In the debate over building new runways in the UK, we are getting a lot of new answers – to the wrong questions. A huge lobbying effort has successfully changed the argument from whether we need more tarmac for more flights to how many new runways we need and where should they be laid.
The turbo-charge to the lobbying comes from the prospect of short-term economic growth, sought at any cost by the government. In contrast, the issue of the heavy and fast growing impact of aviation emissions on climate change has faded like a vapour trail in the hurricane force PR campaign.
The fundamental problem is that aviation is a rogue industry, darting across international borders to escape climate justice. While paying lip service to environmental concerns, its masters use the complexity of attempting to curb the carbon emissions of a global business to avoid any curbs at all.
An attempt to bring emissions from flights through Europe under the EU’s emissions trading scheme was foiled by the US and China, while the UK declined in December to bring aviation emissions into the country’s legally binding carbon budgets.
With aviation an outlaw, it’s impossible to say exactly what number of flights would be compatible with the UK’s pledge to cut 80% of the greenhouse gases driving global warming by 2050. The harder other industries are pushed to cut carbon, the more headroom there would be for aviation.
But there is plenty of flak available to down the high-flying claims of the aviation industry, such as arguing that its emissions are a tiny part of total emissions. Aviation made up 6% of UK emissions in 2011 but will make up at least 25% of the total in 2050. What happens with aviation will have a huge influence on whether the UK keeps its climate promises, particularly because it will rely on fossils fuels for decades to come.
Another claim is that new capacity is desperately needed to avert economic catastrophe. Yet, as George Monbiot has pointed out, business flights to and from the UK have fallen by 25% since 2000 and make up just 12% of flights. Furthermore, London is already miles ahead of any competitors: it is the busiest city in the world for flights and has at least double the number of flights to business destinations than any competitor.
The number of flights may well be able to increase in future, if emissions are offset by more efficient planes and air traffic control systems and are part of a national carbon budget. But with many UK airports, particularly Stansted, very underused, the argument for new runways is shaky at best. There is also little sane reason why so many slots at London airports should be taken up by flights to such exotic locations as Manchester and Edinburgh: short haul flights only add up because the outlaws of aviation pay no tax at all on their fuel nor VAT on their tickets and complain bitterly about air passenger duty.
Local environmental problems of noise and air pollution will, rightly, rank high among objections to specific plans. But it is the global problem of climate change that is fundamental.
So far the aviation industry has cleverly used the global nature of the problem to avoid action. You can’t act nationally or regionally, they say, because you’ll just displace the planes and airports somewhere else: it’s global action or nothing and the latter is the less bumpy ride, thank you very much.
But this will change, I think. Aviation will be brought under national and regional carbon caps as progress continues on international action on climate change.
When the permissible emissions come to be divided up between flights, farming, factories and fuelling the UK, it’s quite possible that soaring emissions from aviation are not seen as the top priority. At that point, any new runways will stand only as multi-billion-dollar monuments to the hubris of an industry accustomed to operating without constraints.
There are a large number of comments under this article, and surprisingly (for a change) a large number of them are sensible and intelligent.
Below are just four:
Every large problem looks scary when we view it as a whole and don’t know where to start with solving it.
The general approach to problem-solving is to recursively break the solution down into component steps, continuing until each step becomes manageable. If a problem can be broken into steps simple enough for a machine to perform, then we can automate the solution. That is what software developers do to solve problems for a living.
We probably can’t reduce the aviation problem to a mere algorithm yet, but we can simplify it greatly by understanding its true nature.
In Damian Carrington’s headline and article, he refers repeatedly to aviation as an industry, as if that is the level where society decides how many flights (and therefore runways) there will be.
In fact, the decision to have aviation occurs at the granularity of the individual who decides to take a flight. The aviation industry, its lobbying, and the government being swayed by it – merely reflect the underlying demand by individuals for this service. When we think of “aviation”, therefore, we should think of the decision by the individual to fly. If individuals stopped deciding to fly, the industry which owes its entire existence to the individual would vanish.
Therefore, if a solution to the aviation problem is possible, it must occur at the individual level. To “see this being negotiated rationally to a consensus”, pick any individual you know who flies an appreciable amount. At the moment, that individual places more value on:
* Consuming the immediate tangible benefits to self that result from flying (e.g. recreation; access to remote environments or people)
than he or she places on:
* Minimizing his or her individual contribution to man-made climate forcing.
