Green Skies Over Europe

By Massimiliano Bianconcini, February 3, 2011

Photo by Peter Dawson

Photo by Peter Dawson

Airlines are employing a variety of "green" features and policies to compensate for their CO2 emissions. Some are creating hydro-electric stations in South America, or financing social projects and others are investing directly in cleaner engine technology. But is legislation or a green tax the answer to reducing airline emissions?

2010 was the hottest year ever registered on earth since measurements started being taken back in 1880. That year, the temperature of the surface of the earth was 0.62 degrees Celsius above the average for the 20th century. This record temperature was also seen back in 2005 and the blame for it is being squarely laid at the door of greenhouse gases.


Among the things that are responsible for creating the CO2 pollution is airline travel, which is increasing thanks to a new generation of airplanes which are more modern and safer. The airline business is a growing business, particularly in Europe which is at the top of the league for global tourism. However, since the Cancun Summit which approved a sort of “pax climatica” and decided on reducing CO2 emissions, all eyes have been on the airlines. In April 2010, the eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland – which blocked airline traffic – led to a huge reduction in CO2 emissions, thus confirming the amount of pollution it was assumed airplanes actually produced.

For this reason, some airline companies, to avoid negative publicity with their clients, have recently become much more ecologically aware, and are introducing new environmental “features” and policies. This is all happening rather slowly and primarily for motives related to brand protection. However, one of the most interesting new policies is the introduction of compensation for the quantity of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere, by allowing passengers to pay an extra sum as part of their ticket. This voluntary “tax”, to be paid by the purchaser of the ticket, is used to finance projects that enhance and protect the environment.

Not all airlines have adopted this policy, which for the most part is a burden on the consumer’s wallet. Among the 42 budget airlines operating in Europe, whose profits are rising along with the popularity of “low-cost” tourism, very few offer these compensation schemes. Among the larger European airlines, only Air France-KLM and Lufthansa have “green” projects.

Among the best known low-cost companies is Easyjet, whose environmental project centers on the construction of a small hydro-electric station in Ecuador. It is a project that generates clean electrical energy, leading to the reduction by 74,000 tons of fossil fuel production in the first ten years. This is a long-term project which has to be financed brick by brick by the passengers purely out of their own good will.

Easyjet calculates the “footprint“ of each passenger to be 295 kg of CO2. The other major European low-cost airline, Ryanair, which in 2009 transported 66 million passengers (the data is not yet available for 2010) invests in developing the engines for its airlines thus reducing their fuel consumption and thereby reducing their emission levels (minus 45% in 10 years according to the company’s estimates). However, this is not totally worthy of merit as it is something that the company ought to be doing anyway, seeing that the IATA (International Air Transport Association) has indicated environmental responsibility as one of the sector’s priorities – which specifically include the reduction of CO2 emissions by airplane engines.

Swiss airline Fly Baboo also has an interesting project, which produces immediate results. In 2008, it started supporting the Associazione Aquaverde, which protects the Amazon forests, committing to plant a tree for every flight it operates. Their passengers have got involved in this project too through voluntary collections of funds. In 2008-2009, nearly 7,000 trees were planted and in 2009-2010 almost 4,200. The Swedish company Flysmaland has committed itself to the re-forestation of the Scandinavian forests. Apparently there is no extra payment levied on the passengers but the more expensive ticket prices lead one to assume that the project is funded directly from the price of the ticket. Air Southwest, the British low-cost airline, based in the south west of the UK prefers to invite its clients to safeguard woodlands, by approaching a company via their web site that deals with reforestation. Brussels Airlines, through “CO2logic”, an organization that runs UN certified schmes to reduce carbon emissions, is involved in a project in the forests of Uganda.

Apart from these few, the majority of the other low-cost airlines which share between them the large amount of airline business in Europe, are not involved in the direct reduction of CO2 emissions. Some airlines, like the Irish Aer Arann and the Finnish Blue1, one of the first Scandinavian airlines to obtain an ISO 14001 certificate for its environmental management system, inform their clients about the ecological measures they have taken; something which few of the low-cost airlines do. Aer Lingus, the Irish airline, invests in social programmes in collaboration with UNICEF which aim to improve the lives of children in poorer areas of the world. A laudable commitment which invests in society but not directly in the environment.

In Europe there are more than 50 low cost and major national airlines which all adds up to a massive amount of CO2. However, none of these operators directly reduce carbon emissions. The greatest efforts are being made in the experimental field, using new fuel mixtures that offer energy savings and consequently lead to lower CO2 emissions. As well, when the airlines offer to compensate via environmental projects, costs tend to be passed on to the consumer. The ideal situation would be to oblige (through stringent legislation) these national and private airlines to safeguard the environment. A green tax should be imposed, which would directly reduce or compensate for the debt created with nature, benefitting everyone even those who have never set foot on a plane.

3 February 2011

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