I firmly believe we are only two years away from a tipping point. By 2010, the world will need to have agreed once and for all upon how it wants to tackle climate change.
It is only since the early part of 2006 that governments and corporates have started to focus on the issue of sustainability with greater urgency.
Over the past year, since I pledged $3 billion (Dh11bn) of Virgin Group profits towards developing the cleaner fuel technology of the future, we have made great progress but, unfortunately, too many of our competitors have done little to push forward with new ideas that will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. So, governments now need to encourage companies with these ideas, be they in the UAE, Europe, America or Africa.
One of the biggest issues facing the aviation industry is how to remain competitive but in a sustainable way. It is an issue which is hotly debated in the UK and is starting to spread to other regions of the world. Dubai will be no exception.
Start with the future growth of airports. Dubai, of course, will be in the enviable position of having two major international airports. Its capacity growth is impressive. But should the new airport at Jebel Ali be more environmentally-minded? I would argue that criteria should be laid down for those using the new runways. Only modern, more fuel-efficient aircraft should be allowed, such as Boeing 787 Dreamliners or Airbus A380s; only airlines which offer carbon offsetting schemes to their passengers, and only airlines which can prove how they themselves are becoming more fuel-efficient. The same principles could be applied to other transport modes, such as when a new motorway is built. Old, fuel-guzzling vehicles should be stopped from using new, cleaner infrastructure.
With its hefty contribution to the global economy, taxing aviation isn’t the answer either. It does nothing to provide incentives to plane manufacturers, airports or airlines to clean up the industry. In addition, the public are very sceptical about revenues raised through aviation taxes by governments. Which environmental projects are benefiting? All more taxes do is dampen innovation and reduce incentives for firms to invest in solutions.
Aviation isn’t growing as fast as shipping and cruiselining in terms of global CO2 emissions, but it needs to show how it is promoting more responsible travel. For example, at Virgin Atlantic, we will be the first airline in the world to fly on biofuels next month when we conduct a demonstration flight using one of our 747s. With our partners, Boeing and GE, we hope to show what can be achieved when the aviation industry works together on finding clean-fuel solutions to reduce our impact on the environment. The results of this demonstration will help further research and hopefully speed up the implementation of biofuel in the air.
We’ve also just introduced a gold-standard offsetting scheme, enabling passengers to pay an amount, on the plane, depending on where they are sitting. The further up the front of the plane, the more customers pay as the larger and wider beds in Upper Class are heavier than the seats in economy. It will be interesting to see if consumers, when given the choice so prominently, do offset their flights in large numbers. It is initiatives like these which more companies need to adopt. Airlines cannot merely hide behind the prospect of a global carbon emissions trading scheme, which will take several years to come to fruition. Buying new planes is not enough in itself to proclaim green credentials.
In the coming months, I truly believe we will see a bottom-up approach to tackling climate change. Employees within companies will be asking their managers what they can do to reduce their carbon footprint – everything from car-sharing, to using the planned Dubai Metro system, to the use of low-energy lightbulbs in the workplace. Reducing footprints will become more of a priority as companies are forced, by their own people, to do more to make a difference.
Amid this individual and corporate activism, it is governments that need to do more to help save our planet. We need tangible global solutions that have a major impact. Air traffic control efficiency in Africa and Europe would be a major leap forward, reducing CO2 emissions by some 15 per cent. Why can’t governments move more quickly on this? What excuse is there? A global emissions trading scheme would cap emissions over time, forcing companies to think cleverly about how much they emit.
Finally, governments need to help us produce a better understanding of alternative fuels. With oil becoming a scarcer resource, it will only be collective action that finds the fuel of the future. The tipping point is getting closer – waiting for it is no solution.
Sir Richard Branson is CEO of Virgin Group
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