Are Airlines New Environmental Enemy Number One?
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Are Airlines New Environmental Enemy Number One?

Last week, the U.K.’s environment minister, Ian Pearson, launched a remarkable, scathing attack on airlines, describing low-cost carrier Ryanair as “the irresponsible face of capitalism” and describing the attitude of major American airlines “a disgrace.”

Paul Holmes

Forget the chemical companies and Big Oil, the new environmental enemy number one in the U.K. is the airline industry.

Last week, the U.K.’s environment minister, Ian Pearson, launched a remarkable, scathing attack on airlines, describing low-cost carrier Ryanair as “the irresponsible face of capitalism” and describing the attitude of major American airlines “a disgrace.”

The remarks are a response to the airline industry’s lobbying against proposed EU regulations—prompted by intense concern on the part of the Blair government—designed to rein in carbon emissions. The EU has proposed a carbon trading scheme that would go into effect in 2011 and would apply to all international flights that arrive at or depart from an EU airport, including those operated by airlines from outside the EU.

Environmental activists in the U.K. have been increasingly focused on the environmental impact of air travel. In his book Heat: How to Stop the Planet Breathing, Guardian columnist George Monbiot explains that “on a return flight from London to New York, every passenger produces roughly 1.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide.” That’s the amount every individual should be producing per annum, he says, if a global warming catastrophe is to be avoided.

Emissions from aviation have been growing faster than any other source of greenhouse gases, environmentalists say. Between 1990 and 2004, the number of people using airports in the U.K. rose by 120 percent and the carbon dioxide emissions from air travel almost doubled. Says Monbiot: “Unless something is done to stop this growth, aviation will overwhelm all the cuts we manage to make elsewhere.”

A recent survey by the Office for National Statistics in the U.K. found that 70 percent of Britons believe that air travel harms the environment, up from 62 percent in 2002

The emissions trading scheme proposed by the EU—which does not go nearly far enough to satisfy most environmentalists—would increase the cost of every transatlantic ticket by approximately £25 ($48). But Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, has vowed to boycott the scheme, dismissing the proposal as “just another tax,” and several of the major American international operators are threatening lawsuits to prevent the inclusion of U.S. flights in and out of Europe.

That prompted the remarks by Pearson, who responded that “when it comes to climate change, Ryanair is not just the unacceptable face of capitalism, it is the irresponsible face of capitalism.” As for the American airlines, “They just seem to be saying they don’t want anything to do with the trading scheme, and that they will take the EU to court if transatlantic flights are included. It is completely irresponsible.”

Pearson also expressed disappointment that Lufthansa, the German airline, is opposing emissions cuts despite the fact the German government of Angela Merkel is making the fight against climate change a central issue of its G8 presidency. And he criticized British Airways, which he says is “only just playing ball. They say they are happy with a trading scheme that is confined to flights within Europe, rather than one that includes all flights departing the EU.”

European carriers believe that American airlines will use international law to avoid the emissions restrictions, giving themselves a competitive advantage if trans-Atlantic flights by EU operators are included. Some have called for a worldwide agreement under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, but the EU and environmentalists suspect that the U.S. would be able to block—or at least delay—any international agreement.

The U.S. has condemned the EU emissions scheme as illegal. “The inclusion of non-EU airlines on a non-consensual basis runs counter to EU member states’ legal obligations under the Chicago convention...and their bilateral air transport agreements, including with the U.S.,” according to a Bush administration spokesman.

But that won’t prevent the environmental impact of air travel from becoming a major issue: initially for any airline that seeks to do business in the U.K. and Europe and ultimately on a global basis.

“I do not believe it is a one-off,” says Paul Feldman, an aviation expert with international public affairs consultancy APCO Worldwide. “I think European politicians will continue to apply pressure to airlines on this issue and this will continue to have a spillover effect.”

Scott Gillespie, former president and CEO of Travel Analytics, which was acquired by transaction processing and data integration services provider TRX in August of last year, says that this “seems to be a hot issue in Western Europe and is catching on in the U.S. and Canada. One interesting statistic is that we are cutting airline CO2 emissions by 2 percent but worldwide flights are increasing by 5 percent, clearly indicating this is a global problem.

