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EasyJet Could Soon Be Flying Fuel-Free

The British airline is developing an electric engine for short flights. But the industry's share of global emissions is likely to keep going up.

The low-cost British airline easyJet is developing a battery-powered aircraft for short flights, like those from London to Paris, it announced on Wednesday.

In order to create electric engines that cut emissions, noise pollution, and costs, easyJet teamed up with the American start-up Wright Electric. According to Wright Electric, the battery-propelled planes could be half as noisy and 10 percent cheaper than those that require jet fuel, and could begin shuttling passengers on flights shorter than two hours within a decade.

The easyJet innovation is among the first of its kind for an industry that, as a whole, has skirted emissions reductions.

Aviation, which accounts for 1.3 percent of global emissions, is not a part of the Paris Agreement. But last year, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the United Nations agency charged with reducing emissions from international flights, announced its own plan to curb the industry's carbon emissions: a carbon market through which airlines could buy credits to offset emissions. But shortly after the ICAO's announcement, carbon market experts pointed out several ways that aviation's market plan could wind up being counterproductive.

For one thing, though touted as a "game-changing" plan to cap airline emissions, ICAO's plan actually allows emissions to grow unimpeded through 2020. After that, airlines will have to offset any emissions above 2020 levels by purchasing carbon credits. But not all credits are created equal. Oil companies that become more energy efficient can, for example, sell carbon savings on a carbon market, meaning buyers would inadvertently be subsidizing the oil and gas industry.

Even the most straightforward credits—those that protect plots of forest to absorb excess carbon emissions, for example—have flaws. As I wrote last year:

The problem, according to Nils Hermann Ranum, the head of policy and campaigns at Rainforest Foundation Norway, is that, while emissions can last forever, forests are not permanent carbon vaults. As rising temperatures increase the risk of tree death by drought or fire, forests become ever more likely to release their carbon stores back into the atmosphere. ... There's also the issue of supply and demand, as there is a finite amount of land available for increasing forest areas. Airlines could wind up creating social conflict once space runs out, and they find themselves competing for land that people need to live on, and to farm.

There's also the risk that credits purchased by airlines could be double counted: The Paris Agreement bars participating countries from double counting carbon credits—selling credits to other countries and counting them toward their own Nationally Determined Contributions. Technically, there is nothing in the agreement barring countries from selling credits to airlines and simultaneously counting those emissions reductions toward their own targets.

ICAO's plan was always meant to be a placeholder policy while the industry scales up other technologies (say, electric engines). "It's a gap filler for us," Jane Hupe, the chief of the environmental unit for the ICAO, told me last year. "We want to fly with solar, we want to fly with water, we want to fly with mental power, but you have to get there."

While easyJet's electric planes are a first step toward decarbonization of the industry, there are still plenty of small-scale technological and operational changes airlines can make to save both emissions and money.