European Carriers Let Passengers Fight Global Warming

Two major European airlines are offering their passengers a chance to do something about global warming.

British Airways and most recently Scandinavian Airlines System have established programs that give travelers the opportunity to pay carbon-offset fees to help fund clean technology projects.

Aviation industry observers say it is too soon to know whether such voluntary fees will catch on among airlines or gauge how effective they are in curbing greenhouse gases.

"Europe has been further ahead in terms of being environmentally responsible,'' said Henry Harteveldt, industry analyst in the San Francisco office of Forrester Research. For travelers here and abroad, the tipping point may have been reached, at least in part, due to the impact of Al Gore and his Oscar-winning documentary film, Harteveldt said. "There's no question that 'An Inconvenient Truth' helped,'' he said.

"It's something we will likely see more of,'' Harteveldt said of airline-driven carbon offsets. Even so, he said, "Consumers probably feel it's the company's responsibility to address the environmental impacts of their industry, not theirs.''

Questions have arisen about whether such programs are the most effective way to fight climate change and whether they will be in place very long before being superseded by government-mandated carbon-trading programs for the airlines themselves. The European Union, for example, plans to require airlines serving Europe to use carbon trading by 2011; the United States has no such plans.

British Airways used its Web site, , to create an emissions offset program 18 months ago, the first major airline to do so. It was followed last month by Scandinavian Airlines System, which uses its Web site, , for its program.

Although differences exist, both programs give travelers a way to calculate the amount of carbon dioxide generated per person by their trip, assign a monetary value to it and make a voluntary payment through the airline's Web site to a third-party company that funnels the money to green projects. Neither airline handles carbon-fee money, and the fees are not part of the airlines' fares.

British Airways has promoted its program with its frequent fliers and through media coverage in the United Kingdom. Passenger use so far has been modest, with the "calculate your CO2 emissions'' feature of the environment section of the airline's Web site receiving 2,000 hits a month. About 7 or 8 percent of Web visitors pay the fees, according to Robin Hayes, the airline's executive vice president of the Americas.

Indeed, none of four randomly chosen fliers lining up at San Francisco International Airport for a British Airways flight to London on a recent afternoon was aware of the program. Once the program was outlined and they heard how much their fee would be (about $30 for a London-San Francisco round trip), two travelers said they might use it in the future.

"That's pretty reasonable,'' said Claire Wong of San Francisco, who was heading to Britain for a spring vacation. "I might do it if I fly them again. It's a step in the right direction. At least you're doing something.''

Hayes said British Airways, which flies twice daily between SFO and London's Heathrow airport, put its program into effect because, "We were getting more inquiries from our customers about what they could do to offset climate change, and no one denies aviation plays a role in climate change.''

So British Airways hooked up with British company Climate Care, which works with a variety of businesses to funnel money to projects that include renewable power for schools in India and restoring rain forests in Uganda. Climate Care, according to the company's Web site, care.org, is 9 years old.

"A number of different groups are involved in fighting climate change,'' Hayes said. "Climate Care has a history of developing and selling offsets. We liked the transparency with which this is done.

"Right now,'' he said of British Airways' program, "it's primarily about raising awareness. You have to do business in a way customers will accept. The fact that it's a voluntary program helps.''

Scandinavian Airlines -- 50 percent owned by the governments of Sweden, Denmark and Norway -- began its program March 14, linking to British firm Carbon Neutral Co., according to Niels Eirik-Nertun, the SAS Group's environmental director.

Carbon Neutral collects fees to fund clean energy programs through SAS, which flies between Europe and New York, Chicago, Seattle and Washington. The airline features the new program on the home page of its Web site.

According to Nertun, the Carbon Neutral Co. will direct money from SAS customers to "three projects, all in renewable energy.'' Carbon Neutral, he said, funds wind energy projects in New Zealand, China and India. All three projects, he said, are audited by KPMG.

Spokesmen for British Airways and Scandinavian Airlines emphasize that the voluntary passenger carbon-offset fees are just one element in their approach to environmental sustainability.

"We have improved the fuel efficiency of our aircraft by 27 percent since 1990,'' said Hayes, who added that the London carrier, one of Europe's biggest, is also striving to reduce the amount of emissions it generates by flying lighter planes.

In addition to offering the carbon fee on its passenger flights, SAS is talking to its cargo customers about paying carbon-offset fees, too, said Nertun, noting that awareness of the greenhouse emissions issue is especially high in Europe.

For example, Norway's prime minister recently said in a speech that all international flying by members of the Norwegian government will include carbon-offset fees, Nertun said.

So far, no U.S. carrier uses carbon-offset programs, though it could happen.

"Offering customers a voluntary carbon-offset program is something we're evaluating for the future,'' Bryan Baldwin, manager of corporate communications for JetBlue Airways, wrote in an e-mail. "We don't have plans for anything immediate, but it is of interest to us, as we know it is to a growing number of travelers today. Right now, we focus on efficient-use policies, such as maximizing ground power rather than auxiliary/engine power whenever possible, taxiing with one engine and keeping our aircraft weight down to increase fuel efficiency,'' Baldwin said of JetBlue, a popular discount carrier that serves Oakland International Airport and Mineta San Jose International Airport. JetBlue plans to begin service at SFO next month.

But while carbon-offset fees are becoming more popular in the travel industry, it is likely such piecemeal programs will last only until something more inclusive and ambitious can be put in place, Harteveldt said.

"The carbon-offset genie will never go back into the bottle,'' he said. "Regardless of whether it's voluntary or mandatory, the standard needs to be worldwide and it needs to be consistent. Otherwise, airlines won't know what to do.''

SAS' Nertun agrees. "We see this as the first step into a global consumer market,'' he said.



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