“It likely become a strategically important issue for the larger global airline industry, as corporations factor in emissions as a vendor selection criteria for airlines and as tourists lean toward the greener airlines.”

And it’s likely to be an issue for other companies that are part of the aviation—and larger travel and tourism—industry.

Says Rene Mack, who heads the travel practice at Weber Shandwick, “This is a real issue and one that the industry—not just the airlines, but the manufactures of the planes and engines—will need to address.  As the population of the world continues to grow, so will the number of jet planes in the skies.”

So far, the response has varied pretty dramatically from company to company.

Ryanair is clearly at one end of the continuum, with O’Leary dismissing a recent report by the chief economist of the U.K. Treasury, Sir Nicholas Stern, on the long-term cost of failing to address rising global temperatures. “A lot of lies and misinformation has been put about by eco nuts on the back of a report by an idiot economist,” says the airline’s chief executive.

At the other extreme, Sir Richard Branson has pledged to invest $3 billion in profits from his transport businesses, including Virgin Atlantic airlines, over the next decade to fight global warming. The money will be directed to a series of commercial ventures designed to produce renewable energy and limit environmental damage.

Branson says he became convinced of the seriousness of the situation after Al Gore, former U.S. vice president, visited him at his home, and is making the investment because “global warming could literally wipe out the world.”

British Airways has also been active, joining the organization Carbon Care and offering passengers ways to offset their share of carbon emissions. As for suppliers, GE Aviation, for example, has introduced the double-annular combustor, which lowers nitrogen oxide emissions and is being used on the new Airbus A320 series and Boeing 737 aircraft.

“I think airlines are in a very difficult position. Some like Virgin and BA have taken very public steps to say aviation emissions are a real problem and that they have plans to address it. Some have simply buried their heads in the sand. What is probably most needed is an overall industry strategy that focuses on air traffic improvements, research, better technology and procedures to address this issue. 
“The industry has not been very good about being proactive in what it is doing and I think it has really left it to the greens and others to declare it guilty.”

Gillespie says airlines should actively promote their efforts to use the best or better jet engines and fuels; offer carbon emission offset calculators and funding mechanisms; and fund research and development either directly or by pressing the engine manufacturers to come up with alternative fuels and jet engine technology.

He says that in early 2007, his company will be launching a carbon model calculator—a tool for measuring the carbon emissions generated by most airlines around the world. “We’ll be able to measure the costs and tonnage associated with a corporation’s travel program. Further, we can identify which airlines have the least emissions, and can help corporations understand how much greener these airlines are for their corporate travel program.”

Brendan May, head of the international corporate responsibility practice at Weber Shandwick, believes airlines will need to become much more proactive in addressing the issue.

“There is certainly a major reputation problem with the airline industry as the global sense of urgency on climate change continues to gather pace and receive media exposure,” says May. “Airlines are often seen to be reactive rather than proactive, and their strong lobbying power is increasingly under scrutiny. In failing to take proactive action and appear accountable, airlines have lined themselves up as the iconic fall guys for climate change, the easy low hanging fruit for NGOs and activists to attack.”

A smart airline, he says, “would firstly acknowledge the huge environmental impacts of its operations. Accepting you are part of a problem is the first step to any form of responsible positioning. It would do all it could to reduce those impacts, for instance by taxiing on one not two engines and investing in greener technologies across its business. Some airlines are already doing this.”

In terms of communications, a smart airline could use its huge reach and consumer facing position to actively engage its customers in programs designed to increase awareness of the challenges of global warming and what they can do about it, as BP did in educating the public about “carbon footprints” through its advertising.

“Why not offer triple airmiles to customers who offset the carbon emissions of their flights?” May suggests. “Or use the in-flight entertainment system to raise environmental awareness.

“Airlines are not going to stop flying willing passengers from A to B. Nor should they. But they could do a great deal more to reflect the changing concerns of their customers. And in doing so, they could position themselves as legitimate partners in the debate about climate change, proving they can be agents for positive change instead of passive bystanders trying to avoid stricter regulatory oversight and fuel taxes.

“The door is wide open for a visionary airline to ‘own’ the responsible travel space, and reap the reputation benefits of doing so.”


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