Wednesday, June 18, 2008

French emissions

Emission mission

From abandoning routes to planting trees, airlines are doing all they can to save gas and reduce their carbon footprints
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* Ian Williams
o Ian Williams
o Monday June 16 2008
o Article history

On the face of it, Air France's flying 200 journalists from across the globe to attend a seminar in Paris on the carbon footprints of airlines has an inherent irony all of its own. But if this be madness, there's method in it.

The airline is wrestling with the European parliament, whose members want to levy an emissions tax on any flights originating in Europe. "Up to a point," agrees the French flag carrier. By agreeing to the main complaint that global warming is real and that airlines do contribute to greenhouse gases they hope to be listened to when they highlight the problems with this ambitious programme. Either it embroils Europe with Asian and American governments and airlines by trying to collect taxes from them, or, if only European airlines are taxed, it disadvantages them against their international competitors, who will transfer their hubs to places like the Gulf to avoid the tax.

They are also fighting off an attempt to make them pay more, based on the premise that even though they only amount to 2.6% of total carbon output, aircraft emissions in the stratosphere have a more potent greenhouse effect than ground based pollution.

Air France is being very clever - agreeing to the main point and then haggling about the important details, while demonstrating their struggle for carbonic virtue.

There is also a happy convergence in that carbon virtue has its own rewards when oil is $130 a barrel and rising. The airline's executives point out that one third of their costs are fuel, so any reduction in usage reduces red ink along with red flags for emissions. We may see an end to long non-stop flights, because it takes fuel to carry the fuel, while on a short stop Air France is considering running trains for internal traffic and has already abandoned some routes to the TGV railway routes.

For the seminar, their executives detailed the economics of eco-virtue, reducing weight carried, buying newer and more efficient aircraft. They did not quite sneer, but smiled with knowing sympathy for the US airlines, whose aging fleets, some of which would not actually be able to fly Europe because of their fuel consumption and noise output, have hit them particularly hard.

New aircraft are lighter, made with composite materials instead of metal alloys, and with more efficient engines. The grounded Concorde near the airline's headquarters stands as a mute underscore to the end of the age of speed and its replacement with size. The next gargantuan generations of Boeings and Airbuses instead of being airborne Chelsea chariots will go for economies of huge scale.

Apparently even the global epidemic of obesity is having an effect. Their passenger weight calculations assume a continuation of current trends: an additional fuel-guzzling pound per year per person, offset to some extent they say because the proportion of female passengers, who tend to be smaller, is also rising. They are far more likely to put on weight eating Air France's in-flight meals than the fasting imposed by many US airlines.

Perhaps the one qualm aroused is the display of the 45 kilos of aircraft documentation that they have proudly replaced with a two-kilo PC – using Windows. One can only hope that a crash in one never leads to a crash in another.

Air France's website has a calculator so the environmentally minded can find out how much carbon dioxide their journey costs the planet. And if they want a warm, virtuous buzz, they can offset it either in their own chosen way, or through Air France's anti-deforestation project in Madagascar.

Air France diffidently admits that only a very small proportion of their passengers avail themselves of the offsets. Clearly most consumers follow the directions given by Adam Smith's invisible hand rather than Greenpeace's admonitory waves. Price rises will drive consumption more than sermons.

By the way, the calculator showed that I burned up two tons of carbon getting to and from Paris, but I had decided that my Stakhanovite efforts in planting over a hundred trees around my Catskill Mountain fastness this spring not only made me a lighter passenger, but also offset the transient carbon usage. And then Air France sent an email assuring all participants that they had purchased offsets for their airfare, so there are trees sprouting in Madagascar with my name on them as well. Mon dieu … how cunning these French are!

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