Carbon Emissions: Some Home Truths Or Heresy?

I chaired a session at the London business travel show last week, and the subject was sustainability. We had some great speakers who succeeded in telling the audience how they, their companies and their clients had moved forward this much talked about but little delivered objective.
The session went as it was expected to until one young student put his hand up and asked a telling question about aircraft emissions, which was “Why bother?” His point was in the context that there were far more critical areas to cover first before piling so much pressure on world transportation. It created a great deal of consternation and discussion.

It was partly my fault as in my introduction, I had used various statistics that I had dug up including that air travel only represents 12% of transport’s CO2 emissions which is only slightly over 2% of total global production. I pointed out that car usage was six times as bad as air and that even cows emit more CO2 out of their backsides than aircraft which is apparently true. I offered an alternative solution, which is for governments to fund the purchase of billions of large corks for the cows but then realised that ultimately they could become an airstrike risk greater than birds. Imagine looking out of the cockpit window and seeing a large dairy herd floating towards you!

Seriously though, what this young man rightly pointed out is that air travel seems to be getting a high degree of negative reaction that is disproportionate to the problem it creates. This is a point I have subscribed to for a long time particularly when in my airline seat flying over any major city in the middle of the night and seeing blazing office lights, car headlights and street lamps. After all, energy production is the biggest creator of CO2. Maybe those big companies who proudly boast about their sustainability strategy should switch off the lights when they go home at night?

I believe mainly lip service is being given to corporate travel sustainability at this time and I am not sure how much it bothers me. For example recent surveys say that although 60% of companies have some sort of CSR policy only 34% of these said their travel policy supports sustainability. Another says that sustainability was rated 20% in importance terms to corporations behind 81% for security and 77% for cost reduction. Finally 64% of a group of companies surveyed confirmed that they never suggested making fewer journeys for sustainability reasons. Ironically, the best news for the sustainability lobby will probably be the recession as this alone is likely to slow down travel.

Pausing my growing cynicism for a moment, what could we really do to reduce air travel emissions? Obviously the answer is travel less but is it really? If the plane is going to go anyway there is little object. Weight on aircraft is important, but not that much. If airlines cut down the vast weight of duty free, comforts, food, drink etc then it might make a difference on an annualised basis. If they stopped operating half empty flights or only used new generation aircraft it would help. If they sorted out airports and air traffic controls to reduce taxiing and going around in circles, it would help even more. Certainly more than picking on individuals trying to conduct global business which is the lifeblood of our commercial world. Maybe governments could help more by actually using the revenues generating from growing taxes inflicted on travellers to improve this inefficient infrastructure instead of putting it in their central tax income pot.

To me, sustainability and cost are heading for a showdown. People, and particularly large multinational companies, feel compelled to say they are doing their bit for the environment. But as surveys have shown, cost is a far bigger factor. Now there is an uneasy alliance as cost/recession is driving down travel but eventually they will become diametrically opposed. As an extreme example flight frequencies should be slashed and people should be discouraged by higher prices. Currently we have numerous new low cost carriers offering low prices and creating new market of air travellers. ‘Open Skies’ should be stopped as it again encourages lower cost and is forecast to introduce millions of new travellers generating 12 million tonnes of extra CO2. You cannot be green unless you radically reduce services and add cost.

In summary, I think we all need to take a long hard look at ourselves, interrogate our motives and decide just how much inconvenience and cost we are prepared to accept. Me? I believe the planet is changing through evolution not self destruction. In saying that I think we can and should try to slow it down and I will do my bit, but not in an ill-informed and immeasurable way. I certainly think air travel is being unfairly targeted and I would rather look elsewhere for bigger CO2 savings. What you do is up to you and I wish you success.