Virgin Atlantic Sustainable Development Global Warming Free Essay Example

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This report has identified global warming as a negative effect upon the environment. The causes and effects of this problem have been stated. It has been predicted that if the temperatures continue to climb at its current rate then it will eventually lead to serious and potentially disastrous consequences for the ecosystem.

The report has then introduced Virgin Atlantic as the second largest long haul airline in the UK and the third largest European carrier over the North Atlantic. The industry in which Virgin Atlantic operate has then been examined to show the contribution it is making towards global warming.

The aviation industries share in the blame for global warming is growing and is causing increasing reasons for concern.

The steps taken by Virgin Atlantic to make improvements to its sustainable business model in relation to global warming have then been shown. Conclusions have been drawn on these findings with recommendations made as to how Virgin Atlantic and the aviation industry can reduce its environmental impact further.

The entire aviation community suffers from a lack of technological advances to help improve their impact on the environment.

Recommendations are as follows:

* The aviation industry isn’t afforded the luxury of hydrogen engines or solar power as they both provide an unrealistic alternative to kerosene fuel.

* An operational method to cut down on aircraft emissions would be to streamline air-traffic control.

* Given the restrictions the aviation industry have in terms of technical and operating solutions, taxes would remain the only practical way to reduce carbon emissions.

* Governments should provide more resources into the research of improved energy efficiency and find new alternatives to fossil fuel. Investigations into developing a cheap, low-emitting source of energy for aviation are vital in making the industry sustainable.

* Rapidly growing trees could be planted on a mass scale. Uninhabited areas of the ocean could be fertilised with minerals so that carbon eating plants can flourish.

1. Introduction

This report will investigate global warming as an environmental issue and then provide reasons for this problem. Evidence will be given which will identify the extent of the problem and how it affects the environment. The next aspect will be to provide a general background of Virgin Atlantic and explore how the company is contributing to the problem. The steps that are being taken to reduce their impact on global warming will be evaluated and the company’s overall sustainability stance shall also be taken into account with the use of academic concepts. Conclusions and future suggestions for Virgin Atlantic, and its industry, will then be given with reference to the earlier findings. The report will also suggest ways in which governments, scientists and regulators can go about managing the chosen environmental issue.

Research will be done using academic books, academic journals, articles from newspapers, and relevant sources from internet websites. These sources will then be used to assist in the creation of the report and where relevant, quotes will be fully referenced.

Read about positive effects of the green revolution

2. Global Warming

Since the 1800s vast levels of harmful gases have been released into the earth’s atmosphere due to the evolution of human activity. These gases absorb the radiation of the atmosphere and this causes the temperature of the earth to rise, which can then also lead to a change in the world’s climate. The burning of fossil fuel is the main culprit behind the vast amounts of carbon dioxide being pumped into the earth’s atmosphere. Carbon dioxide isn’t necessarily the most disruptive of all the greenhouse gases but it is certainly the one produced in the greatest volume. (World Bank Research Observer 2000)

Over the years, the levels of greenhouse gas emissions have been on a steady increase. However it was only at the start of the 1970s that concern was raised over the effect it was having upon the earth. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there is evidence to suggest that the average temperature of the earth has been on a steady increase over the past 100 years.

2.1 Impact of Global Warming

It has been predicted that if the temperatures continue to climb at its current rate then it will eventually lead to serious and potentially disastrous consequences for the ecosystem. The rising in sea levels due to melting ice caps will mean certain cities are in danger from being submerged in water. Thousands of lives will be put under threat from interminable droughts and unbearable heat. According to the World Bank (2000), if left untouched, the changes in the climate could end up costing the world economy $7 trillion.

2.1.1 Weather

An increase in the average temperature of the earth is likely increase the amount of precipitation that falls each year. This is directly affected by the amount of water that gets evaporated into the atmosphere; as the temperatures climb so will the levels of evaporation. The IPCC (2006) state: “global average water vapour concentration and precipitation are projected to increase during the 21st century. By the second half of the 21st century, it is likely that precipitation will have increased over northern mid- to high latitudes and Antarctica in winter. At low latitudes there are both regional increases and decreases over land areas. Larger year to year variations in precipitation are very likely over most areas where an increase in mean precipitation is projected.”

