V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Happy trails

Toronto Sun, Sun Media papers, May, 2007.

I have a confession to make.

Before I was able to turn my scribblings into a full-time career, I led a decidedly different lifestyle which could be construed by some as being at odds with my recent appointment as the messenger of Green Planet.

No, I didn't work for SUVs "R" Us, or laugh demonically on tar sands whilst smearing ducks in oil. But I did work for an industry which, of late, has been singled out for leaving a trail of noxious substances in the atmosphere and contributing to the warming of the Earth.

In my former life, I worked for a commercial airline. And as an employee, I took full advantage of the travel perks, traipsing around the globe with nary a care in the world. But according to the flight calculator at Offsetters.ca, a partner of WestJet, in one year I left a gargantuan carbon footprint from my multiple trips to the U.K., New Zealand, Korea and Las Vegas totalling 20 tonnes -- four times the greenhouse gas emissions an average Canadian produces in one year.


My travel sprees also mean I was complicit in the creation of contrails, the long plumes of exhaust that planes leave behind and streak the skies white. Contrails, made up of water droplets and ice, form when water vapour released from burning jet fuel condenses at high altitudes.

Scientists say contrails -- which can spread as wide as 2 km -- trap heat from the Earth's surface, producing a net warming effect. Studies have also found that night flights are more harmful because contrails formed in the day help reflect sunlight away from the Earth.

All this means the impact of aviation is actually two to four times more harmful to the planet than the effect of carbon dioxide emissions alone, according to the David Suzuki Foundation.

Aviation contributes between 4% and 9% of global emissions -- including gases like nitrogen oxides -- but environmentalists warn increased air traffic makes it the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases. Travel information company OAG says booming no-frills airlines have helped drive this month's traffic to a record 2.51 million flights worldwide.

The Air Transport Association of Canada (ATAC), meanwhile, says the industry is getting a bum rap and that they too have vested interests in trying to find fuel efficiencies -- the bottom line.

"The goals align themselves," said spokesman Fred Gaspar. "Reducing fuel use and costs dovetails nicely with the government's desire to see operating efficiencies."


In 2005, the then-Liberal government hammered out an agreement with ATAC that would ask its members to improve their energy efficiency by 1.1% a year -- the first of its kind in the world. Gaspar said the industry has exceeded those targets by purchasing some of the most fuel-efficient aircraft on the market.

"It's important to look at the issue from a Canadian perspective," Gaspar said, pointing out Canadians live in a country that spans thousands of kilometres. "We're doing our part to improve as much as we can ... but it's important for Canadians to approach this from an economic reality."


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