Environment Forum

Airlines tout “going green” but their lobbyists are on different flight

By Peter Goldmark
The opinions expressed are his own. 

The way some of the big U.S. airlines tell it, they’re responsible stewards of the environment working hard to shrink their footprints.

American Airlines, in an article in its in-flight magazine American Way, says the company is “committed to identifying and implementing programs to reduce our environmental impact.” Just this week, American announced the purchase of 460 new fuel-efficient aircraft. The newly merged United and Continental recently launched an “Eco-Skies” campaign that, according to a company web site, reflects “a common focus on protecting the environment” and “allow[s] us to integrate our programs and focus on the environmental commitment of our combined company.”

So why are these environmental stewards hiring lobbyists and going to court to fight common-sense rules that will help protect the environment? And why are some members of Congress introducing legislation that would make it illegal for air carriers to obey new European clean air standards?

On January 1, 2012, all civil aviation flights using airports in Europe will become accountable for their global warming pollution. A new European law, designed to reduce global warming emissions from aviation as part of the larger effort to avert climate catastrophe, will apply to all airlines without regard to nation of origin. (The law exempts airlines that operate a small number of flights to/from the EU).

In its first year, the law requires the airlines to make a modest three percent reduction from their 2004-2006 emissions levels, and to cut pollution five percent through 2020. The law gives airlines broad flexibility to determine how to reduce pollution.  Innovative carriers that cut emissions below required levels can sell their surplus allowances. This mild law won’t hurt the carriers’ business; in fact, a 2007 study by the industry’s International Air Transport Association found that the regulation’s “net impact is slightly positive for [both] the profitability of airlines operating extra-EU flights and the overall profitability of flights arriving and departing the EU.”

As if 2007 never happened?

If four years is a lifetime in politics, it’s an eternity in climate change politics. Events in Washington this week might make climate policy watchers wonder if 2007 really happened.

At issue is the decision by American Electric Power to put its plans for carbon capture and storage on hold, due to the weak economy and the lack of a U.S. plan to limit emissions of climate-warming carbon dioxide. Read the Reuters story about it here.

Carbon capture and storage, or CCS for short, has been promoted as a way to make electricity from domestic coal without unduly raising the level of carbon in the atmosphere. Instead of sending the carbon dioxide that results from burning coal up a smokestack and into the air, the plan was to bury it underground. But that costs money and requires regulatory guarantees, and neither are imminent in the United States. Legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions bogged down on Capitol Hill a year ago and has not been re-introduced.

A flying HIPPO, with ICE-T on the side


A HIPPO took off from a windswept airfield in Colorado today, as  ICE-T waited in a nearby hangar, getting ready for a summer trip to the Caribbean.

OK, OK, enough fun with acronyms. HIPPO and ICE-T are flying climate laboratories, one in a Gulfstream V jet, the other in a refurbished C-130 military cargo plane.

Unlike its animal namesake, HIPPO is actually a rather sleek aircraft, fitted with equipment and a crew of 10, that makes flights of  eight hours or more at a go, sampling the atmosphere around the Pacific Basin, from near the North Pole to just off the coast of Antarctica. HIPPO is actually a combination of two acronyms: HIAPER Pole-to-Pole Observations. HIAPER itself stands for High-performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research. Quite a mouthful.

Cows, climate change and the high court

FRANCE/If you took all the cows in the United States and figured out how much greenhouse gas they emit, would you be able to sue all the farmers who own them?

That interesting legal question came from Justice Antonin Scalia during Supreme Court oral arguments about whether an environmental case against five big U.S. power companies can go forward.

At issue is whether six states can sue the country’s biggest coal-fired electric utilities to make them cut down on the climate-warming carbon dioxide they emit. One lower court said they couldn’t, an appeals court said they could and now the high court will consider where the case will go next. A ruling should come by the end of June.

Hu’s visit is over, but China’s ecological footprint lingers

CHINA-PARLIAMENT/The Chinese flags have disappeared from Washington’s wide avenues after China’s President Hu Jintao’s visit this week, but one statistic is still in the air: the rapidly expanding size of the Chinese ecological footprint, compared to the huge but slowing impact U.S. consumers have on global supplies of food, water, fuel — everything, really.

China and the United States are generally considered to hold the top two spots in the world for emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gases. But how do they compare when consumption of all goods is taken into account?

