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Airlines' carbon offsetting schemes unsatisfactory

25 Jul 2007 by business traveller

MPs expressed their dissatisfaction with the airline industry’s attitude toward carbon offsetting in a report published this week. Most notably the report by the House of Commons environmental audit committee called British Airways’ efforts to encourage carbon offsetting “risible.”

After collecting evidence from BA, Silverjet and Virgin Atlantic, the committee found the airlines to be “not disposed to consider whole-hearted cooperation with the government over offsetting”, because of industry objections to government-mandated increases in air passenger duty.

The report marks another blow to BA’s carbon offsetting program, following a recent Channel Four Dispatches programme that detailed the shortcomings in the mostly-unregulated carbon offsetting market, claiming among other things that British Airways carbon calculator estimates were too low.

BA responded to the report by saying they were one of the first airlines to offer a carbon offsetting plan on their website, but that “we recognise that customer response has not been as strong as we would have hoped.”

The MP report also criticized Virgin Atlantic for failure to offer an offset plan to customers, failure to direct them to an outside provider and the lack of an emissions calculator on the Virgin website.

A spokesperson from Virgin Atlantic said the airline had been working to “mitigate” the effect they have on the environment and was in the process of developing a carbon offsetting scheme.

“What we explained to the MPs was that it’s something we’ll be able to announce by the end of the year, but we want to get it right. Carbon offsetting is complicated—it’s more than just planting trees. We’ll have a scheme by the end of the year, and it will be a scheme that leads the industry,” the spokesperson said.

The Commons report did praise business-class only airline Silverjet for its automatic inclusion of offsetting into each ticket price, but noted that the airline should be more transparent in its literature detailing “the exact nature of its carbon neutrality.”

In its final recommendation, the report urged the Government to “engage in a dialogue with business to develop a consensus definition of what carbon neutral means,” and to bring more legitimacy to the growing industry.

The report praised the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on its plans to publish a voluntary code of best practice by late summer. Defra hopes to have the code in place by the end of the year, a spokesperson said. The code would provide accreditation and standards only for formal certified emissions reduction (CER) projects under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism, and offset providers and companies will be able to seek out accreditation for some or all of their projects.

Budget airline easyJet made the news in April when the company announced it would not use carbon-offsetting companies because of the exorbitant markup associated with going through a middle-man. ‘There are too many snake oil salesmen in the business,’ said Toby Nicol, easyJet’s communications director. This summer, the company plans to launch a program that involves buying UN-backed carbon credits to sell directly to passengers.

EasyJet claims the best way it can be environmentally efficient is by investing in new aircraft, using existing aircraft efficiently, avoiding congested hub airports and focusing on short-haul travel. According to a recent Government report, air travel accounts for 6.3 per cent of total UK CO2 emissions.

For more information on the practice of carbon offsetting, read the forthcoming September issue of Business Traveller.

Report by Lucinda Housley

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