According to the IPPC (2006), there has been no evidence to suggest that global warming has a direct effect on an increase in more extreme weather. However it is said that the weather is now less predictable than it was 10 years ago. Droughts and floods are more frequent but are inconsistent with when they have occurred in the past. (United Nations 2005)

Greg Holland (2006), director at the National Center for Atmospheric Research disagrees with what the IPPC have found, “The hurricanes we are seeing are indeed a direct result of climate change. The wind and warmer water conditions that fuel storms in the Caribbean are, increasingly due to greenhouse gases. There seems to be no other conclusion you can logically draw. The large bulk of the scientific community say what we are seeing now is linked directly to greenhouse gases.”

2.1.2 Sea Levels

The earth’s oceans will also be affected by global warming. The sea levels are expected to rise due to additional water being released from the melting of glaciers. It has been stated by The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that since the last ice age sea levels have risen by more than 120 meters. As well as having a major impact on the ecosystem it would also affect the oceans ability to absorb carbon dioxide, and thus add to global warming even further. The IPCC have forecast sea levels to rise by a further half a meter over the next century, depending on emissions and warming. Low lying countries will be the ones most affected by these changes and where it can be afforded measures are being taken to protect themselves from the rising seas. In the developing countries such as Bangladesh the threat is far worse as they lack the infrastructure to protect the land from being flooded. (UNEP 2005)

2.1.3 Health

As a result of global warming, extreme high temperatures will result in an increase of heat related deaths. However, it could also be seen as a way of saving lives as the temperature rises will also take affect in the winter months and thus reducing deaths from severe cold. It has been calculated that for a 1 degree increase in temperature for the UK would actually bring a reduction in the annual mortality rate by 7000 (Palutikof et al 2004). This only applies to the UK however, as an increase of 1 degree in a country such as Africa would have a devasting effect on the amount of people killed by heat exhaustion.

The threat of contagious diseases spreading out of their current environment would also provide causes for concern. The increase in temperature would mean that disease carrying insects that thrive on warm temperatures would be able to reach further from the equator. Medical research has been done in relation to temperature and health conditions to help cope with the changes to the climate. (World Bank Research Observer 2000)

2.2 Kyoto Protocol

In response to these predictions, the Kyoto protocol was created by the international community at Kyoto in 1997.

“The Kyoto Protocol is an agreement under which industrialized countries will reduce their collective emissions of greenhouse gases by 5.2% compared to the year 1990. The goal is to lower overall emissions of six greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride, HFC’s, and PFC’s – calculated as an average over the fiver-year period of 2008-12. National targets range from 8% reductions for the European Union to 7% for the US, and 0% for Russia.” United Nations Environment Programme (1997)

The difficulties that come with reducing greenhouse gases are that the rising levels of emissions are mainly in the developing world. According to the World Resources Institute (2000), “the developed world seems to have reached its peak level of emissions, but in developing countries, CO2 emissions have rose 47 per cent over the past 12 years.” However, it is argued that implementing an emissions cap will constrict the economic growth of developing countries and it is still unclear whether the benefits outweigh the costs of employing the protocol. (The Economist 2006)

3. Virgin Atlantic and Global Warming

3.1 Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic is the second largest long haul airline in the UK and the third largest European carrier over the North Atlantic. The company was founded in 1984 by Sir Richard Branson and is under the corporate umbrella of the ‘Virgin’ organisation. By the end of the 1980s the company had flown over 1 million passengers across the Atlantic and were the first airline to offer its business class passengers their own individual television. (

For the majority of the 90’s the company spent time increasing its fleet of aircraft and expanding their route network to encompass destinations in the US, Caribbean, Far East, India and Africa. In 1999 Sir Richard Branson sold 49% of the company to Singapore Airlines which valued the company at �1.225bn. Virgin Atlantic currently has 26 Boeing 747s and Airbuses in their fleet with plans to expand it further with the purchase of the new A380 due for release in 2007. (

3.2 Contribution to Global Warming

The aviation industry produces a relatively small amount of the carbon dioxide emissions held responsible for the warming affect on the earth’s atmosphere. However, the aviation industries share in the blame is growing and is causing increasing reasons for concern. Even though airplanes are now over 60% more efficient than they were 30 years ago, recent studies have demonstrated the affect they have on global warming. The carbon emissions from the planes jet engines and the contrails they leave behind are the main concerns environmentalists and politicians have about the industry. (Green Travel 2006)

