It’s easy to be angry about the watered down global environment deal hammered out last week in Japan. But when it comes to some personal issues, few of us are willing to budge an inch either. Are you prepared to cut back on your trips by plane? Airline travel is set to grow by 200 to 600 percent by 2050. And carbon emissions are not routinely compensated for by most airlines.
In years to come, the airline industry itself will be doing a lot to clean up its act, if only because it endears customers. Some US airlines are already offering passengers the chance to personally offset greenhouse gas emissions. Continental Airlines recently launched its Sustainable Travel International, which is a fund in which to fund the purchase of carbon offsets. Delta Airlines announced a similar program one year ago. Internationally, Cathay Pacific, Virgin Blue, and SAS are also offering passengers carbon offset options.
These are all laudable initiatives, but at industry level, little is being organized in the US. Unlike in Europe, where lawmakers are subjecting the airline industry to limited carbon emissions. The rules are effective from 2012. All airlines landing in Europe, including overseas planes, will then be required to offset their greenhouse gas emissions or face a ban on landing rights to European airports.
US government and airline officials are furious about this. They have recently started to make their own preparations to reduce airline pollution. The Wall Street Journal reports that the US plans to collaborate with 15 international countries to make a start at the upcoming meeting in Montreal organized by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). This is a Kyoto Protocol recognized forum created specifically to address the issue of airline greenhouse gas emissions.
It is not exactly clear what US airline officials or the government are going to agree on, but the plans are almost certainly totally different in nature to those made by the European Union. Officials from both the US and the EU say a row has erupted over the EU’s ‚Äògreen ultimatum’ to US airlines not participating in carbon dioxide emissions. The European rationale goes that any airline not offsetting their carbon emissions has an unfair competitive advantage. That can’t be tolerated, hence the proposed penalties. But American airline officials complain that the EU airline proposal violates an important international aviation accord signed in 1944 in Chicago.
In this light, it will be interesting to see what transpires from the Montreal meeting at the end of this month. Already, US participants are lobbying other countries intensely to drum up support for a climate change guidelines, rather than strict rules. Insiders don’t hold out much hope, saying that the organization that hosts it, the ICAO, has since its own inception a few years ago, not achieved many of its goals. US officials have invited the EU to participate in the talks.
Europeans are strong believers in carbon offsetting and not without reason. It is expected that airlines will reduce their carbon levels by 3% in the first year of carbon trading on the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Base line are levels reached in 2004-2006. The airline sector is of prime importance in the EU’s overall effort to reduce greenhouse gas by 20% in 2020 compared with 1990 greenhouse gas levels.
But there are downsides too. A study by the Association of European Airlines estimates that Europe’s 35 airlines will be faced with total carbon emission reduction costs of ‚Ç¨5.3 billion ($8.36 billion). Financial analysts say that the number is way higher than these airlines’ combined operating profit (‚Ç¨3.7 billion last year).
Ultimately the traveller will end up paying most of the extra costs. Earlier estimates put the costs of reducing greenhouse gas to around $27 per ticket. In a sense this ain’t a bad thing because airline passengers might find it comforting to contribute some funds for their polluting travels.
Financial analysts predict that airlines, many of which are on the verge of financial troubles due to high fuel costs, are going to face way worse times if they don’t make preparations to offset their carbon emissions. Why? Negative public perception is considered as much of a risk to airlines as high fuel costs.
Not only might airlines run reputational risks if they don’t make sure they take environmental issues seriously, but they even might have difficulties getting financing if they don’t live up to the standard. That is because bankers are beginning to demand green credentials in return for cash. Flight Global, a trade magazine for the airline industry, reports that
“A risk manager will […] as a matter of course take account of a business’s holistic impact on the environment and will subject that to the same level of audit scrutiny as he would traditionally give to a business’s balance sheet”.
That’s pretty hefty.
If you are interested in finding out ways to reduce your carbon footprint as a frequent airline passenger, check out these tips in a recent Globe and Mail article.
Angelique van Engelen is a freelance journalist in Edinburgh, Scotland. She runs AmplifiedGreen, a blog about environment and business.