The airport at Churchill, Man., which bills itself as the Polar Bear Capital of the World, may play a key part in helping Canada reduce greenhouse gases.
Federal documents obtained by the Winnipeg Free Press show Transport Canada has put Churchill on the radar screen of climate change plans.
An upgraded airport could save up to two per cent of Canada's aviation emissions by serving as an available emergency landing strip for international flights.
By increasing rescue and firefighting services at the airport, as many as 6,000 flights between Europe and the United States could fly directly over Churchill - cutting both flying time and the amount of fuel burned.
''Each 100 litres of aviation turbo fuel burned produces greenhouse gases with a global warming potential equivalent to that of 262.9 kilograms of carbon dioxide,'' says the March 1 briefing note released under the Access to Information Act.
''If Churchill's airport could be used for more direct routes, an amount roughly equivalent to seven to 20 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide would be saved each flight.''
As part of flight plans, airlines must name alternative landing locations they can reach within a specified time in case of emergency.
Transport Canada officials were not available to explain which airports are currently used in backup plans for flights from Europe. The fuel-saving and greenhouse gas-cutting potential of Churchill is also being trumpeted by the International Air Transport Association. It has recommended Transport Canada look at airports that would enable new routing for passenger planes with Kyoto targets in mind.
According to the association, a Boeing 767 flight from Europe to the western United States would be 22 minutes shorter and consume up to 2,000 kilograms less fuel if Churchill was available as an alternate airport in the case of an emergency.
In the case of a Boeing 777, 45 minutes would be cut from the flight, which would burn 6,000 kilograms less fuel.
''This single effort at one airport could result in an emissions reduction comparable to one to two per cent of Canada's total aviation emissions,'' says the document, released to Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin.
''One of the greatest challenges facing civil aviation is to reconcile growth with the associated environmental impact. With all things being equal, Canada could - in theory - increase aviation activity by a corresponding amount with no net increase in global carbon dioxide production.''
Churchill - whose polar bears have been suffering because climate change has weakened the ice floes they need to hunt on in Hudson Bay - has from time to time been used for emergency landings for transatlantic flights flying across Canada's North.
Churchill mayor Mike Spence said he'd welcome Transport Canada beefing up his town's airport, which could help the community's economic future.
''We understand that we have some very important infrastructure and, as a community, we are always looking for opportunities,'' Spence said.
The Transport Canada briefing note makes no mention of the amount of money it would take to bring Churchill's airport up to the standards required to have it designated an alternative airport for overseas flights.
The Conservative government has said Canada cannot meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets under the international Kyoto agreement.
This fall, the government is expected to reveal its own environmental plan and approach to dealing with climate change.
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