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  Today Online 11 Oct 07
Airlines allow travellers to go eco with a click of the mouse
Serene Huang

As if it's not warm enough in Singapore, global warming will cause temperatures to rise between 1C and 4C by the end of the century.

In a bid to reduce carbon emission which produces heat-trapping greenhouse gases that are at the root of climate change airlines have turned to more fuel-efficient aircraft and carbon offset programmes. Australian carrier Qantas is the latest to join the green group with the launch of its Fly Carbon Neutral programme last month.

Carbon offset programmes work by removing your carbon "footprint". One way to do that is to plant trees that will absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide produced as the result of your flight. The offset doesn't have to be carried out in your home country. Trees planted in Nicaragua, for example, can help to neutralise the gross amount of carbon dioxide produced all over the world. The good news for travellers is that all this can be done with a click of the mouse.

For a fee of $21, for example, travellers flying Qantas to Sydney and back can opt to offset their share of carbon emission, or footprint. The fee, which can be paid at the Qantas website, www.qantas.com.au, goes to CO2 Australia, a tree planting organisation that will use the money to plant mallee eucalyptus trees Down Under.

"These trees will not only sequester carbon from the atmosphere but will also aid in the prevention of salinity, erosion and soil degradation and provide income for farmers," said Qantas chief executive officer Geoff Dixon.

Another airline that offers such a programme is Air Canada, which partners carbon offset organisation Zerofootprint to implement voluntary passenger carbon offset schemes.

The programmes don't just involve planting trees. Some organisations invest in renewable energy, such as Zerofootprint's wind turbines project in India and Inner Mongolia.

According to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, aviation is responsible for 2 per cent of global carbon emissions, a figure projected to increase another percentage point by 2050. Though a number far smaller than land transport's 75 per cent, high altitude carbon emissions are reportedly 2.7 times more damaging than low-level ones, according to the UK-based Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Though the exact damage is difficult to measure, the aviation industry has nevertheless taken the cue to lessen their impact as much as possible.

"While it does not reduce carbon emissions, carbon offset does reduce our carbon footprint," said Sasha Sherman, British Airways marketing manager for South-east Asia. The airline was the first in the UK to offer a voluntary passenger carbon offset scheme in 2005. It partners Climate Care, a carbon offset company with projects worldwide, which ranges from harnessing wind energy to tropical reforestation.

Opponents of carbon offset programmes argue that the projects do not reduce the gross carbon emission of the activity it is offsetting. Said Singapore Airlines (SIA) spokesperson Stephen Forshaw: "More work needs to be done to prove that these programmes are in fact effective, scientifically proven as delivering actual offsets, and transparent on the actual amount spent on improving the network."

SIA prefers a more direct approach by turning to fuel-saving strategies such as maintaining fuel-efficient aircraft and planning more efficient air routes. These efforts saved the airline 355.7 million kilograms of fuel in the past year and reduced carbon emissions by 1.1 million tons.

Airlines aren't the only ones demanding greater accountability from carbon offset programmes. Said special projects director at a multi-national company and frequent business traveller Alex Yeo: "The cost is not a big issue for me, but I would need to know how the money would be used before I choose to offset."

For others, price, not eco-friendliness, is still the main concern.

"I will pay the lowest price for my air ticket because flying's still a luxury for me," said June Koh, a student at the University of Western Australia.

Arts administrator and musician Koh Tse Wei said: "I would pay to offset only if it's not more than $25."

While travellers warm up to carbon offsets, airlines have other plans to tackle global warming. The new fleets of Airbus A380 which SIA, Qantas and British Airways have ordered consumes less than 3 litres of fuel per passenger per 100km travelled, making it "more fuel-efficient than even the latest hybrid car", according to Qantas' Dixon.

Ultimately, the message of these airlines is: When you fly, fly green.

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