Travel and the environment, published in Star Alliance
Published by Star Alliance
As the environmental debate has pushed its way up the global agenda, airlines have come under unprecedented scrutiny for the climate changing emissions that they cause, obliging governments, corporations, passengers and the airlines themselves to reconsider the role of air travel in modern life.
Many in the industry feel that they have been unfairly singled out, given that air travel accounts for just 2 per cent of global emissions, compared with far higher numbers for housing, energy and other forms of transport. Marine transportation alone accounts for an estimate 5 per cent of global emissions. Yet somehow air travel has become an easy target for campaigners and a focal point for those who argue that there is an urgent need for dramatic action on climate change.
As Christian Klick at Star Alliance's Corporate Office points out, taking steps to minimise air travel's impact on the environment has long been a priority for member airlines. An environmental statement was released by the Alliance in 1999, at one of the first international conferences. Radical measures to improve fuel efficiency and noise have followed, with airlines achieving significant reductions in emissions in the following years. "New generation aircraft are 30 per cent more fuel efficient than their predecessors, as Star Alliance CEO Jaan Albrecht explains. "Some actually need less fuel per passenger than cars."
Nevertheless, the challenge of the future will be to continue this pattern of 'greening the skies' through a broad range of initiatives. Some are disarmingly simple: aircraft should spend less time taxiing along runways, they should install motors in their wheels to avoid using jet engines to taxi; air traffic control should be improved to cut down on 'stacking'; aircraft should fly at higher, less fuel thirsty, altitudes, should ascend more steeply and possible glide down to land (a rather frightening thought).
These measures, along with retro-fitting more fuel efficient engines and investing in new engines, should mean that airlines' overall emissions remain roughly constant over the next few years, according to Scott Gillespie at Travel Analytics in the US, despite global air travel increasing at between 3 and 4 per cent per year.
This, however, will not satisfy the growing chorus of air travel critics who argue that far more needs to be done to prevent climate change and that the industry bears a heavy responsibility to curb emissions. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) may play an increasingly crucial role in determining the future relationship between air travel and the environment. Corporations are under pressure to reassure their stakeholders that they are acting responsibly over climate change and keeping their own emissions to a minimum. Part of this calculation is how much air travel they conduct.
At Travel Analytics, Scott Gillespie has helped to devise comparative carbon data for many different types of aircraft and airlines, which he believes will be available to customers early in 2008. This will allow individual and corporate bookings to be made taking into account relative emissions. "As the groundswell picks up over airlines and the environment, CSR and citizenship will increasingly influence bookings," he believes. "Corporations want to baseline their emissions and improve them by flying greener carriers."
This, among various other measures, is likely to act as a further spur for airlines to reduce carbon emissions. "Since jet fuel is an expensive commodity, airlines already have a vested interest in reducing their expenses," says Gillespie. "So the goals are nicely aligned - operational efficiency and reducing carbon emissions."
Global carriers are now debating the most workable means of introducing carbon offset schemes, with some proposing to add an offset contribution to the price of every ticket, with funds supporting a solar panel project in India to replace kerosene burners for example. Aircraft such as the Airbus A380 claim to reduce carbon emissions by as much as 12 per cent compared with current levels.
Experts caution that even the most advanced research into alternative air fuel is many years from practical delivery. Hydrogen is one option, but is nowhere near fruition, while biofuels, although practical in cars, are currently impossible to use in aircraft because they freeze at too high a temperature, although intensive research into alternative sources is ongoing.
Instead of such giant leaps in fuel technology, the two most likely scenarios are for air travel to attract higher rates of tax, in order to discourage people from travelling and reinvest the proceeds in green initiatives, or for airlines to embark on some form of carbon trading.
"I think tax is the worst option," adds Jean-Claude Baumgarten, president and CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council in London. "Because you don't know what happens to the money once it goes to governments. With carbon trading, I think the consumer is receptive to it. There is a guilt complex building up, so if you fly with any airline that is part of a trading system, and they explain that they have to raise fares by 2 per cent, that would be acceptable." If airlines attempt to avoid carbon trading, they will get into PR difficulties, he believes. "The consumer is very aware of the necessity of doing something to protect the environment."
Baumgarten agrees that airfares are very low by historical standards and that people are in general prepared to pay more to maintain their travelling schedules. He does not expect higher fares to impact on the expected annual 4 per cent-plus growth of air travel over the next ten years. "The concern is more about the level of capacity rather than the price," he says.
With capacity at Asian airports certain to grow in the coming years, any hope that campaigners might have of overall air travel reducing is slim. Carbon trading appears to be the best and most likely means of tackling rising emissions, although as many point out, this does little to reduce air travel emissions, it simply shifts the issue to another location.
"If the industry does adopt 'cap and trade' [carbon trading], there will be a spirited debate between the corporate buyers and the airlines over who will take the credit for reducing emissions," says Scott Gillespie. This would emerge because if both corporations and airlines took the credit, it would in effect mean double counting. He anticipates a similar tussle between corporations and governments over whether carbon trading or green taxation is the best way forward. "It's a question of who is best placed to deal with reducing emissions," says Gillespie, "governments or corporations. There is pressure from voters for any levies to be tax neutral - for funds raised to be invested in reducing emissions."
One further option would be to allocate a 'carbon allowance' for each person, meaning that they could perhaps only take one long haul trip each year. This is something that the Conservative party in the UK has suggested, but has already encountered stiff resistance from consumer groups. "The UK is a nation of travellers," says Frances Tuke at the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA). "We feel that foreign travel is a right, not a luxury. There is a demand from passengers for airlines to be fuel efficient, as quiet as possible and to have a reduced carbon footprint. But they don't believe their travel should be restricted." Certainly it would be difficult to impose this kind of limitation without an electoral backlash from voters, irritated by a 'nannying' approach to travel.
ABTA has seen more holidaymakers choosing to travel by train, often in combination with flights, a trend that will certainly accelerate if airfares continue to rise. "At the moment, this is generally a lot more expensive, but we're reaching a bit of a tipping point on responsible travel," says Tuke. "Corporate social responsibility is a very interesting area. A lot of tour companies take it very seriously indeed and it has been very successful for them. Some have responsible tourism at the forefront, with a lot of policies regarding the environment, local communities and sustainable tourism."
Sustainability is at the heart of the whole travel and environment debate. People and corporations will carry on travelling regardless. Climate change presents a serious threat to the global economy and to billions of people. Somehow these two forces will have to be reconciled through a sustainable solution. It is the responsibility of everyone in the air travel industry to play their role in discovering this solution.
As the largest airline network, Star Alliance is best placed to achieve significant change, working with aircraft designers and manufacturers. Already, code sharing helps to reduce the duplication of routes and unnecessary flights. This impetus will continue to grow, as environmental concerns are taken more seriously. For example, Star Alliance has formed a partnership with UNESCO's Man and Biosphere Programme (MAB), RAMSAR Wetlands and the World Conservation Union, called Biosphere Connections. This is a key part of Star Alliance's long-term, considered and responsible environmental policy, helping to drive forward the global sustainability agenda.