Airline emissions trading: listen to the sound of the public


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Sir Richard Branson is rarely accused of being insensitive to the public vibe. So when he says the aviation industry should go along with emissions trading, as he did at Kofi Annan’s Global Humanitarian Forum on climate change this week, the industry should be listening. Because the public certainly will be.

No value arguing about whether Sir Richard’s statements are self serving (and he can afford not to be these days) the simple fact is: his message sounds right: "If you run a dirty business, you should pay for the privilege - because you are doing damage." In reality, Branson’s message is one that most, if not all, airline CEOs would support. The devil is in the detail, or lack of it.

Meanwhile though the industry, through AEA, ELFAA and IATA, is constantly seen to be publicly attacking, apparently, every new proposal for emissions reduction. That they are accepting the principle, but challenging the methodology is a message that is generally lost on the public.

The battle to preserve the airline business – for that is how many airlines view the issue - is a complex one. The common enemy is climate change, or global warming. But, within the ranks of the fighters against environmental destruction, not all the guns are pointed in the same direction.

As bodies like the EU Commission put together formulae which will define the future, they enter the debate with many different objectives. The fundamental one, of genuinely finding the most effective methods of reducing emissions, is inevitably corrupted by a variety of different interests and political posturing. That’s the real world and the airlines themselves will always do as much as possible to play that game.

And while the Commission deliberates, it is pulled in many directions. For example, ICAO should be the body moving ahead to address the issue – globally. But few believe that ICAO can seriously get aligned fast enough to be effective. Individual governments in Europe have varying positions, but the UK’s is notably pungent, especially when reflecting the extreme views which appear to flourish there. The Commission has to tread a compromise path that both accommodates the extreme views, yet dilutes them to introduce a modicum of logic and respect towards third party governments.

The airline bodies play their part in this process.

But the underlying and longer term force will be delivered by popular opinion. If the airlines are popularly perceived as constantly opposed to each emission formula, there will be a price to pay – even if representations to the Commission succeed. Right now, the popular message is not the right one. A new image should be developed.

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