The battle for the hearts and minds of air passengers intensified today after the government launched a stinging attack on the airline industry over its failure to adequately address climate change.
In an interview with The Guardian, environment minister Ian Pearson accused leading airlines of refusing to take the issue seriously, branding budget carrier Ryanair "the irresponsible face of capitalism", and labeling major American airlines "a disgrace".
He also accused British Airways of not doing enough in its attempts to reduce carbon emissions, claiming it was "only just about playing ball" with government plans to tackle the problem.
The backdrop to the minister's unprecedented attack is the current round of negotiations over the EU's plans to bring airlines into its controversial carbon trading scheme. The EU wants to include all flights taken within the EU in the trading scheme from 2011, before adding all international flights that arrive at or depart from an EU airport the following year.
The EU claims the move would provide a financial incentive for airlines to reduce their carbon footprint and invest in more fuel efficient technologies.
However, much of the airline industry has been lobbying intensively against the scheme arguing that it would lead to price hikes and make European airlines uncompetitive. Michael O'Leary, chief executive of Ryanair has gone further still, vowing to boycott the EU scheme, while American airlines have already threatened legal action if it is extended to impact their flights to and from Europe.
Given this context the intended audience for Pearson's comments is not the airlines themselves, but their passengers. He knows that naming and shaming these carriers is unlikely to make them change their stance, but he also knows that if the government is to impose strict legislation that will drive them kicking and screaming into the trading scheme it needs public and corporate backing. If the EU is going to push up ticket prices, take on the might of the US airline industry and impose fines on a recalcitrant Ryanair then it needs passengers onside – hence Pearson's emotive attack.
However, is the minister's aggressive approach really the best way to gain support ? Branding Ryanair "the unacceptable… irresponsible face of capitalism", may go down well with the Guardianistas, but it will not help the government win support from a business community that accounts for a huge proportion of air travel and already has concerns that higher ticket prices could stunt economic growth
The fact is that alongside the moral argument for the carbon trading scheme the EU desperately needs to make the economic case.
The government would do better to dispense with the name calling and instead focus on destroying the airline industry myth that the scheme will curtail economic growth. It needs to make it clear to business leaders, including those at the airlines, that this new carbon market is more an opportunity than cost.
The beauty of the trading scheme (and why Gordon Brown is apparently such a fan) is that, if anything, it will drive economic growth. Under the initiative any organisation emitting too much carbon has to buy credits from those not using up their allowance. As a result there is an incentive for firms to upgrade to new energy efficient technologies that reduce their operational overheads and also drive the growth of the burgeoning green technology sector.
The trading scheme is not a tax, as O'Leary claims, it is a means of directly redistributing cash from polluting organisations to their cleaner rivals.
The greatest irony of Ryanair's opposition to the trading scheme is found in its repeated assertion that its use of modern fuel efficient aircraft makes it a green organisation. If this is indeed the case and the EU begins the scheme with relatively high carbon allowances for airlines, as it probably will, then Ryanair would actually make money from the scheme by not using up its full carbon allowance and selling credits to those rivals running older, less efficient fleets.
O'Leary and the rest of the airline industry may be furious now, but other sectors of the economy have already worked this out and see the carbon trading scheme for what it is – a revenue opportunity. In fact, astute firms with carbon reduction programmes already in place are likely to be in favour of the scheme being expanded as forcing the airlines to buy credits would drive up the market price still further, increasing their revenue.
Meanwhile, politicians should also make plain that airlines' scare stories of massive price hikes are largely unfounded. This government has already signaled its support for the sector through both its expansion of airports and Tony Blair's love of long haul holidays – it is not about to authorise a scheme that makes the new runways redundant.
Estimates suggest the cost of a flight to New York will rise by just £25, which is unlikely to hit passenger numbers that heavily. This is all to the disgust of the environmental lobby, which criticises it for not going far enough to curb emissions, but the government's aim seems to be to reward cleaner airlines and encourage investment in more energy efficient aircraft, not force people out of the skies.
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