Airlines look for a new landing strip….

15/01/2012 / Kaj

Just before Christmas the European Union Court of Justice successfully upheld EU law to include foreign airlines in its Emission Trading Scheme (ETS). From this month, the EU Aviation Directive will force all airlines to buy carbon credits for flights in and out of Europe. The response from large parts of the aviation industry has been hugely disappointing.

As the world’s only mandatory programme to address emissions from aviation, the Directive’s measures have provoked a chorus of criticism from India, China and, in particular, the US. Many airlines outside Europe have reacted angrily to the decision as it will increase the cost of flying to the continent. True, if they cannot increase their efficiency or absorb this expense it will have to be passed on to customers, but this negative attitude towards a progressive policy is sadly reminiscent of the wider ongoing climate negotiations.

Whilst airlines may not be the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases (2-4%), this figure will rise significantly if action is not taken. Global urbanisation means we now have more than 400 cities with populations over 1m, in a system already served by 1700 active airlines across 44,000 airports. These airports are increasingly important hubs and the burgeoning size and interconnectivity of cities, especially in Africa, China and India, can only worsen the damage caused by airlines.

But this growth also represents vast commercial potential for the aviation industry and serves to strengthen its opposition to change. Sector-based interest organisations (in this case airlines) and national government representatives are almost always the biggest threat to attempts to solve the issue of climate change. The stronghold of lobbyists in Washington (a total of about 25,000) ensures that commercial interests influence decision makers in both Congress and Senate, drastically curbing the impact of environmental concerns.

True to form, the voices of the aviation industry were heard the loudest after the EU ruled against them. In a letter to the EU that was undoubtedly the result of pressure from lobbyists, Hillary Clinton criticised the ETS and portrayed Europe’s forward-thinking approach as a sign of its increasing isolation.

This marks a sad departure from the approach taken by her husband, Bill Clinton, whose Climate Initiative encouraged airlines to work together with city airports to build more efficient (and therefore sustainable) transportation hubs. His C 40 network, along with the European Committee of Regions, is working on new agreements between governors and mayors in Europe, India, US and China. Cities there are beginning to build new networks and sustainable strategies, including the use of public-private partnerships.

This innovative approach (which also promotes cooperation on emission trading) represents a better platform for a new type of dialogue. There is also compelling evidence in Europe that these solutions can benefit the airlines and the planet.

We can look to Sweden for evidence of just how successful these collaborative models can be. Swedavia, which owns and operates 11 of the country’s airports, was the first major Swedish company to become climate neutral. Since 2003 the company has reduced the carbon dioxide emissions from its airports by a staggering 73 percent. The target is to achieve zero emissions by 2020 through a comprehensive set of measures that expand year-on-year. Both Swedavia and SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) have been working with voluntary cap-and-trade agreements to help keep emissions in line with Kyoto targets.

It is this cooperation between airline and airport that has impressed the most. Take Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport, for instance, which now uses a carbon-neutral aquifer (a groundwater reservoir that acts as a thermos) to cool all airport buildings during the summer, including the terminals. What’s more the aquifer also stores heat that can be used in the winter for ground heating systems at aircraft parking stands and to pre-heat ventilated air in buildings.

There are many similar opportunities lying around the corner. The Joint Implementation (JI) project, for example, aims to involve the airlines in projects that will stimulate technology development in partnership with the airports they serve.

But as well as the power of collaboration, Swedavia’s example shows the power of localised initiatives. Air traffic largely flows in and out of cities and it may be at this level that meaningful change can be implemented. Rather than relying on international sanctions or national governments regulating from under the thumbs of aviation lobbyists, we should be encouraging each city to find its own solutions and work with local governments and businesses on sustainable city models. Mayors, not ministers, are best placed to find pragmatic and imaginative solutions.

Airports and airlines may not like Europe’s attempts to cut emissions, but the ETS is here to stay. So instead of embarking of futile attempts to stop the EU in the courts, they should work towards developing new partnerships and best practise to support more sustainable cities.

Kaj Embrén

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