April 2nd, 2009
01:49 PM GMT
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GENEVA, Switzerland – While all eyes have been on London and the G-20 circus, I've been in Geneva covering the 4th Aviation and Environment Summit. For two days, representatives from the biggest airlines and manufacturers down to the smallest support companies in the industry gathered together to discuss their impact on the environment and how to reduce it.

Willie Walsh, center, CEO of British Airways, at this week’s Aviation and Environment Summit.
Willie Walsh, center, CEO of British Airways, at this week’s Aviation and Environment Summit.

Just stop and think about that for a moment: big name CEOs from companies who are, in a commercial sense, at war with one another in the battle to win custom, sitting down together to work towards a common goal.

Industry insiders say this is nothing new. Arch rivals have long worked together with regard to safety - and that co-operation has led to a form of transport that is the safest in the world. Now they are using that same co-operative spirit to find solutions to an issue that, like safety, has the potential to damage their industry.

Aviation often gets a bad press for its environmental impact. In the UK in particular there are some very vocal protest groups who do a pretty good job of painting it as the climate-change villain. The public perception is of a self-interested industry that is only concerned with growing passenger numbers and profits.

But as a cynical journalist I have to say that I am very impressed with just how seriously aviation takes its environmental responsibilities. Real, measurable progress has been made and continues to be made as the industry strives to reduce its carbon footprint.

Right now aviation is responsible for between two and three percent of global CO2 emissions. This figure is much smaller than many climate change protest groups would have you believe - but the industry scored a public relations own goal when the climate debate first began as it attempted to fend off criticism by arguing that "it's just three percent."

It now recognises that, however small it may seem compared to other polluters, even this figure is too high, especially given that it is likely to rise as the industry continues to expand.

So, from engines and airframes, air traffic management systems through to innovative recycling programs, efficiencies and emission reductions are being achieved both in the air and on the ground. In the future "bio-fuels" and new engine and airframe technologies offer the potential for carbon neutral air travel.

There are still many hurdles to overcome and the issues affecting the industry as it works towards its "emission free" target are too varied and complex to go into here. (In particular those concerning emissions taxes and the way in which the various trade bodies and government and non-governmental organisations with a vested interest communicate with each other.) But the industry knows that it needs to act quickly and is working hard to overcome potential obstacles to progress.

At the end of the summit I moderated a 90-minute platform debate between six major industry figures. As you'd expect, there was consensus on some issues, a difference of opinion on others. I did, however, manage to get everyone to agree that perhaps now is the time to go on the PR offensive and make sure everyone hears the message that "it's 3 percent. It's too high and we're working damn hard to fix it."

What do you think? Is the aviation industry doing enough to tackle green issues? Or has it unfairly taken too much of the blame? Tell us below.

You can watch my report on the 4th Aviation and Environment summit in the April edition of CNN Business Traveller. You can read more about the summit and the issues at www.enviro.aero. For more on the aviation industry see Business Traveller.

Filed under: Business

soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Nadia

    Wonderful to see the media taking such a proactive, supportive role in such a critical industry and issue. Well done, CNN. For the world to move forward in tackling the big issues we are all facing today a new form of professional maturity is needed. If global problems are to find global solutions it requires adoption by us all of sense of global responsibility.

    The world needs aviation. The more the planes are flying the more countries across the globe are able to participate in cross-border tourism, business, trade, and basic cross-border cultural understanding. The industry deserves more support than it has received so far from the general public.

    Great move, CNN, to start the movement in the right direction.

    April 2, 2009 at 2:52 pm |
  2. Manuel Vilhena

    Yes, I do believe that too much blame is being put on aviation.

    To tackle climate change personally I believe that it would be better to focus on industry, buildings and other forms of transportation. This group represents far more than 3% of CO2 emissions.

    Coventry, UK

    April 2, 2009 at 5:54 pm |
  3. wilson09

    This is a great start on a great cause. But it is also one with major complexities. There was an interesting paper posted on http://www.wesrch.com a couple of weeks ago about the need for not only renewable energy but a clean sky and the challenges facing Air Transportation. Here is the link of you are interested (http://tinyurl.com/d39nwh)

    April 2, 2009 at 6:16 pm |
  4. Trawetser

    Why do you as why about Mr. Obama's travels to the the G-20 Summit? No one asked all the questions when his white predecessors traveled to distanced lands to rub shoulders with other heads of states for mostly meaningless ambitions. Please allow Mr. Obama to do his job as President and stop being so nitpicky!

