Here's a poser for you: Who does more to accelerate global warming, a corporate executive flying business class from London to New York for a meeting or a tourist on the same flight stuck back in row 45?
In real terms they are, of course, contributing equally to climate change. Put the flight details into a carbon calculator and you find that each passenger is responsible for 0.77 tonnes of CO2 emissions regardless of whether they are supping champagne at the front or crammed in next to the toilets at the back.
However, according to Professor Peter James of the UK Centre for Environmental and Economic Development an economic analysis of the two journeys reveals a completely different picture.
Speaking yesterday at a roundtable event on climate change hosted by video conferencing specialist Tandberg, James argued that the disproportionate amount of revenue and profits that airlines generate from their relatively few business class seats means that it is these high-end passengers that are making the bigger contribution to climate change.
"Despite all the publicity around Ryanair and easyJet, business travellers are still the main drivers of the airline industry with 35 to 40 percent of revenue for the mainstream carriers coming from business class," he explained. "As a result what will change the economics of each flight is if business travel is cut. That would hit the airlines hardest and force them to put leisure prices up and ultimately even cut flights."
In short, if business class travellers opt to fly less, by using rail where possible, cutting down on unnecessary meetings and conferences, and pushing more face-to-face meetings online, they will generate dual environmental benefits: cutting their own carbon emissions and forcing up ticket prices across the board as they eat into the profitability of airlines that rely on their high-margin seats.
Just as the business class traveller is disproportionately important to the airlines they are also disproportionately powerful and as a result a genuine revolution in corporate travel policies has more chance of reducing the number of flights than if environmentally responsible tourists start taking holidays in the UK.
"In terms of CO2 it is the same [for the business traveller and the holidaymaker]," summarised James. "But if you look at the economics of what will force flights to be grounded it is the business traveller [choosing not to fly] who will have the bigger impact."
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