It was at 33,000 feet, on route from Paris, when I had my first welcome to the climate change talks in Copenhagen. We’d reached our cruising altitude and the captain of the Air France flight came on the public address system, greeting us in French with the usual, ‘Hope you are enjoying your flight,” when he launched into this: “This flight amounts to a carbon footprint of 2 liters of fuel per person for every 100 kilometers of the 900 kilometer trip to Copenhagen.” That’s the same fuel consumption per person, he told us, as it would take to drive from Paris to Copenhagen, but then came the pilot’s twist: “We’re carrying a lot more people,” he said. I looked around and we were in a packed Airbus 321, carrying almost 200 passengers.
His statement got my attention. The stewardess, Fatya, told me it was the first time she’d heard such an announcement in her many trips across the continent. The man next to me, an engineer flying in from Bogota, whose business of recycling equipment to companies in Latin America is booming (a market U.S. manufacturers barely know exists), did some napkin calculations and assured me the pilot was right.
This was a lot more carbon-efficient than driving the same route: our Airbus 321 carrying 200 passengers, the average car carrying perhaps four. Air France plans to reduce its average fuel consumption per passenger to 3.7 liters per 100 km by 2012, and the industry’s green-focused trade groups say the new generation of fleets are already more efficient per person per mile than the most modern compact cars. But that’s another blog post.
The message from Copenhagen, then, had made it into the turbulent, rain-soaked skies of Europe. When we landed, I had a quick word with Captain Gaetan Sroczysnki. He said it was his own decision to make the announcement — not company policy — and other pilot friends were doing the same. All of them were aware that airplanes are one of the largest guzzlers of fuel and thus emitters of greenhouse gases. These pilots wanted to acknowledge in their own way the necessity for reducing these levels. There were no such announcements on my flight from San Francisco to Paris.
Nor, it turns out, does Captain Sroczysnki’s concern come out of thin air. Here in Europe, the skies are already a major focus of greenhouse gas reduction efforts: The European Union recently issued a list of proposals to limit the emissions from the aviation sector, which is estimated to produce about 3 percent of Europe’s greenhouse gases. All airlines flying in or out of European airports must begin to tally their fuel use and carbon emissions to create a baseline for limits that will be established in 2012.
These actions have already prompted the Air Transport Association and major U.S. carriers like United, American Airlines and Continental to threaten a legal challenge to EU laws on the grounds that they violate free-trade provisions and air navigation treaties, some of which date back to 1944. While a new airline emissions limit is still being worked out, observers expect the cap will be around 20 million tons of CO2 for 2012, with a 5 percent reduction on that figure by the following year.
Welcome to the friendly skies!
During the next two weeks, CIR’s Mark Schapiro will be blogging from the Copenhagen climate change summit for Carbon Watch, a joint project “tracking the new currencies of global warming” by the Center for Investigative Reporting and FRONTLINE/World.