    April 2, 2009 at 8:16 pm |
  5. Muthyavan

    Three percent is too much, because less than three percent of world population only use air travel, aviation industry should work out ways of further cutting dawn emissions. Humans activities in all aspects of living, such as cooking, cleaning, heating, cooling and in many ways increase CO2 emission, in addition to all these damaged done. A three percent more by Air travel which is common to only less than one percent of the earth population is a bigger threat to environment . Because oil was a cheap source, unlimited amount is burned by air planes, creating environmental impacts, engines with less fuel consumption should replace the present air transport.

    April 2, 2009 at 9:12 pm |
  6. justin

    Please read im a 27 year old man that comes from a a great fam. tell me what you think about this idea insted of giving $$ to GM why dont they give that $ to working famillys that have paid taxes for at lease 10 years. And make a law that they can only and I mean only spend it on new cars that are great for the world. So if you think about it the car company gets the $ back in there pocket and saves jobs not just save jobs but make jobs all over. It would make jobs even in auto part stores. And then allso the familly that gets the $ for the new car should even give one of there old cars back for scrap that would once again make more jobs but the best thing of all it helps out on polution. and Global Warming.

    April 5, 2009 at 3:39 pm |
  7. Linn

    I believe every coal burning plant should shut down immediately ! Show all the MORONS how stupid their plans are , What are you going
    to replace coal with ? What are you going to replace oil with ? I have not
    heard of anything that can replace any of it on a grand enough scale
    to make one bit of difference , And until there is everybody should not worry about it , We cannot and should not have to pay trillons of dollars for something that is or might be a HOAX .

    April 6, 2009 at 10:38 am |
  8. Jason Martin

    Was there no mention or participation from the military avaition units?
    It seems to the casual observer that a significant amount of fuel is used by miltary flights, and we never see any mention of the pollution impact of those planes. I remember some years ago there was an uproar about the Concorde, but military planes break the soound barrier and waste tons of fuel every day. How big it their impact?

    April 6, 2009 at 5:24 pm |
  9. d

    less than 3 percent ya but you are part of the 3 percent

    April 7, 2009 at 4:52 am |
  10. Jan

    Aviation may be responsible for "only" 3 percent of CO2 emissions. However, the effective contribution of aviation to radiative forcing is much higher: "the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has estimated that aviation’s total climate impact is some 2-4 times that of its CO2 emissions alone (excluding the potential impact of cirrus cloud enhancement)".
    The overriding interest is to keep the impact of climate change to a minimum (which will be bad enough). The world needs some aviation, but as most flying is discretionary, there's no reason that it should not decrease it's emissions as will be required from all other sectors.

    April 8, 2009 at 9:19 am |
  11. Amanda Reynolds

    The airline industry are clearly showing initiative in trying to cut down their carbon output, three percent for one industry is a high figure and it is good to see that they are taking the problem seriously and looking at ways to cut down.

    However doesn't some of the obligation fall upon us, the consumers? Is air travel always strictly necessary? We need to start rethinking the way we live our lives and taking a closer look at our own personal carbon footprints. On a personal level we may choose to holiday in our home country in the future rather than flying to faraway destinations. Or maybe, as a business person, trying to combine essential business travel with a family holiday? Many businesses are utilising new technology such as video communications to communicate with clients and colleagues globally, (here is a link if you are interested in this http://bit.ly/aJuOMw).

    I hope the airline industry does find viable options to cut its carbon footprint and with the consumers help maybe we can substantially reduce that three percent.

    February 3, 2010 at 2:14 pm |
  12. Jason

    This is a very good thoughtful post about way that we can individually cut the carbon footprint. Unofrtunately, no one ever mentions the military which is a MAJOR contributor to the same pollution. Military aircraft and ships burns tons of fuel daily and no one gives a thought to cutting those unnecessary uses. Many training trips could be done in simulators. Ship trips could be optimized. The waste is huge, but untouchable as 'politically incorrect'.

    February 4, 2010 at 2:06 pm |
  13. kenkhan

    Some times Limo service is cheaper than taxis for airport rides. So next time when you travel take quotes from few limousine services and you will be surprised to know that the rates are not that high as you may have thought, most of the time its a few dollars more than a taxi and some times even less than a taxi. Some of the limo service providers offer shares rides and they are deffinetly less than cab.
    Try it next time and see it yourself!!

    February 11, 2011 at 10:41 pm |

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