The new A380 Airbus which can carry 550 passengers is expected to be in regular use by the end of 2007. According to Rolls-Royce, each engine of the Airbus uses as much power as 3,500 cars and so works out as 6 cars per passenger. It is predicted that in 20 years time there will be 1,500 of these aircraft strewn across the skies pumping out as much carbon dioxide as 5 million cars. (The Economist 2006)

Airlines incur the benefit of not having to pay tax on the fuel they use when they fly internationally. This means that on long haul flights aircraft can pump tones of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere without having to pay for it or think about the consequences. The Kyoto protocol excluded international aviation from its list of objectives on global warming. This verdict was taken on the principle that all airline companies would work together under the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to reduce the industries carbon emissions by the end of 2007. The ICAO had decided that international flights should be excluded from paying tax on fuel to try and give the industry a boost after the damage it took during the Second World War. However, this decision was taken without really considering the affects it would have on the environment. (The Economist 2006)

“Transport as a whole is responsible for about a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide discharges. That makes it one of the biggest sources, alongside power generation and households. Within transport, aviation accounts for about 13%. Its contribution to total man-made emissions worldwide is said to be around 3%.” IPCC (1999)

It is not merely the percentage contribution of the aviation industry to the world’s carbon dioxide emissions that causes concern, but also the manner in its production. As aircraft travel at high altitudes, the emissions are released into more sensitive parts of the earth’s atmosphere and thus have a greater impact. According to the IPCC, the definite impact of the aviation industry on global warming can be judged as four times that of their carbon dioxide emissions, due to the nature of their production. (Green Travel 2006)

3.3 Attempts to Reduce Impact

As one of the major players in the aviation industry, Virgin Atlantic have taken it upon themselves to be seen as the leading light in making the industry more environmentally friendly. As part of the companies vision for sustainable aviation, Virgin Atlantic have begun to implement more efficient methods of air travel around some of the world’s largest airports. These changes are aimed to cut the amount of fuel used by the aircraft; thus improving the quality of the air and reducing the level of carbon dioxide emissions.

“We need to accelerate the pace at which we reduce aviation’s impact on the environment. We cannot ignore that aviation does create environmental problems at around 2% of global CO2 emissions, although equally, it produces significant economic and social benefits being 8% of the world’s GDP.” Sir Richard Branson (2006)

Forum for the Future is the leading sustainable development charity in the UK. They work alongside companies to find ways of creating an environmentally friendly way of improving how they go about their business. They help identify opportunities and then implement them within the companies overall strategy for sustainable development. Virgin Atlantic became the first airline to join the scheme following its plan to introduce more carbon friendly methods of air travel. As with the other companies it works with, Forum for the Future will aim to integrate a more sustainable approach to the strategies and activities of Virgin Atlantic. (

“The realities of climate change mean that every sector must get to grips with its impact on the environment. Aviation in particular has been in the spotlight in recent months. This is why leadership on climate change issues, and the sustainability agenda more broadly, is absolutely essential to underpin an airline’s continued capacity for success. Virgin Atlantic understands this and is committed to developing a more sustainable business and finding practical solutions to reduce the industry’s impact on the environment. By working together we can help the airline understand what sustainability could look like for Virgin Atlantic and what operation within environmental limits looks like.” Jonathon Porritt, co-founder of Forum for the Future (2006)

3.3.1 Starting Grids

As part of Virgin Atlantics sustainable approach to business they are implementing a test trial of a new innovative scheme of ‘starting grids’ for all of their aircraft departures. It works on the principle of the aircraft being towed by a small tug to a holding area near to the runway before take off. Only when the aircraft arrives at this grid and awaiting take off will it start its engine, this will greatly reduce the amount of time that the engine is actually running. (Green Travel 2006)

This will also have implications for incoming aircraft. As many of the outgoing planes will be waiting for take off away from the terminals, the arriving planes won’t have to queue with their engines running waiting for a place to dock. This will allow them to turn off their engines a lot sooner and be towed to the terminals, thus reducing the amount of CO2 emissions even further.

