No green light at take-off

Sometimes you get the feeling our major airlines are not taking the green issue quite as seriously as they should be. More fool them, because the pressures are only going to grow. The doubling of fuel tax and environment secretary David Milibands musings on VAT and cheap flights are simply the thin edge of a very thick wedge.

Sometimes you get the feeling our major airlines are not taking the green issue quite as seriously as they should be. More fool them, because the pressures are only going to grow. The doubling of fuel tax and environment secretary David Miliband’s musings on VAT and cheap flights are simply the thin edge of a very thick wedge.

But first, the record. BA company secretary Alan Buchanan recently spent an excruciating time wriggling before the Commons environmental audit committee as he tried explaining away the airline’s lame attempt to market an emissions offset scheme involving the planting of trees.

“Scandalous”, thundered committee chairman Tim Yeo as he pointed out that take-up of the scheme, which has been running since September 2005, amounted to less than a return flight to Sydney. “It’s about four return flights to New York, I think, on a 777,” countered Buchanan, as if that made things any better.

However inadequate and cosmetic the voluntary offset scheme, BA at least recognises the problem is a serious one that will have to be addressed. Ideally, it would prefer to participate in a more organised (perhaps mandatory) emissions trading scheme that costs out every flight. Cynics think BA’s enthusiasm for such a scheme is inversely related to its belief in the EU’s ability to get it off the ground. But that’s probably unfair. BA has, after all, been doing more than most in the aviation industry, however little that may be.

$3bn PR stunt?
Take Virgin Airlines and Sir Richard Branson’s $3bn pledge to fight global warming. As ever, Sir Richard presses all the right buttons: “We must rapidly wean ourselves off our dependence on coal and fossil fuels,” he says. And to put his money where his mouth is, he is apparently going to commit all profits from his travel firms over the next ten years (which is where the $3bn comes from) into renewable energy technologies through an investment trust called Virgin Fuels.

All very laudable so far, you may think. Except some might take exception to the idea of Branson directly gearing his contribution to how much CO2 his planes and trains put back into the atmosphere. But there’s worse. According to that rambunctious, cynical scourge of the rest of the airline industry, Michael O’Leary, Branson is funding no more than a self-serving PR stunt. “I doubt if the profit (of Virgin Airlines and Virgin Trains) will get to $3bn over the next 100 years, let alone the next ten,” he was heard to sneer.

Crisis? What crisis?
At least with Ryanair we know where we are in the green debate: ground zero. The only kind of green that O’Leary seems to recognise is that of the shamrock, particularly when affixed to the Aer Lingus fleet he covets. Carbon emission trading schemes? “I’m far too busy doubling Ryanair over the next few years to be joining any scheme,” he says. And we can take him at his word. This, after all, is the man who asserts that Ryanair is in fact ‘the most environmentally friendly’ airline, because it is overhauling its fleet of Boeing aircraft with new fuel-efficient planes, so unlike the old ‘gas-guzzlers’ to be found at BA.

Behind all the outrageous public posturing O’Leary has, of course, a point. Several in fact. Fuel-efficient aircraft are probably the most practical single means presently available to airlines of reducing carbon emissions. Moreover, Gordon Brown may well – as O’Leary insists in his no-holds-barred advertising – be intent on robbing us with phoney green taxes on aviation (“the usual horseshit”, to use his own words) which will then be siphoned into other expenditure. And, yes, aviation does currently account for a ‘Mickey Mouse’ 3% of carbon emissions, compared with the 25% contributed by road transport (which, as he goes on to point out, has never been subdued by high tax levies).

But he’s treading on thin ice here. Air travel has now been well and truly fingered as the fastest-growing area of CO2 transgression (25% by 2050 on present trend, according to an Oxford University report). Being something driven almost entirely by low prices and skilful marketing, the trend could equally easily be reversed. All the more so since, unlike power generation and much road travel, people do have a choice when using no-frills airlines. Politicians, sensing an easy target, are closing in for the kill.

And their task is made all the easier when Ryanair persists in the sort of unreconstructed marketing that encourages 100,000 people to use its aircraft free (excepting taxes and charges) every time an Irish horse wins at Cheltenham this week. A few years ago, that would have been an inspired gesture, now it’s beginning to appear provocatively irresponsible.

But then, as O’Leary might counter, he probably won’t be around when the ‘horseshit’ really hits the fan. That will be his successor’s problem.

And Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou? He’s been choosing his words on the subject, and his ground, a lot more carefully. “The debate on climate change is over and the fact is that we’re part of the problem and should act,” he said at Davos recently. Stelios has signed up for Easyjet to be included in the European Union’s prospective carbon trading scheme, but has qualified his support, reasonably enough, by adding that it won’t amount to much unless US and Asian airlines collaborate. Some chance.

Meantime, he has been improving his green credentials by dating former Miss Great Britain Brooke Johnston, animal rights campaigner and vegetarian celebre who lately performed a very fetching impersonation of a scantily-clad lettuce to promote her beliefs. Think what she could do for Easyjet carbon emissions!

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