There’s a figure of speech called metonymy, where a large and complex concept is referred to by a name associated with part of it. Thus we get ‘Whitehall’ when we mean the British government and civil service, and ‘The Pentagon’ for the equally labyrinthine US Department of Defense. And now we’ve got a new metonymy. When we want to talk about an eyebrow-raising promise on environmental performance, we can refer to ‘Copenhagen’.
The Danish capital will host the latest in a series of environmental summits in December, where world leaders will attempt to set new targets for carbon emission reduction, and various industries are trying hard to get their Copenhagen acts together. The latest comes from BA chief executive Willie Walsh, who yesterday told fellow airline chiefs and world leaders at the UN that the aviation industry will halve its CO2 emissions by 2050, based on 2005’s figures.
Walsh’s speech can be seen as a bit of timely PR: the aviation industry is increasingly highlighted by environmental campaigners as a climate change villain, with runway expansions and new airport terminals the frequent focus of protest. Greenpeace, in fact, said that Walsh was indulging in ‘an elaborate conjuring trick, designed to make the public think that BA is serious about climate change while it carries on with business as usual’.
Walsh’s announcement, if it is accepted by the industry and put forward as part of the Copenhagen agenda, is likely to put up the cost of air travel, and could spur on the people who have to actually enable these reductions - the engineers at the aircraft makers and engine manufacturers, and the routing specialists who work out where the flights actually go - in their ongoing efforts to improve efficiency. We say ‘could’ because 2050 is a pretty distant date, and it’s pretty hard for that to be a pressing deadline when virtually everyone working in the aerospace sector at the moment will be retired by then.
But it’s a step in the right direction. The environmental performance of the machinery of air travel - the fruits of the labours of all those engineers - has been improving steadily over the past couple of decades, and there’s no reason to assume this will change. But with the spectre of Copenhagen looming ever closer, more and more engineers will find themselves with a new set of goals to reach for. Try to keep your eyebrows where they are.
Special Projects Editor