Continental Takes a Higher Profile on Its Efforts to Cut Greenhouse Gases

Aviation expert Mike Boyd said he thought high-profile announcements by airlines are akin to building a firebreak to show the industry is taking some action.

Apr. 22 -- Continental Airlines has joined a list of big companies showing a keen interest in controlling carbon dioxide emissions.

While the Houston-based airline has long talked about its efforts to burn less jet fuel -- which has the effect of reducing carbon dioxide emissions per flight -- it primarily was promoted as a way to deal with fuel price surges that caused staggering losses for the industry.

Now with Congress expected to make a serious push for regulations reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, Continental is among the businesses talking publicly about what it is doing to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

"Global climate change is an important issue, and we recognize the importance of directly addressing it," Continental spokesman Dave Messing said in a statement.

Last week, Delta Air Lines announced it was joining with the Conservation Fund to give customers the ability to pay for projects to offset carbon emissions associated with their air travel.

With that announcement, which will involve the planting of trees to help absorb carbon dioxide and restoring wildlife habitat, Delta becomes the first U.S. airline to launch an offset program, although some airlines in Europe, such as British Airways, already do.

Continental is considering a similar program, Messing said.

Aviation expert Mike Boyd said he thought high-profile announcements by airlines are akin to building a firebreak to show the industry is taking some action.

The Air Transport Association said U.S. commercial aviation contributes less than 2 percent of domestic greenhouse gas emissions. The European Union pegs it as 3 percent of emissions, but it's growing as more flights are added, according to the BBC.

Historically, airlines haven't done a lot to try to reduce emissions, said Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming program.

"And on a per-passenger-miles basis, airlines are the most polluting way to travel," Becker said.

A call for federal standards

Businesses may have reached a tipping point of sorts.

ConocoPhillips and the U.S. arm of BP have joined a group that has called on the federal government to come up with nationwide standards limiting emissions of so-called greenhouse gases. California has already imposed its carbon limits, and members of the group want to avoid state-by-state regulations that could require them to operate under many sets of the rules.

This coalition of corporations and environmental groups also includes General Electric, DuPont, Alcoa and Caterpillar.

Continental hasn't taken a position on mandatory federal standards, Messing said.

And lawmakers in the Democratically controlled U.S. House and Senate are talking about how best to limit carbon emissions.

The European Union has proposed rules on jetliner carbon emissions, which is expected to take effect in 2011. With rapid international growth a priority, what happens there also is a concern for Continental and other U.S. carriers.

The Air Transport Association said that while the airline industry takes its role in controlling greenhouse gas emissions seriously, it opposes the European Commission's proposal to include aviation in its program to control carbon emissions.

Jets that go easy on fuel

Continental pointed out it is almost 35 percent more fuel efficient than it was just a decade ago. An aggressive program to buy more fuel-efficient jets is the biggest reason it is using less fuel per mile to move passengers on its growing route system.

The savings also reflect a host of smaller projects. Planes are moved on the ground by electric vehicles, new terminals are designed with green goals in mind, and jet engines are washed and planes are cleaned more to ensure more efficient operation.

Continental was recently featured in a story by Fortune as one of 10 companies that have been going beyond what the law requires to operate in an environmentally responsible way.

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