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Lights flash amber for new green treaty.

Lights flash amber for new green treaty

There are seven buttons across the top of the website of European low-cost airline easyJet. The default is, of course, ‘Book flights’. No surprise there. But the second most prominent, reading left to right, is ‘Fly greener – the environment’.

Clicking on this option reveals the airline’s claims to be less damaging to the environment than many of its rivals because it operates modern, fuel-efficient planes, puts more seats in them and fills more of the seats on each flight. There are also sections enabling passengers to calculate the amount of carbon their flight will emit, and giving them the chance to ‘offset’ this carbon by contributing to such emission-reduction projects as a hydro-electric plant in Ecuador.

One reason that aviation is on the defensive over pollution is that aircraft emit most of their carbon high in the atmosphere, where the greenhouse effects of their emissions are up to four times greater than at ground level. Green (in Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, January 2009) assesses the environmental damage that aviation causes and ways in which the industry can reduce this through research and development.

Lighter, more fuel-efficient aircraft are on the way, as are engines that emit less carbon dioxide and fewer nitrogen oxides. The author argues that there is considerable scope for reducing these dangerous emissions, but such reductions are always going to be limited by the laws of physics. A balance is needed to minimize the total climate impact of all the factors concerned.

A review by Sir Nicholas Stern, head of the UK Government Economic Service, and adviser to the Government on the economics of climate change and development, put matters into context. Aircraft emissions are the fastest-growing cause of global warming, but they start from a low level. Aviation currently generates only 1.6% of global emissions – a figure projected to rise to 2.5% by 2050. Electricity generation, in contrast, accounts for 24% of carbon pollution, and deforestation for 18%.

Half of this deforestation is occurring in Brazil and Indonesia. The Times’ economics writer, Anatole Kaletsky, calculates that persuading these two states to stop stripping away the rain forests in their borders for just one year would neutralize the climate impact of all the aircraft in the world until 2050.

For developing countries, exploitation of their natural resources is quite often the fastest route to achieving Western levels of comfort and mobility. Little wonder, then, that disputes between the developed and developing worlds are holding up a new global treaty to replace the current Kyoto protocol on carbon-dioxide emissions, which is due to lapse in 2012. Environmentalists, meanwhile, fear that politicians will use the global economic downturn as a pretext for watering down the treaty.

Harvey (in the 2nd of January’s Financial Times) points out that any new deal needs to be agreed by December 2009 if it is to be ratified by 2012. One thing, though, is already clear. The main aspects of an eventual agreement will have to include financial and technological support for developing countries to reduce their emissions and conserve their natural resources without curbing their efforts to fight poverty.