These ‘starting grids’ will be tested at London Gatwick and London Heathrow before being put into practice in other airports at home and abroad. Jill Brady of Virgin Atlantic commented, “Once we have examined the results of the test trials, we will be able to look at creating centres of excellence at the busiest airports around the world, airports which share Virgin Atlantic’s goal of reducing fuel burn and CO2 emissions both on the ground and in the air.” It is hoped that this new system will make airports far more efficient and reduce the carbon emissions before take off by up to 90%. As the aircraft would then be able to carry less fuel for the duration of the flight, the aircraft will be lighter and more carbon friendly. (The Economist 2006)

3.3.2 Continuous Descent Approach

Virgin Atlantic has been working alongside NASA to develop a new method of landing their aircraft quickly and efficiently. The term it has been given is ‘Continuous Descent Approach’. At present the current landing procedure involves a series of level offs which disrupt an aircrafts descent and burns unnecessary fuel. This new approach involves an aircraft beginning its descent far earlier in its flight plan and at a more efficient speed to reduce the amount of fuel it uses when coming into land. “The goal of the Continuous Descent Approach is to allow aircraft to descend in a manner that is fuel efficient and environmentally friendly,” says Rich Coppenbarger, lead investigator for the Oceanic Tailored Arrivals Initiative at NASA. This change to an aircrafts landing procedure would save about 200 kilograms of fuel on each landing alone, according to research conducted by NASA (2005).

The only problem with the continuous descent of aircraft is the crowded airspace that surrounds airports, especially the more hectic airports such as Gatwick and Heathrow. To have all incoming aircraft on a continuous descent program would be nearly impossible due to the sheer volume of planes coming in and out at any one point. For this to happen successfully it would need Europe to change to a single air traffic control organisation, in contrast to the current 35 that govern Europe’s skies. This would not only allow for the ‘Continuous Descent Approach’ to be implemented but also optimise all air crafts flight plans and consequently decrease the environmental impact of aviation. (World Bank Research Observer 2000)

3.3.3 Carbon Offsetting

As part of their sustainable aviation strategy, Virgin Atlantic will be introducing a scheme where their passengers can take more responsibility for their carbon emissions and offer them the choice of offsetting their flights. On an individual level it would work on the principal of making a donation to a sustainable development scheme, for example a forestry project, to offset the carbon emissions the journey has created. Due to the recent raised awareness of environmental problems caused by aviation, there has been an increase in the amount of travellers wishing to offset their flight (CarbonNeutral 2007). However it has still only generated a small amount of carbon neutral flights when compared to the ever growing demand for air travel.

It is still unclear as to how many people will actually take advantage of this scheme and pay more money to offset their flights. According to Sir Richard Branson (2006), “We can’t afford to charge more for tickets. Any environmental surcharge would have to be done on a voluntary basis because cost is still travellers’ number one concern, not the environment.” This is due to the vast amount of budget airlines that have appeared over the past decade which can offer travellers flights from as little as a penny. If Virgin Atlantic were to make it mandatory to offset each flight then they would lose a vast amount of their business to their less eco-friendly, but cheaper, competitors.

Virgin Atlantic has come in for criticism from certain environmentalists in regards to their scheme to plant trees to offset their carbon emissions. The green community is still in disagreement over whether the planting of trees is the best way to compensate for the vast levels of carbon dioxide industries such as aviation produce. It would take years for the tree saplings to grow to compensate for the emissions caused by just a few hours of flight. The point has also been raised that once trees die they also release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but yet the planting of trees can be seen as raising awareness of environmental issues that can then be tackled with more advanced technologies. (The Guardian 2006)

According to a calculation done by The Guardian (2006), “…each kilometre travelled by an airline passenger on a long-haul flight accounts for 0.11kg of carbon dioxide. Offsetting Virgin Atlantic’s entire annual flight operation would involve planting 59m trees – which, according to the Forestry Commission, would cover 64,700 hectares – the size of a large Highland estate, or an area slightly smaller than the New Forest.” The undertaking of such an operation is unrealistic, not only due to its vast scale, but as it would largely be funded from passengers making voluntary contributions.

