Airlines cannot shirk the responsibility that comes with being major producers of polluting greenhouse gases and must aggressively pursue policies to minimise their environmental damage. That's the view of Jan Ernst de Groot, managing director of the Dutch company KLM Airlines, which by its own estimate gives off some 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year from its fleet of 194 aircraft.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reckons that around three per cent of all man-made global CO2 emissions come from the air transport iindustry, says de Groot. And 99 per cent of our emissions are fuel-related - so fuel efficiency really is the key.
KLM - whose partnership with Air France makes it the largest airline in the world in terms of operating revenue -- already claims to be in the vanguard of the campaign to reduce carbon gas emissions.
According to the airline, its planes are 25 per cent more fuel efficient than the International Air Transport Association (IATA) average, while its rate of emissions growth has been running at only half its increase in actual air traffic.
Now KLM is promising a carbon-neutral programme for the coming years. In what it calls its CO2 promise, the airline says its carbon footprint will not be allowed to increase, no matter how fast the growth in company activity.
KLM's strategy is threefold: a comprehensive fleet renewal plan that will see older aircraft replaced by up-to-date models that consume less fuel; technical and operational changes to maximise fuel saving; and offset compensation schemes to invest in alternative energy sources.
Under the company's CO2 ZERO offset plan, passengers are offered the chance of contributing to a number of programmes - all approved by the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) -- for cutting emissions in the developing world.
The aim is for passengers to eliminate their journey's overall impact on climate change by buying into a project that reduces carbon pollution and offsets the aircraft's emissions.
De Groot admits that so far such schemes have had limited success among individual passengers, but he notes a growing interest in the corporate world.
Many big companies these days have their own green agenda, so increasingly these big clients of ours are insisting on (offsetting). This is the way it will get up and running, he says. KLM also supports another major change that is beginning to loom: the introduction in 2012 of a carbon emissions trading system in the aviation industry, similar to those already in existence in other sectors.
According to de Groot, such market incentives are an essential way to encourage operators to improve their fuel efficiency.
But he says regulators - both national and international - need to do more to create the conditions under which airlines can prepare for a cleaner future.
A recent decision by the Dutch government to impose a 'green' ticket tax on flights leaving the Netherlands may play well politically, de Groot says, but by hitting KLM's competitiveness, it could end up holding back environmental planning.
Measures like this ignore today's reality of an open European market - and indeed an open trans-Atlantic market - and the fact that we are in global competition in our industry.
We really need to take these economic realities into account, otherwise -- no matter how much we may want to -- we won't be able to take the investment decisions we need to, he says.
Airline chiefs could be tempted to take a less proactive line on climate change. After all, it is not as if the world has any alternative to international air travel, or airlines any alternative -- as yet- to carbon fuels.
But for de Groot, the message is clear. Society and the world community count on the aviation industry to make contact all over the world ... It's no good focusing on the fact that there is no alternative. We have to do everything to become more sustainable.