon credits did not mitigate the impact of burning fossil fuels that had been trapped underground for millions of years because any carbon captured was eventually released back into the atmosphere when that vegetation decomposed or burned.
“Where you can avoid the consumption of coal, oil or gas in your life, you should do that first,” he said.
Aviation contributed about 2 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions annually before the COVID-19 pandemic grounded airlines globally. In Australia, airlines contribute closer to 4 per cent of national emissions.
With no immediate solution for the global aviation industry to reduce its carbon emissions, it is instead using offsets and improved aircraft efficiency to gradually lower its net emissions. Medium term it has pinned its hopes on a shift to “sustainable aviation fuels” (SAF) made from vegetable oil or other biomass rather than petroleum, which can reduce carbon emissions by up to 80 per cent.
However, these biofuels currently cost up to four times as much as petroleum-based fuels and the uptake from airlines has been negligible. Qantas has committed $50 million to help develop a local SAF industry and Mr Joyce said on Friday the airline was close to finalising its first “significant” purchase of sustainable fuel.
“While the pandemic’s slowed our progress in this area, taking action to reduce our impact on the environment remains a big focus for Qantas,” Mr Joyce said. “And I think coming out of COVID it will be the big issue that the aviation industry, governments and companies will have to address.”
Qantas has committed to reaching “net zero” emissions by 2050, in line with the global industry, and says it will set an interim 2030 emissions reduction target early next year.
German airline Luftansa said this month it was also working on a “green rewards” scheme for its customers.