The movie "The Day After Tomorrow" has put climate change on the map for the general public. Sensationalist and unscientific it may be, but it has driven home the message that climate change is happening.
Every section of society needs to change to address what Tony Blair has described as the biggest long-term threat we face. The United Nations’ climate change panel says we need to reduce emissions by 60% by 2050 to stabilise global warming.
Hopes of achieving that through official means rest with the Kyoto Protocol – the legally binding international agreement which emerged from a complex series of inter-governmental negotiations in 1997. But the Protocol has not yet come into force, and cannot do so unless the US or Russia sign up to it. While the Russians are making positive noises, it may yet take some time to get approval from the Russian parliament.
The European Union and some other countries are carrying on as if Kyoto were in force, driving improvements through measures such as the emissions trading scheme, which will go live next year. But even so, the Protocol only aims to achieve a reduction in greenhouse gases of 5.2%. That is a pinprick compared to the 60% target.
But there is no need to sit and wait for governments to act. In fact it is imperative that does not happen. Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have risen by a third since the industrial revolution and will double in the next hundred years without concerted action.
That would have disastrous impacts on our world. Already the average global temperature has risen by 0.6° C and the UN climate panel predicts a further increase of between 1.4 and 5.8 °C in the next 100 years. The consequences are unpredictable – it is even possible that western Europe will get colder rather than hotter.
But the impacts are already being felt around the world. Last year there were unusual climate-related events in every continent: droughts in Southern Africa, heat-waves in India, forest fires in Siberia and flooding in parts of South America. This year we have had the first ever recorded cyclone in the South Atlantic, Cyclone Catarina hitting Brazil in March.
Further warming of just 2 to 3°C in the next 100 years would put three billion people at risk from water shortage, a further 300 million facing the threat of malaria, 100 million more in danger because of coastal flooding, and thousands of plant and animal species becoming extinct.
While the cost would be counted in human suffering and the loss of thousands of species, there is a financial cost as well. The UN Environment Programme has calculated that climate change cost the world over $60 billion in 2003, $5 bn more than in the previous year. It says the heat wave in Europe in 2003, which killed around 20,000 people, was the costliest single climate related event, with more than $10bn losses for the agricultural sector alone.
The world embraced the concept of “The polluter pays” at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, but at the moment these costs are often not born by those who are responsible for climate change. Future Forests offers a way of helping polluters voluntarily pay the price of neutralising their carbon emissions. We believe this will help people and organisations to confront climate change and will stimulate the changes in behaviour that are necessary to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Our CarbonNeutral concept works on the trinity of essential action: avoid, reduce, and offset. To take an industry example, the best solution to aviation’s impact on climate change is not to fly: technology such as videoconferencing can help avoid some flights; individuals can be encouraged to holiday nearer to home. Developments in airframe and engine technology will also reduce the impact of flying. But there will still be emissions, and they need to be ‘neutralised’.
One way of doing that is to re-establish forests which, over the 60-odd years they take to reach maturity, will naturally absorb the carbon dioxide produced by aircraft. Another is to invest in renewable power or energy efficiency projects which reduce or eliminate dependence on fossil fuels on the ground.
The business world recognises the need for action. Many companies, and indeed whole sectors, are working hard to reduce their own energy consumption and that of their products and services. Heavy investment is going into innovations such as wind and solar energy, and the hydrogen fuel cell which looks set to revolutionise power generation, especially in transport where it could replace the internal combustion engine.
Already “hybrid” cars are on the road, which are an interim solution because they combine petrol and electric power so produce lower emissions than conventional engines.
The aviation industry has a particularly daunting task: it is already a significant contributor to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; it is growing fast; and there are no commercially viable technical solutions which will reverse its mounting impact within the foreseeable future.
Something must be done to prevent the industry becoming the pariah of global warming, and there is something that can be done. We challenge airlines to help passengers take responsibility for the impacts of their journeys on global warming. Passengers’ voluntary contributions would be paid into a Global Climate Fund which would invest in renewable energy projects and other measures to offset carbon dioxide emissions, such as re-establishing long-term, indigenous forests (we worked in this way to make the production of The Day After Tomorrow CarbonNeutral).
Voluntary measures such as this are essential if the world is to achieve the reductions in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that the experts tell us are necessary.
Great strides have been made to reduce the impacts from the air-travel sector, so that new aircraft are materially more fuel-efficient than their predecessors. But the improvements are nowhere near enough to offset the rapid growth in air travel. The government expects 500 million passengers a year in the UK by 2030 – two and a half times the current level. That growth is being replicated around the world, with the result that the industry will be responsible for a growing proportion of carbon dioxide emissions. The industry is a victim of its own success, but needs to acknowledge that problem and act now.
Many businesses have realised that it is better to act ahead of public pressure or regulation than to wait until the last minute. The aviation industry needs to be brave and tackle the issue of climate change rather than lying low. But it should be seen as an opportunity rather than a liability.
Our concept of a Global Climate Fund would not necessarily be an added cost to the airlines, and would be popular with passengers. Research we commissioned from MORI has found that many people would be interested in action they could take on climate change, so long as it is simple, and at reasonable cost.
Our Climate Fund concept fits the bill. Every passenger is offered the opportunity to pay a small Climate Fund contribution on top of the ticket price when they buy. It is added to the bill, and there is nothing more for passengers to do – quick and simple. A contribution of about £5 is enough to pay for action to offset the carbon dioxide emissions from a flight within Europe. And pooling contributions in a Global Fund would provide the scale to use that money efficiently.
It is not just a matter of offsetting the emissions people are responsible for, although that is important. Our concept of voluntarily re-pricing carbon in this way should encourage people and companies to rethink their attitudes to travel. In the short-term that could result in more video-conferencing to replace business travel; holidays closer to home; or the choice of trains for shorter journeys.
Over the longer-term, fully costed carbon will stimulate entirely new concepts of mobility, and speed the introduction of new technologies for radically more efficient transport systems (for example, hydrogen powered public transport systems which can be programmed to fit individuals’ travel needs).
We found overwhelming support for the Climate Fund concept when we tested it at Luton airport in 2001. About three-quarters of passengers agreed to make a contribution when we presented them with the facts about the climate impact of their flights. We believe airlines will get a similar response if they offer passengers the chance to contribute to a Global Climate Fund when they buy their tickets.
One tour operator - the ski specialist Crystal Holidays - has taken up this challenge. Customers are asked if they wish to pay a small premium on top of the price of their holiday (£5 for European holidays, £10 for North America and £15 for Chile). The money will be invested in an energy saving project in the UK, and a sapling will be planted in a UK forest for each passenger who participates.
The company is also working through Future Forests to pay for the planting of more than 14,000 trees in Galleypot, Oxfordshire, which will offset the carbon dioxide emissions from its head office in Kingston, London.
Crystal Ski’s Managing Director, Stuart McLeod explains: “Global warming is very real for skiers, especially when you consider that Europe’s glaciers are now smaller than they have been for 5,000 years. We understand that our business has an impact on the environment. We are therefore looking at ways in which we can reduce the impact, and help make us the responsible operator of choice.”
It is time for the airline industry to take the same attitude and offer its customers the opportunity to offset the climate impact of their flights.
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© Article 13 2004