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The only difference between first class travellers and first class idiots is the price they pay.

[Offset] my kingdom for a horse

Today, a rather different horsepower is fouling the planet as the carbon guilt mounts for travellers.

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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VijaySUPPOSING YOU ran a steamroller over your boss? Unintentionally, of course. Intent would involve vats of boiling oil, salivating Dobermans and at least one excruciating screening of Tropic Thunder. Could you salve your conscience with a purchase of say 20 ballpoints and one pencil sharpener and thus quell the blubbering of those miserable orphans – so abruptly cut off from Facebook and forced to actually talk to people in person because they can’t afford Broadband anymore? It would appear a good deal. Yet if this were the case, workers the world over would have risen up eons ago and tossed out Das Kapital and Marx to pick up a license for heavy and dangerous machinery to be recklessly driven in the direction of senior management.

Moral offsets pose a significant dilemma. They attempt to absolve a perpetrator if he offers to do good elsewhere. But can you buy your way out of serious mischief? Could a serial rapist pay the church for new candelabra and escape scott free? Recall the Biblical injunction, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.” You don’t get to the Promised Land that easily. There is no quick-purchase quick-fix fast ticket.

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Measuring greenhouse gasses, carbon dioxide pollution, and ensuing guilt, is a relatively recent phenomenon. But we now face a proven catalogue of calamity as a result of human progress. Thus far, the “mischief” was inadvertent or never visualised in a global context. Who would imagine that a plastic bag tossed out of a Tokyo kitchen could end up part of a floating waste continent in the East Pacific, large enough to lay claim to be the 51st state of the USA? Fashioned by the caprice of circular currents, the “Eastern Garbage Patch” between Hawaii and San Francisco, is a stew of rotten toss-outs.

And yes, the world has shown tremendous propensity to regenerate and forget. Remember the mullet hairdo?

And yes the world has showed tremendous propensity to regenerate and forget. Remember the mullet hairdo? Or the infernal Tamagotchi screen pet? People have only begun to realise the full extent of global warming damage in recent years. It is not a criminal act to be sure, to use a can of shaving foam, or to turn on an air-conditioner, or to fly to Rio. But you cannot pass the buck. This problem needs fixing. Simply holidaying green and handing out gifts to orphans in Africa is not the cure. The world will barrel over the cliff faster.

So where does that leave the modern business traveller’s new airborne fancy? We’re talking of carbon offsets. We fly, generate tons of carbon dioxide, and then repent with a calculated deduction of mileage credits, or some other greener token. This does not mean that airlines are misleading customers or failing to do their bit. Airlines need to fly. But it does not address the problem. Investment in wind farms in China, howsoever green and clean does not fix the problem. It does “offset” the focus from the real issue at hand – the constant generation of toxic gas that is cooking the planet.

Airline carbon calculators help you calculate the damage and then volunteer money or mileage for various eminently laudable projects. This is not humbug. Nor is it some magic anodyne. Cathay Pacific’s handy carbon calculator will alert you to the fact that a Hong Kong to New York roundtrip produces 2.16 tonnes of carbon emission if you’re flying economy class. The same journey on first class is 4.36 tonnes (with an equivalent remedial cost of HK$330.76). Hong Kong to London and back on economy generates 1.62 tonnes of noxious fumes that will take HK$122.78, or 3,026 Asia Miles to fix. The damage on first class is 3.24 tonnes or 6,055 Asia Miles to ensure an unburdened slumber.

As a share of total aircraft pollution, first and business class passengers bear a greater responsibility

The British Airways carbon calculator sets the carbon dioxide emission on a London-Hong Kong return trip at 2.81 tonnes (about what Cathay calculates for business). To offset this you will need to spend 24.25 pounds sterling. These calculations are far from perfect and inadvertently misleading as is often the case with averages. Airlines themselves have varying calculations for identical routes.

Average pollution per passenger is commonly based on full load factors. There is a dramatic statistical difference, however, between the average share of pollution for a passenger flying in a full B737 (where the fixed emission for the journey is equally shared) and a passenger in a half full A380 (who must proportionately carry a far larger cross – but doesn’t).

Some attempt is indeed made to separate the men from the boys. On a few airlines, business and first class passengers are penalised more for their percentage emission than economy passengers. Why? Because they occupy more space, are ensconced on heavier seats, and cart around greater impedimenta. As a share then of the total pollution displacement they bear a greater responsibility. Time to start screening Tropic Thunder in first.

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