To get rid of aviation we must persuade (or less likely coerce) the people who fly to reverse the above valuation. That is, they must choose to stop benefiting themselves at the cost to the climate.
They must choose to become less selfish.
When you look at the aviation industry as a whole, it seems impossible that you, the (presumably) ordinary individual, could do anything about it. But when you view aviation at the granularity of the individual, which is where demand for aviation is created, and thus where aviation is created, we can begin to imagine persuading just one individual to stop flying. That is a problem we might manage to solve.
Boeing’s forecast is a straightforward extrapolation from past history. But during that past history, aviation had no serious opposition, apart from a few local protests from airport noise.
Looking into the future, aviation faces at least three potentially huge opponents:
1. Computers. Anyone who buys a computer and then shops for another one five years later will note how dramatically computers have improved for a given price during that span. This observation is called Moore’s “law”. Progress in computing seems likely to continue for some decades. As aviation is primarily a tool for moving information (contained in human brains) and to connect people to remote environments (thus allowing their brains to access information and sensation they couldn’t get at home), it directly competes with computing.
For the past 50 years, computers have gotten twice as good about every 18 months. Aviation has not improved in terms of speed since the 1960s when jet airliners became common. Attempts to go faster (e.g. Concorde) proved uneconomical. Air travel has even slowed down recently due to security concerns. Thus it is only a matter of time before computers largely wipe out aviation for business travel at least.
Somewhat perversely, until now computers have helped to stimulate travel, by giving people a taste of remote environments they might not otherwise become aware of and desire to visit. But as the computerized “taste” becomes ever more like the real thing, the need to waste the time to go visit could decline.
2. Peak oil. Aviation for the masses is an artifact of cheap oil. We can expect the price of oil in real terms to increase at some point in the future, as the easiest reserves play out and the oil industry must resort to poorer quality reserves. People might even begin to realize, at some point, that burning oil for amusement means, ultimately, that there is less oil to burn on other things, such as growing food.
3. Climate change. Aviation is a significant contributor to climate change at the granularity of the nation. At the granularity of the individual it can bemuch more significant. Individuals who fly a lot have among the highest individual carbon footprints, as a single return flight can cause the emissions of 0.5 to 2 tonnes of CO2e per passenger, depending on flight distance.
Given that there is no credible scheme for providing carbon neutral aviation fuels at scale for the next several decades at least, the individual who chooses to fly a lot invariably produces a lot of emissions by flying.
Whether individuals and the societies they form continue to tolerate aviation, in light of climate change, depends on two main factors:
a. Whether they decide to mitigate climate change.
b. If so, then whether they decide to mitigate it equitably.
Under an equitable solution to climate change, each individual will be allocated an equal ration of the total allowable emissions. Under such a regime, the people who will have to change their behavior the most are those individuals who currently have the highest individual carbon footprints. As many of those individuals are frequent fliers, a large fraction of passenger load would vanish right there.
Given that the total allowable emissions might share out to something under 2 tonnes CO2e per person per year, it’s hard to imagine anybody being able to squeeze much of any flying (or driving, for that matter) under the limit.
Thus aviation can be viewed as an “indicator species” for our seriousness about mitigating climate change. As long as we tolerate letting some people fly – especially, people who fly a lot – then we probably aren’t serious about mitigating climate change, and we certainly aren’t serious about mitigating it in an equitable way.
The obvious and correct solution is to make all airlines pay a strong and increasing climate change tax on every tonne of CO2 emissions. The level should be at least $100 per tonne of CO2.http://www.jbs.cam.ac.uk/research/working_papers/2011/wp1109.pdf
The ‘need’ for more runways would evaporate.
You are right. The aviation industry is as concerned about climate change as the oil, gas or coal industry. The pressure on aviation from China will seal all our fates. Lets die rich or at least as rich as possible before the price on this insane Faustain pact is due.
The last few years weather has made the news across the world as storm, wild fires floods and heatwaves remind us daily of the effect of 1 C rise in temperature. In a few years the news will be dominated by floods, famines and droughts, starving climate refugees looking for any haven. Then inevitably the news will be dominated by wars as desperate peoples fight fow dwindling resources and water in a world of withered crops.
So what the hell. Who gives a toss,. With luck we will all be dead before we have to explain to our kids and grand kids that a cheap flight to Malaga was far more important than their future. So lets tarmac this entire country from Heathrow to Newcastle.