Comment: green manifesto

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IATA turned the spotlight on the environment at its recent annual meeting in Vancouver. And while some find dealing with an issue that doesn't seem to affect their region uncomfortable, the simple truth is that every airline needs to develop a green strategy

When Leo van Wijk was growing up in Holland in the 1960s nearly every winter the canals froze over. He, like thousands of others, would then indulge in a great Dutch pastime - ice skating. Not any more: it has been years since it has been cold enough for these canals to turn into ice rinks.

KLM's chief executive was not reminiscing for the sake of the old days, but using his story as an example of what many of us already know: our climate has changed in our lifetime. And as somebody who runs an airline in an extremely environmentally conscious country, van Wijk is acutely aware that his business is seen as one that contributes to this climate change.

Attitudes to the environmental issue among airline heads vary massively across the globe. Some recognise it as a critical business issue. Others dismiss it as an irrelevance. Credit goes to IATA for pushing climate change to the top of the agenda at its recent annual meeting in Vancouver despite serious misgivings from some members.

IATA chose Vancouver as the stage to begin taking back the ground lost to campaigners on the issue of aviation and the environment. Although it has plugged away defensively since 2005, IATA and the wider industry's message has been muted and disjointed. Even in the weeks running up to its AGM, IATA was wrestling to shape its big strategic message on the environment.

The headline it has chosen - zero emissions in 50 years - might well be impossible, but that is not the point. It is a goal that shows the industry holding up its hands and saying: "We know we pollute, but we will do everything in our power to minimise that pollution." As IATA director general Giovanni Bisignani says: "A growing carbon footprint is no longer politically acceptable - for any industry."

So as IATA campaigns on the industry's behalf, what strategies should boardrooms be adopting on the environment? A green manifesto could look something like this:

1.  Take the issue seriously no matter what you think the science is. The battle is one of public belief. This is not an adversarial process to be won by virtue of the strength of evidence or eloquence of argument. The airlines are seen as the bad guys, and the court of public opinion is a much sterner bench than any criminal docket.

2.  Concentrate on your own industry. It does not matter that the airline sector is a petty criminal compared to others. Like any defendant in the dock, the industry loses credibility by pointing the finger elsewhere.

3.  Fight the public relations battle on as many fronts as possible. In the fight for public sentiment the defence must be vigorous and wide-ranging, from carbon offsetting to eco-labels and sustainability reports.

4.  Don't be afraid of making a point out of self-interest. The industry has a good record on fuel-efficiency, and by definition emissions reduction, which will continue as carriers look to accelerate fleet renewal programmes and phase out older, less fuel-efficient aircraft. Being seen to be green can be good for business too. For example, Air New Zealand wants to be a leader on the environment to match the green tourist credentials of its nation.

5.  Join the green lobby. Along with the airline associations, badger governments, aerospace manufacturers and anyone else who will listen for better air traffic management systems, cleaner and more efficient aircraft and alternative fuels.

6.  Engage with emissions trading. The trading schemes proposed by Europe and others have serious flaws, and it would be immensely preferable to have a global approach via ICAO, but the industry needs to sign up in principle. After all, if the carriers do not actively help shape this emerging market, the regulators will.

It is high time airlines took the time to actively help shape the debate. For too long the self-appointed advocacy industry has been doing all the shouting. This is not a battle of ideals. It is a battle of survival.