Expert View: If we're as green as we claim, the airlines will suffer

The aviation sector is the one most vulnerable to a consumer boycott
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The Independent Online

Are British consumers beginning to change their buying habits as a result of concerns about climate change? A recent barrage of initiatives suggests the big retailers think so.

Tesco's acquisition of the Dobbies garden centre chain earlier this month was partly prompted by a belief that it could use the new space to sell solar energy products, home insulation materials and composting kits. The grocery chains, meanwhile, are all competing to create a labelling scheme that tells customers about the global-warming impact of foods.

The cynical observer might say these retailers are more concerned about maintaining the reputation of their brands than stimulating green shopping. Also open to question is whether the claims of consumers to be concerned about ethical issues are reflected in their purchasing behaviour. For example, over three quarters of Britons say they oppose battery hen production, but only around a quarter of all eggs sold are free range.

If buying habits really are changing, though, the aviation industry is the most exposed to the possibility of a consumer boycott, for unlike the grocery sector, it cannot offer low-carbon alternatives. If people decide global warming is a sufficiently serious problem, the airlines will inevitably suffer.

So far, the expansion of air travel seems to have proceeded almost unchecked, but recently, for the first time, Ryanair said it saw some evidence "at the edges" of changes in traveller behaviour.

In the past few months there have been plenty of opinion polls on the issue. The results have been far from consistent, with answers strongly affected by the tone of the questions: if the pollster's patter starts with horror stories about global warming, then the interviewee tends to volunteer a greater intention to reduce flying.

The questions and answers below give a very tentative summary of my conclusions from these recent polls.

* Climate change caused by man's actions is taking place? 85 per cent agreed.

* The airline industry does not take environmental impact seriously - 75 per cent.

* I might be be prepared to fly less often to help the environment - 60 per cent.

* Air fares should be increased to reflect the environmental effect - 50 per cent.

* I am willing to fly less often or stop entirely - 25 per cent.

* I have already reduced the number of flights that I take - 10 per cent.

* I have stopped flying - 3 per cent.

No reliance should be placed on these surveys but a couple of points do shine through. First, perhaps half the UK population see the logic in raising air taxes to cover the environmental cost. Second, perhaps a quarter are prepared to consider flying less, even if the price of travel stays the same. This figure is the one on which the travel industry should focus. It may not sound much - after all, air passenger numbers are rising at a rate of around 7 per cent a year, so four years' growth would wash away the impact of all these people ceasing to fly. But the amount of people willing to avoid air travel is likely to increase.

Other surveys show that well over a third of UK consumers believe climate change is an urgent issue demanding immediate and radical action. Since cutting out air travel is the single most important step the individual can take to reduce emissions, the numbers willing to stop flying will probably rise. Over the past couple of months there has been a small rise in unsold seats on UK airlines. Worries about the climate will eventually make this headache worse.

Chris Goodall's 'How to Live a Low-carbon Life' is published by Earthscan at £14.99