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. Asia tourism, airlines 'complacent' on climate change

by Staff Writers
Bangkok (AFP) May 1, 2008
Asian airlines and tourist firms are too complacent about the urgent need to address global warming, industry leaders warned at a conference on climate change.

Westerners rather than Asians dominated the first Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) conference on climate change, held in the Thai capital, organisers said.

"As far as Asian faces, there weren't necessarily as many as we would have liked," PATA president Peter de Jong said. "Not everyone is ready to commit time to this yet."

Of the more than 200 delegates who met to discuss ways to make the tourism industry greener, regional airlines were noticeably under-represented at the conference, which wrapped up Wednesday.

Another senior PATA official, who did not want to be named, said the organisation invited more Asian companies but faced overwhelming disinterest.

"Climate change is a duck-and-hide thing for them," he said.

As world leaders attempt to work out a new accord to succeed the Kyoto Protocol on slashing greenhouse gases, industry and green groups estimate air travel accounts for between two and four percent of global carbon emissions.

Planes emit into the atmosphere the harmful gases responsible for climate change, a global problem which UN scientists warn could put millions of people at risk by century's end.

However, industry experts said a lack of government action as well as a more profit-oriented business culture have allowed Asia to remain complacent.

"You talk to Thai or north Asian carriers and climate change is not even on the radar," Peter Harbison, chairman of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, told AFP.

"They're preoccupied with a whole lot of other stuff going on like making a profit."

Harbison said he expected airlines with connections to Europe and Australia to start putting peer pressure on other Asian countries.

Eventually, he said, the big incentive in the region would probably come from rising fuel prices and young Asian travellers who have learned about climate change in school.

But those motivations aren't strong enough yet, Harbison said.

Industry leaders said the Asian carriers who attended the summit were conspicuously quiet, even conference sponsor Thai Airways International.

A Thai Airways representative denied Asia was apathetic.

"Of course we are concerned with climate change," spokeswoman Preyanan Mongkolsri said.

People from China, India and the Philippines are slightly more worried about climate change than Europeans but feel less empowered to do anything about it, according to a 2007 study by polling organisation GlobeScan.

Global warming is a much more prominent factor in the Western business world, industry experts said, with the European Union, proposing a ban on airlines that don't work to offset their carbon footprints with green projects.

"You just spend a couple minutes in the UK and you understand the pressure we're under," said Barry Humphreys, director of external affairs for Virgin Atlantic Airways.

PATA's conference was designed to spread some of the concern felt in Europe and to showcase green initiatives by industry leaders such as Virgin Atlantic, Qantas and Cathay Pacific Airways.

Virgin Atlantic president Richard Branson has pledged millions to green technology research, and the company tested a biofuel-powered jet in February with a flight from London to Amsterdam.

Qantas, meanwhile, has started including the cost of environmentally-friendly projects in tickets. Passengers have to uncheck a box when booking if they don't want to take part.

Hearing about these initiatives was an educational experience, said Udom Metatmrongsiri, a representative for the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

"I don't know much about global warming," he told reporters. "But after listening to the panelists today I see that it is very critical."

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Over millions of years carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have been moderated by a finely-tuned natural feedback system- a system that human emissions have recently overwhelmed. A joint University of Hawaii / Carnegie Institution study published in the advance online edition of Nature Geoscience links the pre-human stability to connections between carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the breakdown of minerals in the Earth's crust.

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