Eco-money As more of the world's population finds air travel affordable, the environmental repercussions of the aviation industry will worsen.
Airlines caught in the middle of battle for clean air supremacy
Environmental organisations such as Greenpeace are warning investors to avoid buying shares in airline companies in the light of the failure to control carbon emissions.
At the same time, the aviation industry is trying to convince the market that it is successfully tackling carbon emissions, believed to be the major cause of global warming, and that it is doing its best to produce biofuels to replace the kerosene fuel that powers commercial aeroplanes. But the world's airlines may be reluctant to cut emissions if it adversely affects their profits.
China is already reported to considering imposing fees on European airlines if the European Union goes ahead with is plan to include aviation in its carbon market. From the start of 2012, all airlines flying to Europe would have to buy permits for each tonne of carbon dioxide they emit. China's aviation authority believes this could cost Chinese airlines US$123 million (Dh451.78m) in the first year, tripling by 2020.
Greenpeace also believes that the aviation industry's own estimates of its carbon footprint may be hiding the full extent of the problem.
"The aviation industry tries to play down its climate impact claiming that aviation is only responsible for 2 per cent of global emissions. This figure applies only to carbon dioxide emissions, not the overall climate impact of aviation, and refers to 1992 data," says Vicky Wyatt, a senior climate campaigner at Greenpeace.
"According to the European Federation for Transport and Environment, in the year 2000, air transport actually accounted for between 4 per cent and 9 per cent of the climate change impact of human activities," she adds.
As more of the world's population finds air travel affordable and international travel hubs such as Dubai continue to attract increasing air traffic, the environmental repercussions of the aviation industry will worsen. With emissions from the aviation industry set to grow by at least 83 per cent by 2020, Greenpeace believes that, even if the EU succeeds in imposing its rulings on the world's international airlines, this will not solve the problem.
But the aviation industry is understood to be developing biofuels that it believes might one day replace the kerosene fuel now used by the airlines. German company Choren, for example, is developing technology it hopes may lead to a workable biofuel for airlines.
"Choren specialises in the development of technology for the creation of biofuels, some of which has the potential to transform the airline industry with the production of a bio kerosene alternative. We are in talks with potential partners in the airline industry who have a vested interest in finding a low-carbon emission alternative to kerosene," says Choren's chief financial officer Gunnar Dresen.
But it is still difficult for private investors to invest in the next generation of biofuels. Companies at the cutting edge of the new technology such as Choren are frequently not listed on any stock exchange. While Choren's shareholders include Volkswagen and Daimler, the majority of the shareholding is held by private individuals.
Mr Dresen adds: "While we have a public listing of our shares on midterm radar, for the moment, individual green investors would have to approach Choren direct in order to play a part in the funding of future projects."
Greenpeace, however, is sceptical that biofuels are going to play a significant role in reducing the aviation industry's massive global carbon footprint. Some estimates suggest an area three times the size of Germany would be required to meet today's demand for aviation fuel. Virgin used 150,000 coconuts to partly power one flight from London to Amsterdam. But Greenpeace calculates that it would have taken roughly three million coconuts to have powered that single flight on biofuel alone.
There are also concerns from environmentalists and human rights campaigners that biofuels must not be allowed to compete for land used for food supply. According to Greenpeace, land described as idle land is often used to graze livestock.
Ms Wyatt says: "The first generation of biofuels have environmental repercussions in the form of land use and rainforest deforestation as a result of the vast tracts of land that would be needed to produce biofuels."
Greenpeace believes that the only realistic method of controlling the aviation industry's carbon emissions is for passengers to be encouraged to take fewer flights, a strategy not calculated to appeal to revenue-hungry airlines. With international flights widely available for as little as $50 a seat and airlines going for volume sales to counter tight profit margins, the last thing most want to do is to encourage travellers to seek alternative forms of transport.
Ms Wyatt adds: "Our number one priority for the aviation industry would be travel constraint. As there is not a single airline that would embrace travel constraint, Greenpeace would advocate that green investors invest in alternative forms of transport and communications such as rail and video conferencing."