A report by Global Footprint Network indicates both countries are living beyond their means, ecologically speaking.

Washington math: oil spill + climate bill = new environmental polls

OIL-RIG/LEAKWith BP’s spilled oil shimmering off the U.S. Gulf Coast, and a re-tooled bill to curb climate change expected to be unveiled this week in the U.S. Senate, what could be more appropriate than a bouquet of new environmental polls? Conducted on behalf of groups that want less fossil fuel use, the polls show hefty majorities favoring legislation to limit emissions of climate-warming carbon dioxide.

In the kind of harmonic convergence that sometimes happens inside the Capital Beltway, a new poll released on Monday by the Clean Energy Works campaign showed “overwhelming public support for comprehensive clean energy legislation,” with 61 percent of 2010 voters saying they want to limit pollution, invest in clean energy and make energy companies pay for emitting the carbon that contributes to climate change. A healthy majority — 54 percent — of respondents said they’d be more likely to re-elect a senator who votes for the bill.

Last Friday, the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has been pushing for climate change legislation for years, released its own poll numbers. NRDC’s pollsters found seven in 10 Americans want to see fast-tracked clean energy legislation in the wake of the BP oil spill, and two-thirds say they want to postpone new offshore drilling until the Gulf oil spill is investigated and new safeguards are put in place.

from Global News Journal:

Driving carmakers to distraction over emissions

car emissionsEurope's nominee to be climate chief surprised car manufacturers last week by saying she thought EU policymakers might have been too soft on them when carbon-capping rules were set in 2008.

Connie Hedegaard's forceful intervention during hearings for the European Commission raised the possibility of a renewed push by Europe to legislate car emissions if the Dane is approved by the European Parliament for the post next month.

The exisiting rules were hard-fought-over in 2008, with big European auto nations such as France, Italy and Germany arguing that a slow transition to tougher targets was necessary to protect jobs in a sector that is not only one of the EU's biggest employers but already feeling the heat from the economic crisis.

from Tales from the Trail:

“Heroism fatigue”: another hurdle for U.S. climate change action?

GERMANY/Could "heroism fatigue" be yet another bump in the road for any U.S. law to curb climate change? And what is "heroism fatigue" anyway?

To Paul Bledsoe of the bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy, heroism fatigue is what happens when the Congress has spent most of the year doing something heroic, like trying to hammer out an agreement on healthcare reform, when what lawmakers might rather be doing is naming a new post office. Following one big, gnarly piece of legislation with another -- like a bill to limit climate-warming carbon dioxide -- can seem daunting.

"Especially Democrats want to get  back to some meat-and-potatoes job-creation stuff," Bledsoe says. "They're going to need a little time after healthcare."

Must the natural gas industry clean up its act?

Natural gas is regarded as a relatively clean source of energy but there is mounting evidence that it has a dirty side.

My colleague Jon Hurdle has reported on Wyoming water woes that have been linked to the booming gas industry. You can see his stories here and here.

In August U.S. government scientists reported that they had for the first time found chemical contaminants in drinking water wells near natural gas drilling operations, fueling concern that a gas-extraction technique is endangering the health of people who live close to drilling rigs.

Better Than A Rainforest? Air Capture Climate Technology Gets A Closer Look

It sounds almost too good to be true: new technology that would be better than carbon neutral — it would be carbon negative, taking more climate-warming carbon dioxide out of the air than factories and vehicles put in. It’s called air capture technology, and Reuters took a look at some promising versions of it on October 1.

This technology is expected to help some of the world’s poorest countries capitalize on any global carbon market, which would put a price on carbon emissions and let rich companies that spew lots of carbon buy carbon credits from poor companies and countries that emit less. The least developed countries emit very little carbon now. But the way the carbon market is set up under the Kyoto Protocol, this puts them at a disadvantage. If you don’t emit a lot it’s tough to get access to financing and clean technology under the current rules.

Most of these less-developed countries are going to be on the front lines of climate change, if they’re not there already. The predicted ravages of a changing climate, including droughts, floods and wildfires, would hurt them worst and first. The idea is that they need to develop, to give themselves a cushion against these disasters. To develop, they need energy. And usually, getting energy has meant spewing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, adding to the climate change that caused the problem in the first place.

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