Friday, 23 March 2007

Michael O'Leary (Ryanair), EU/US Open Skies, and Climate Change

While it might not be an overstatement to say that Michael O'Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, is an egotistical sociopath, it does not necessarily mean that we should instantly dismiss his self-centred rantings without first considering whether he may be, if not part human, at least part liberal.

His comments on this evenings "Any questions" on BBC Radio 4, were along the lines of "the open skies agreement and the recent EU commitment to a 20% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020 do not conflict with each other because the EU policy is [rant, rant, rant]".

For all we know, he might be in the same camp as Jeremy Clarkson when it comes to climate change: perhaps he is someone who is intelligent enough to recognise that there is overwhelming evidence that we should take urgent action, but has unfortunately not moved beyond some moment in his childhood where he discovered that he can be 'popular', or at least 'known', by being controversial. While that voice on his shoulder is saying "Look at how successful you are. You're someone. Don't listen to them", the shame is that, not only has he not matured into a reasoned adult, capable of accomplishing something worthwhile in life, but that he has the exposure and even, charisma, to be influencing millions, and in a potentially fatal direction.

Comparisions to Clarkson aside, let's look a little more at the topic.

O'Leary has, admittedly been a complete idiot, when it comes to climate change denial propaganda, but, he does also run one of the most efficient airlines in the world. While he may have chosen to answer the question in his ususal child-like vein, there is some merit, or at least sense, buried in his argument.

He says that their is no conflict. I think we could agree. The Open Skies agreement has opened the door for efficient operators, such as Ryanair to fly directly from any EU airport to any US airport. O'Leary says that this will reduce costs. That's good news! Any reduced costs will be pretty much entirely due to reduced fuel usage per passenger. If passenger numbers stayed the same, this would result in a drop in emissions from aircraft.

His other argument seems to be that there should be minimal political interference. This, too is possible, and also likely to provide the most efficient solutions.

If the EU has a target of a 20% cut by 2020, and chooses to implement a comprehensive and, most importantly, fair emissions trading scheme to achieve it, then this too will be good for business innovators like O'Leary.

What is unfair is to demonise the airline industry, when their emissions are 2.5% of the total. Why is 2.5% either the right amount, or too much. It isn't. The airline industry should be on a level playing field with surface transport, electricity generation and all other sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

If we fail to create this level playing field, we fail ourselves. We will have taken away the choice to be able to fly sometimes, by in effect, subsidising other industries and penalising the airlines.

The silly issue at the moment is the opposite. The airlines are actually highly subsidised compared to pretty much all other sources of greenhouse gases. It pays no VAT, nor fuel duty, nor is included in any emissions trading. This does have to change.

Worse still, the only fees levied upon the airlines are distorted and unfair. The Air Passenger Duty, is charged per passenger, irrespective of the number of passengers aboard. It has nothing to do with the emissions.

Michael O'Leary would be the first to welcome a change to a charge based on the emissions for the flight, as it'd give his inefficient competition rather a headache. It was certainly NOT a green tax when Gordon Brown put up the price per passenger. It was just an attack on air travel.

So. Is Michael O'Leary a wise or stupic; a saint or a sinner? Not really, he's a businessman. He just plays by the rules of business, and does it well.

The job for the rest of us is to make sure that those rules don't just work for one individual, or one industry, but, that they work for the world - a world that works for everyone.

In the case of environmental challenges, that means a world where our total greenhouse gas emissions, and our consumption of the planet's natural anti-dote to those gases (mainly trees) are restricted to a level that keeps us, and our beautiful planet safe.

Mr O'Leary may not care about aesthetics and future generations, but in this case, what's good for his business, can be good for what matters.

While he does believe in efficiency and market mechanisms, he seems to have no grasp of the other side of the liberal balance: responsibility.

Perhaps we may be able to say that he is, in part, a liberal. The shame is that I'm less inclined to call him human.

No comments: