April 2nd, 2009
01:49 PM GMT
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.
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.
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