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How to Navigate the Environmental Media – Part 2

Part Two – Battle for the Skies

Virgin America’s Richard Branson retreated to his own island in the Caribbean three weekends ago with Larry Page (Google), Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia), Vinod Khosla (Sun Microsystems) and Tony Blair to discuss the creation of his climate change “war room.” He was in effect taking up his position among the ranks of a global climate change elite that includes Al Gore, Ivo De Boer and Rajendra Pachauri.

Branson acquired elusive membership to this club because of, among other things, his savvy navigation of the media skies over Europe. These skies brought some of Europe’s leading airlines into open conflict with the European Union’s Commission on climate change. Interestingly, the European media wars over aviation emissions – which occurred as a direct result of the Kyoto Protocol – are now having repercussions here within the industry.

In this article, I want to tell the story of how the aviation emissions debate was covered in the European media, and look at the opportunities and lessons to learn for the U.S. airline industry.

Back in 2005 when I was working for European Union’s Environment Agency, little did I realize that a project I worked on with a seemingly insignificant, technical report for the Commission on transport emissions would have such an impact. That report led to the most unique regulatory change in European aviation history, a media war, threats of international legal action, and finally, markedly different environmental media responses between European and U.S. airlines.

The 2005 report, which had typically focused on transport emissions from road and rail, included for the first time, aviation trends. Despite the fact that European aviation emissions constituted only 2% of emissions from all sectors, they had grown by 73% between 1990 -2005 (largely due to the liberalization of the airways in Europe and the consequent arrival of homegrown low fare airlines). In January 2006, in an attempt to trumpet its “cap and trade scheme” as the tool for meeting its 2012 Kyoto targets, the European Commission started courting the idea of including aviation emissions into its carbon regulation.

The early media activity was by far the most vociferous and it played out predominantly in the U.K. press. The protagonist, a leading European low fare airline, which proactively used top-tier media as the battlefield, led an attack on the proposal by:

  • challenging the Commission’s emissions data
  • diverting the argument to other sectors with higher emissions, like agriculture, or sectors which hadn’t yet been included in the EU’s carbon regulation, like shipping
  • suggesting the carbon regulation on airlines would kill Europeans’ newly-found appetite for weekend breaks across the continent
  • claiming itself as the most fuel efficient airline in Europe due to its newer fleets

As the year progressed and the Commission showed a clear intent to legislate, the media war slowly subsided, giving way to more concrete communications initiatives by airlines. By the end of 2006, Virgin, who had previously remained quiet for the most part, began to unroll its own climate change strategy. The scale and comprehensiveness of Virgin’s efforts quickly elevated it to the top among rivals. Its key actions included:

  • A $3bn Climate Pledge – where Branson committed all profits from Virgin travel companies (air and rail) for 10 years to new renewable energy technologies (Within two years, this initiative had produced major media opportunities – such as the first “biofuelled” test flights)
  • Establishing Virgin Fuels for the purpose of investing $400 million in green energy projects
  • Branson personally championing climate change across the globe and broadening the issue from aviation to vertical industries, such as tourism
  • Promoting changes in airline practices, such as more energy efficient descent techniques for planes and a single air traffic control system for Europe (as opposed to the current 15 different models)

But Virgin’s most novel initiative came in response to the negative media received one of its competitors – British Airways (B.A.). B.A. had been criticized by the British Government’s Environment Audit Committee: the Committee deemed the company’s website passenger carbon offsetting scheme (which was actually the first of its kind to be introduced in 2005) ineffective due to lack of uptake by passengers.

Seizing on the media opportunity, Virgin immediately introduced on-board carbon offsets for flights, where flight stewards offered offsets with its drinks and snacks to passengers. In one fell swoop, Virgin had brought buying offsets into the open and made it a public act.

Within twelve months of the Commission’s announcement, every European airline had a climate change platform with a baseline minimum of a passenger-pay, carbon offsetting scheme for flights. By contrast and despite the threat of an emissions cap hitting all transatlantic flights irrespective of the carrier’s origins, no such platforms existed with any U.S. airline at that time (Delta became the first to launch a passenger-pay carbon offsetting scheme in June 2007).

Although most airlines have introduced or re-vamped sustainability platforms since, the focus varies from reducing emissions to forest conservation and halting biodiversity loss to animal protection. Industry-wide climate change platforms, like those introduced in Europe in 2006, have not occurred.


The influence that climate change has played in the re-emergence of “green” in the U.S. hasn’t received the same level of recognition that it has in other parts of the world. Climate change has had to jockey for coverage with energy security and a plethora of other environmental concerns, and the fact that the Kyoto Protocol was never ratified here didn’t help.

The result today is that climate change – which has left such an edible mark on Europe’s business, governments, media and population – has still not risen to the surface here. The issue seldom drives a firm’s sustainability platform in the same way it does in Europe. In fact, it remains but one consideration among many for a firm’s environment platform, just as it does for top-tier environment editors covering the space.

Whereas climate change grabs the environment media limelight more often than not in Europe – driven by a new breed of top-tier “climate change” reporter (like Le Monde’s Gaelle DuPont or The Guardian’s John Vidal), coverage in the U.S. is less prevalent. Consequently, the landscape is scattered with environmental journalists all carving out their own niches, from water and resource scarcity, to clean tech and biofuels, to Amazonian forests and biodiversity loss to emissions in China and India. For a major U.S. company, this makes the environmental media much more difficult to predict and navigate than for its subsidiaries in Europe.

Faced by this present status, it is unlikely that the same opportunities which existed for Europe’s airlines in 2006 will be open to their counterparts here. Nevertheless, there is a simple (and by no means new) CSR lesson to be learned for airlines, and all corporations in this space, for that matter: seek to influence legislation rather than resist it.

Whether the European Union’s carbon regulation is ever enforced on U.S. airlines isn’t the issue, carbon regulation on aviation, like federal carbon regulation, is imminent. It is just a matter of when. So, airlines should quickly look to become proactive:

  • Begin the debate internally in the company and prepare contingency plans to address the shifting public and political opinion
  • Commission a study of the European airlines public relations experience with this issue and the resulting climate change platforms
  • Develop a communications strategy to demonstrate how it is taking action to manage its carbon emissions.

Ironically while writing this piece, I received a direct mail from my own airline of choice telling me how I can now earn more air miles when I pay my utility bills (as a result of the airline’s new partnership with a utility company). The ad read: “Leave your lights on (at home) and earn more miles.” So, maybe we are entering interesting times within the aviation emissions debate after all. Watch this space!

Next month, using the emerging global carbon markets, I’ll discuss the timing of climate change going mainstream in U.S. and address the preparations companies can be making now with their communications.

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