Record oil prices mean ecology now goes hand in hand with saving money for airlines
Last year's IATA annual general meeting in Vancouver focused squarely on the airline industry's impact on climate change. Fast forward one year to the doom and gloom of this year's meeting in Istanbul and you would expect environmental concerns to have been edged out by the crisis presented by high oil prices and a weakening economy. However, with the need to reduce fuel burn now an economic as well as an ecological necessity, the industry seems more vocal than before on issues such as the Single European Sky and emissions trading.
Lufthansa chief executive Wolfgang Mayrhuber, for instance, describes SES as "the single biggest ecology project in Europe", and expresses frustration over the lack of progress in making Europe's air traffic management system more efficient when to do so would be "less complex than building the Euro".
"I wish that in Brussels the same energy that is put into developing an emissions trading scheme would go into the Single European Sky," adds Mayrhuber. British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh is even more forthright in his criticism of SES, saying its lack of progress is "not an embarrassment, it's a scandal". He adds: "This has been spoken about since before I was born. Governments have got to be embarrassed into addressing this issue. We need to shout a lot louder."
At last year's annual meeting in Vancouver, IATA put forward its "four pillar strategy" for tackling the airline industry's impact on climate change, and set the ambitious target of becoming a zero emissions industry in the future. While this year's conference was much more heavily focused on the current crisis the industry finds itself in, it still featured a panel session dedicated to discussing environmental issues.
IATA's director of aviation and the environment, Paul Steele, believes that addressing climate change will become even more of a priority given that fuel prices are hitting airlines so hard in the pocket. "This is an industry where economy and ecology go hand in hand," he says. This point is backed up by Northwest Airlines chief executive Doug Steenland, who says: "With oil at $130 a barrel we are spending more time making sure APUs [auxiliary power units] are switched off, etcetera. This will have a material impact on being more economical."
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Steele is keen to point out that emissions trading systems are "not the only answer" and that too many proposed schemes and environmental taxes on the industry mean airlines are paying for their impact on climate change several times over. "This multiplicity of schemes and programmes is adding up to an illogical scenario. Airlines are being asked to pay for the same emissions twice or even three times," he says. "If [emissions trading] is implemented on a global scale it can be effective."
The issue of emissions trading also raised the hackles of those taking part in the environment panel discussion in Istanbul. For instance, BA's Walsh calls the European Union's proposed emissions trading scheme for airlines "a punitive tax designed to cripple the industry - it's not going to address the environment, you've got to balance the environment with the economy". However, Mike Halle, director of trade and investment at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, suggests that airlines put forward an alternative: "I don't recall seeing [an emissions trading scheme] produced by the airline industry. Maybe airlines should get more active on spelling out what they want to see from emissions trading."
Last year's IATA meeting focused on the industry getting its message across and letting the public know what steps it has taken and continues to take to lessen its impact on climate change. So how has the industry fared in getting that message across over the last 12 months? The general consensus seems to be that it could do better.
"The industry could do a far better job of communicating what it has done to address the environment issue - now in particular, when fuel savings and CO2 reduction are one and the same," says Northwest's Steenland.