Airlines are fighting back against criticisms that their carbon emissions are prime contributors to global warming, but they have been slow to create a co-ordinated response.
Environment minister Ian Pearson has accused airlines of failing to take climate change seriously, branding Ryanair the “irresponsible face of capitalism”. Meanwhile, Chancellor Gordon Brown hiked air passenger duty as a gesture towards curtailing climate change.
Airlines are prime targets for environmental regulation and increased taxes, but their slow response to criticisms suggests they have not woken up to the threat to their business.
Sir Richard Branson has been calling on members of the aviation industry to develop a collective solution to climate change since last September, but it was only last week that an official consortium called Flying Matters was formed. With members including Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and easyJet, a concrete strategy has yet to be determined and some believe it may be a case of too little too late in exercising damage control.
International aviation contributes 6% of UK’s carbon emissions compared to 0.07% for the London Underground, 0.6% for buses and coaches and 0.5% for passenger rail, according to Transport Statistics Great Britain 2004, from a report by The Voice of the Passenger Railway. In a broader context, international aviation contributes 2% of global emissions, which is expected to rise to 5% by 2050. Weighed against the contribution of passenger car and taxi travel, which emits 12.8% of UK’s carbon emissions, this may be the wrong area of the travel industry for critics to carp about.
However, following Sir Nicholas Stern’s report on the economics of climate change last year, both short and long-haul airlines have become targets of vilification from the press, campaign groups and the Government.
Airmiles, which could be devastated by criticisms of the airline industry, is keen to emphasise that its product can be redeemed on a host of travel options in addition to air travel. But a survey it conducted among 200 travel professionals shows the extent of complacency within the industry. The respondents believed the impact of global warming on flying overseas is not likely to be dramatic, that low-cost carriers will continue their meteoric rise and short breaks to long haul destinations will become more popular.
According to Lucy Richardson, chief executive of Added Value, airlines need to invest in technology that reduces the carbon impact on the environment. But they must also acknowledge the importance of impending restrictive legislation and increasing taxation, and diversify their business. “They could form partnerships with telecommunication companies to reduce the need for travel in the first place,” she says.
However, airline sources believe the carriers will escape the worst of environmental regulation. Simon Beeching, director at environmental consultancy Travelwatch, thinks air travel is the umbilical cord of global economic activity and without it the world of trade and industry would collapse. “If Heathrow Airport crumples so would London’s position as the centre of global economy,” he says.
And Richardson warns car manufacturers to learn from the mistakes of the aviation sector and act now before the onslaught begins.