Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Jetset: "Airlines Go Green"

On a recent hop from London Heathrow to Amsterdam, passengers were being served drinks without snacks. An irate passenger demanded: “Where are the nuts?” A stewardess apologized: “Sorry, sir, but the nuts are fueling your flight.”

This may sound like a lame joke, but it’s not that far from actually being true. Virgin Atlantic Airways flew this route in late February with a jumbo jet using fuel derived from a mix of Brazilian babassu nuts and coconuts. Yes, the world’s first commercial flight fueled by renewable energy has taken off – albeit without any passengers onboard and with biofuels powering only one of the four engines.

Many environmentalists have branded the flight nothing more than a gimmick and questioned the sustainability of biofuel cultivation. But such criticisms have not dampened the enthusiasm of Virgin’s Richard Branson. He claimed the pioneering flight has demonstrated his carrier’s serious commitment to reducing carbon emissions.

It was certainly a timely message. The airline industry is taking a lot of heat for its role in global warming, even though commercial buildings emit more greenhouse gases than commercial airplanes. In Europe, some lawmakers are already proposing to reduce air travel by heavy taxes and other means.

Why the outcry against the airline industry? Experts say its phenomenal success – the number of passengers in the US alone already approaches one billion per year – may have brought its own undoing. While commercial aviation accounts for only about five percent of all fossil fuel emissions worldwide, climate-changing pollutants from airplanes in the US, for instance, could rise to as much as five times current levels by 2025 if the sector continues its rapid growth.

Airlines seem to have come up with a crafty solution to shed their eco-unfriendly image: a so-called carbon-offset scheme. In other words, when you buy an airline ticket, part of the fee will be given to an environmental group. Although no Chinese mainland airlines offer such programs yet, quite a few international carriers flying to China do.

Some airlines charge a flat environmental fee for a roundtrip (on Delta, USD 5.5 domestically and 11 bucks internationally). Others determine the amount based on actual emissions, flight distance and class of travel. On the websites of Cathay Pacific or Dragonair, the first Asian airline group to introduce a carbon-offset scheme last December, you can work out a figure with the smart online calculator. An economy-class roundtrip between Beijing and Hong Kong, for example, will produce 0.37 tons of carbon-dioxide – and you need to fork out 25.5 kuai to offset that. They even let you pay with frequent flier miles (686 Asia Miles in this case). Your contribution will be put into a wind farm project near Shanghai. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 32 of the April 2008 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

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