Saturday, December 19, 2009

Copenhagen, Global Warming and Travel

The Copenhagen talks on climate change ended Friday not with a bang but a whimper.

The talks resulted in a watered-down pact, no emissions targets and no serious guidance for how the travel industry should go about reducing its contribution to global warming. This is not unexpected after two weeks of posturing and bickering by the world's political leaders, but it is a pity, as it only delays the inevitable changes we need to make to reduce harm to the planet.

Heading into the long-planned talks in the Danish capital, industry figures, politicians and environmentalists speculated that an emissions tax on civil aviation and commercial shipping - which together account for 8 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions - could be part of a deal. The tax would be levied on countries that don't meet emission-reduction targets. This, in turn, was envisioned as a way of generating up to a third of the $100 million annually that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said is needed in the form of subsides from rich countries to poor countries, helping the developing world to reduce its share of emissions.

"This is a two-fer,'' said Lou Leonard, director of U.S. climate policy for the World Wildlife Fund, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 18. "We can close a loophole in greenhouse gas controls, and we can also unlock the climate finance deadlock.''

Didn't happen.

Many travel industry leaders think it shouldn't have happened, although there is now a broad consensus that emissions need to be reduced, and a widespread belief that the travel industry needs to do its share. Aircraft, cruise ships, buses, cars and to a lesser extent trains contribute to global warming.

The travel-biz, hard-hit by the Great Recession, supports targets but not taxes. A prominent point man for this position, Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group - which owns Virgin Atlantic Airways and has a 25 percent stake in the U.S. carrier Virgin America - put it this way in a Dec. 17 interview with the British Web site

"The airline industry wants to see targets set ... so that we know where we stand and we can get on with it and make sure this world is back on track again.''

"The problem with a tax is where does the money go?'' Branson said. "And if you strip money from the airlines, then they will have less to invest in new planes and new technology.''

Branson advocates the development of biofuels to replace oil-based jetfuel and supports construction of airplanes made from light composite plastic material instead of metal; such planes burn less fuel and thus generate less CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

The airline industry, though often vilified for its highly visible role in emitting emissions, has reduced its pollution per plane since the 1990s. Problem is, passenger air travel is growing so fast around the world, the aviation industry's pollution total is still going up. Civil aviation produces 2 percent of today's greenhouse gases, according to the International Air Transport Association, the global airline-industry trade group. In a decade or so, that percentage will rise to 3 percent unless something is done.

Airlines and aircraft-makers are jetting out ahead of cruise-ships, tour buses and other modes of travel when it comes to reducing emissions. Air New Zealand, Virgin Atlantic, SAS and others have carried out test flights with biofuels, though such experiments are in the early stages.

"At the moment, you only have OPEC to buy your fuel from,'' said Branson, referring to the heavyweight cartel of oil-producing nations. Such states are often led by by petro-dictators, like those in Iran, the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and Russia. "That's it, there's no competitor. If you develop a clean fuel made of algae or butanol, then there is a clean alternative,'' Branson told

Absent a decision in Copenhagen, emissions reduction targets - and maybe carbon taxes - could still be introduced next year. Follow-up climate talks are scheduled for 2010 in Mexico City. Targets could also be set by bodies such as the International Maritime Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Even then, I suspect the travel biz would prefer reducing emissions to paying an extra tax that sounds good but may not be anything of the sort.

Consider another remark by the WWF's Leonard, quoted in the L.A. Times:

"Aviation is an industry that serves the upper classes. So, placing a global cap is appropriate, so long as the finds are used to help poor countries.''

Reading that, I wondered if Leonard has taken an airplane in the last few decades. Far from being the preserve of the upper classes - as it assuredly was back in the early days of commercial flight - flying is a form of mass transportation in much of the world. You are just as likely to have a schoolteacher or a postal clerk sitting next to you as a banker or socialite; many of the latter now fly in private planes, not on commercial airlines.

Lacking leadership from the world's heads of state, there are things travel biz types can do.

Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle on Nov. 17, David Cush, the president and CEO of Virgin America, addressed needed changes in U.S. aviation. Writing with think-tanker Mindy Lubber, Cush observed:

"A congressional upgrade of our aging air-traffic system with the Federal Aviation Administration's NextGen program would effectively create high-occupancy vehicle lanes in the sky. More technologically advanced airlines that can be more effiiciently operated should not have to wait behind older, less sophisticated jets on approach or takeoff. It is estimated that this move could save almost 1 billion gallons of fuel, cut massive amounts of CO2 emissions, and reduce delays by one-third at our nation's most congested airports by 2018.''

It would be a start.

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