3.3.4 Minor Changes

Virgin Atlantic is also trying to implement minor changes to the actual aircraft to help reduce carbon emissions. The overall weight of an aircraft contributes to how much fuel it needs to travel to its planned destination. The proposed changes include certain fittings inside the aircraft, such as bins and oxygen bottles, will now be made from carbon-fibre rather than metal. The aircraft itself will now also be painted with a lighter paint and any waste accumulated before take off will now be emptied from the plane. Although these changes will only make a small amount of difference to the overall weight of a 350 tonne Boeing 747, the amount of fuel saved from the hundreds of flights each aircraft makes a year will prove to be significant. ( “What we’re suggesting would save over 150 million tonnes of carbon emissions a year.” Sir Richard Branson (2006)

Virgin Atlantic has started to make strides in developing an alternative energy source, called cellulosic ethanol fuel. This energy source comes mainly from a process involving corn and other eco friendly sources. At present it would still be unable to power the engines of an aircraft but could be used for the smaller vehicles involved before take off. This could result in the reduction of both carbon emissions and allow for lower airfares. (The Times 2006)

4. Conclusion

Global warming is a growing concern for companies and environmentalists alike. The effect on the environment might be subtle at present but many years in the future could prove a serious problem for the earth’s population. The effects of global warming that were outlined may only be predictions but action needs to be taken to make sure that they don’t become reality. The Kyoto protocol was a step in the right direction into solving the problem of global warming but carbon producing industries need to take it on themselves to improve their sustainable business model.

The IPCC has pointed out that the biggest problem for the aviation industry is that there is no direct fix for the carbon produced during air travel. This is in contrast to automobiles and electricity production where technologies exist to reduce their carbon emissions. The aviation industry would need a complete revolution if it was to make serious strides into reducing its effect on global warming. Without this revolution it would be fair to say that in 10 years time the same models of aircraft will still be in the skies flying on the same carbon emitting fuels.

Over the past 40 years, the industry as a whole has more than doubled its efficiency due to advances in technology. The improvements proposed by Virgin Atlantic to its business strategy will continue to help in the reduction of carbon emissions. The problem they face does not only apply to one company but to the industry as a whole. The entire aviation community suffers from a lack of technological advances to help improve their impact on the environment. Global warming is not something that airlines, or any other industry, can ignore anymore. The aviation industry needs to come to terms with the effect it has on the environment and create ways to make it more sustainable.

5. Recommendations

The aviation industry isn’t afforded the luxury of hydrogen engines due to the fuel freezing at the low temperatures incurred at high altitudes. Hydrogen fuel cells would need to be strong heavy tanks which also rules out the possibility of being used on an aircraft. Solar power is also an unrealistic alternative as it simply doesn’t create enough energy to power the colossal engines of a commercial plane. Boeing attempted to develop a radical new plane design which incorporated a blended wing-body, providing a more aerodynamic and fuel efficient aircraft. This proved to be unsuccessful as it received a negative reaction from passengers as it involved the seating arrangement to be like a small amphitheatre. Until a new technology is created, the industry is limited in what it can actually do to make it a more sustainable operation.

An operational method to cut down on aircraft emissions would be to streamline air-traffic control. European skies currently operate under 35 national bodies and according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), putting European air-traffic control under one organisation would cut emissions by up to 12%.

Given the restrictions the aviation industry have in terms of technical and operating solutions, introducing taxes would remain the only practical way to reduce carbon emissions. This would involve countries imposing a carbon tax which would in turn increase the cost of fossil fuel in relation to its levels of carbon. It would encourage carbon emitters to act quicker in reducing their emissions and would promote the conservation of fossil fuels.

The aviation industry would argue that there is no current method of preventing carbon emissions from aircraft but it would encourage them to follow the example of Virgin Atlantic in reducing emissions from other sources. The funds generated from these taxes would provide governments with the necessary resources to invest in other ways of tackling the negative affects of global warming. Governments should provide more resources into the research of improved energy efficiency and find new alternatives to fossil fuel. Investigations into developing a cheap, low-emitting source of energy for aviation are vital in making the industry sustainable.

Rapidly growing trees could be planted on a mass scale in areas that are now suitable to support them due to the changes in the climate. Using the increasing sea levels as an example, uninhabited areas of the ocean could be fertilised with minerals so that carbon eating plants can flourish.