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Aviation is often labelled a major contributor to global warming. But carbon conscious airlines in the Middle East appear determined to set the record straight.
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Aviation is often labelled a major contributor to global warming. But carbon conscious airlines in the Middle East appear determined to set the record straight.

Global warming is the biggest threat to the planet, according to environmental experts and campaigners. It's a world-wide crisis that requires a man-made solution.

Essentially, the planet is heating up as gases produced from vehicles, power plants, deforestation, and other sources form a thick blanket around the world.

The aviation industry is considered one of the biggest contributors to global warming, with temperatures across the planet climbing around 1% on average in recent years.

 

Carbon emissions represent 2% of all global emissions but I think we recognise that while that’s a very low number, we can’t sit back and rest on our laurels. We will look to reduce this figure as part of our strategy.
 
 

Indeed, with airliners populating the skies, aeroplanes are responsible for producing damaging emissions such as carbon dioxide, water vapour contrails and nitrogen oxides.

To make matter worse, planes fly at high altitudes where the effects of carbon pollution increase three-fold. Putting this into perspective, one short-haul flight emits roughly the same amount of global warming gas as a 1.4 litre car in three months.

Despite efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by improving aircraft technology and efficiency, the airline industry has made little headway. The problem is attributed to increased global air traffic, which has climbed some 50% during the past decade.

The air traffic increase has led to a rise in fuel consumption, with carbon emissions from aviation up 87% since 1990 - accounting for around 3.5% of human contribution to climate change.

To address the issue, the global Carbon Trading scheme was set up in 1988. The organisation gave governments a choice: either cover the costs of emissions produced by aircraft flying to and from their respective countries, or pay someone else to cut their pollution.

Carbon trading sets a cap on emissions across all sectors, with individual firms allowed to produce specified amounts. If businesses exceed their allowance, they must either reduce their emissions or buy extra allowances from other organisations or companies that have some to spare.

By 2005, a new initiative was introduced following the rapid growth in air traffic. The Kayoto Treaty stipulated that industrialised countries would have to cut their 1990 emission levels by 5.2% between 2008 and 2012.

Scientists have developed this theory further by suggesting that ‘personal carbon trading' should be introduced, whereby individuals are given a carbon quota. A frequent flyer would be able to "buy airspace" from someone who has a low energy-use lifestyle.

According to some economists, the scheme may have a positive impact on poorer countries and people living in poverty that could "sell" their carbon quota.Through its participation in the UK's voluntary carbon trading scheme, British Airways (BA) has reduced its contribution to UK emissions by 23%. A BA spokesman says: "By participating in the UK scheme we have demonstrated that trading can be applied to aircraft emissions.

"Plus, BA has gained practical experience for the future. We have played a leading role for the last eight years in calling for airlines to be included in global carbon trading, campaigning publicly and lobbying the UK government and the European Union.
 

Such campaigning has forced the European Commission to modify its legislation on the carbon trading scheme by including aviation from 2011. But BA wants to a quicker introduction of the revamped clause.

Whether the EC obliges remains to be seen. But regardless of how quickly the new rules are applied, BA is seemingly determined to prove its green credentials. Aside from its recycling schemes, the airline has saved more than 60,000 tons of CO2 emissions in two years by flying shorter routes over China and Brazil, refining landing and take-off procedures and fitting new seats in A320 aircraft.

 

Air pollution kills, persistant noise increases the risk of depression and climate change is already destroying and taking hundreds of thousands of lives across the globe.

Under the EU's carbon trading scheme, airlines have to pay for exceeding their current emission levels. All flights within Europe will come under the Emissions Trading Scheme's jurisdiction by 2011. Some 12 months later, the scheme will be expanded to include all international flights that arrive at or depart from any EU airport.

Airlines may be issued with pollution permits, with those cutting emissions able to sell their surplus. Meanwhile, a carrier that increases its emissions would have to buy more permits. But problems have already emerged with the US questioning whether it's legal, under global trading rules, to force EU-bound airlines to take part in the scheme.

Some reports have even suggested various US airlines are considering legal action to overturn the decision. To date, the aviation sector has been under little pressure to address climate change.

But increased lobbying from activists and environmentalists may see the industry facing more business growth challenges in the coming years.

Expanding Heathrow Airport, one of the world's biggest hubs, has caused major controversy among green campaigners. Supporters of the expansion say a third runway is fundamental to maintaining Heathrow as Britain's gateway to the global economy.

They also argue it helps secure billions of pounds through exports and provides thousands of UK jobs. But those opposed to the plans claim aviation is the fastest growing contributor of carbon emissions, with Heathrow's expansion undermining global efforts to tackle climate change.

Unsurprisingly, British Airways supports the expansion plan. The UK's flag carrier, which will have its own terminal once T5 opens at Heathrow, says a balance between economic growth and environmental responsibility is possible.

"We are committed to ensuring that growth is sustainable. By the time a third runway becomes operational, aviation emissions will have been capped by the EU for several years," says Willie Walsh, British Airways' chief executive.

If airlines want to fly more, they will have to pay for emissions reductions in other industries - so overall carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will not rise because of a third runway.

Walsh's comments have received short shrift from some environmental activists and political groups, arguing airlines must do more to reduce carbon emissions. One such critic, The UK Green Party, labelled Heathrow's expansion project an attack on London.

"A highly dubious economic case is being constructed to justify a catastrophic impact on people's environment, now and in the future," says Sian Berry from the UK Green Party. "Air pollution kills, persistent noise increases the risk of depression, and climate change is already destroying and taking hundreds of thousands of lives across the globe.

But airlines are fighting back. Through the introduction of ‘climate friendly' schemes, the industry collectively insists it's helping reduce the aviation sector's impact on climate change - and not because it has to. According to Iain Burns, vice president of corporate communications at Etihad Airways, carriers are just as keen to address the problem.
 

The environment is obviously crucial but it's part of a wider picture of Corporate and Social Responsibilty (CSR)," he says.

"Carbon emissions represent 2% of all global emissions but I think we recognise that while that's a very low number, we can't sit back and rest on our laurels. We will look to reduce this figure as part of our strategy.

Burns says management at Abu Dhabi-based Etihad hopes to set the benchmark for reducing carbon emissions by getting passengers involved. "In terms of specifics we are looking at ways we can improve flight efficiency.

 

Emirates has an ongoing programme to reduce weight onboard and this extends right across our operation, including areas such as catering, engineering, in-flight entertainment and beyond.

We currently have an online facility where passengers can trade in their frequent flyer miles and off-set them for carbon emissions.

"At one time if you were a frequent flyer and you joined our Etihad Guest facility you would rack up points and miles, which could then be traded for taking your family on holiday.

Now we are finding there's a genuine number of customers who are saying they want to give something back to the environment, and this scheme allows them to do that.

Despite management's desire to cut emissions, Etihad faces more challenges than airlines from other regions, according to Burns. "We are still a relatively new airline and these issues are a new phenomenon in this part of the world," he says.

"However it is something that is important to us so it's something we will get more into as we become more sophisticated. We are looking at what can we do as an airline and what can we do as the national airline of Abu Dhabi.

The last thing we want to do is for this to be a knee jerk reaction or to turn this in to some kind of PR bolt-on.

"It's a much wider issue than just the environment, it's about corporate and social responsibility.

Emirates Airline is also embracing its corporate social responsibilities. Having introduced a weight reduction programme to cut carbon emissions, it recently invested in a more fuel-efficient fleet. Such a move suggests the Dubai-based carrier is serious about helping reduce carbon emissions.

An Emirates spokesman said: "Emirates has an ongoing programme to reduce weight onboard and this extends right across our operation, including areas such as catering, engineering, in-flight entertainment and beyond.

We also work closely with airframe manufacturers to optimise the design of aircraft we purchase, ensuring that there is minimal excess weight on board.

"In addition to reducing onboard weight, we also undertake a wide range of other measures to lower our fuel burn, and thereby reduce the environmental impact of our operations.

"These include investing in a modern, fuel-efficient fleet - the Boeing 777, the Airbus A380 and A350 - as well as pursuing the development of more fuel efficient routings, and working with various Air Traffic Control authorities to improve air traffic flow management.

While carbon emissions remain a serious concern, airlines around the globe have shown a willingness to help tackle the problem. Time will tell whether it's too little too late.

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