Jetting off to la-la land on carbon cuts

13.9.2009   (Sunday Times, Comment)

by Charles Clover

Flying makes hypocrites of us all.   Franny Armstrong, inventor of the 10:10 campaign
to cut our emissions by 10% in 2010, popped up last week in New York for the premiere
of the government’s favourite climate change film, The Age of Stupid, and was
duly asked by Jeremy Paxman whether she was setting much of an example.

And as I was starting this article, a friend rang to say "for goodness sake,
book that flight". We are off to Monaco for the premiere of our environmental
film, The End of the Line. I struggled with rail timetables, realised it would
take nearly two days, there and back, then Googled BA and offset the flight. I’ll
get those ferry timetables out before the Copenhagen climate conference in December
— honest.

We have to concede that flying has become, for now, an inextricable part of modern
life. But does that also mean we have to accept that flying on business trips
and cheap holidays will go on expanding at an exponential rate until the middle
of this century as the government says it will? That was the question raised again
last week by the committee on climate change, the other body chaired by the ubiquitous
Lord Turner, who, as the Financial Services Authority chief, raised eyebrows by
suggesting the City should do less but do it rather better.

His suggestion to the airlines is, in effect, identical — his committee calls
for a "new and ambitious policy on aviation". Being a government committee, it
isn’t quite so blunt as to say (though it is true) that the government’s aviation
policy — which involves a new runway at Heathrow and one at Stansted — doesn’t
make much logical sense, given the climate change negotiations leading up to Copenhagen
and the passing of a Climate Change Act setting out the path to statutory 80%
reductions in Britain’s carbon emissions by 2050. But it does point out that to
allow the aviation industry to use up almost a quarter of the country’s carbon
ration in 2050 would mean cuts of 90% in all other parts of the economy.

Now 90% is a lot.   Can you honestly see houses becoming so carbon-efficient over
the next 40 years that they need only 10% of the fuel to heat them that they use
now? I can’t.   Can cars, lorries, trains and boats become so efficient that they
need only the biofuel equivalent of a bag of oats to bring our food across the
world and to take us to work?

Common sense would conclude that there is a hierarchy of needs: food and shelter
are higher up than business trips and holidays. By taking government policy —
hell-for-leather expansion of aviation — at face value, the committee has shown
up its absurdity.

Take a closer look: as things stand, under the ingenious formula devised by officials
to bring Heathrow’s expansion into line with government climate change commitments,
aviation emissions will somehow return to 2005 levels by 2050. Apparently this
is achievable through more efficient aircraft and alternative fuels. The words
trip off the tongue, but what do they mean?

Richard Branson recently flew a 747 from London to Amsterdam using 5% biofuel.
This required oil from the equivalent of 150,000 coconuts. Had the flight been
run entirely on biofuel, it would have consumed the equivalent of 3m coconuts,
the annual production of an entire South Sea archipelago. It is far from clear
that the world can afford to maintain the proposed levels of aviation in 2050
and to feed itself.

And what the world thinks is relevant.   We Brits are aware we have got used to
flying to an unprecedented degree over the past generation.   But are we all aware
we’re the ones who fly the most?

British aviation emissions, per adult, are world-beaters. Second is the Republic
of Ireland, followed by the United States. Defending our present behaviour to
developing countries threatened by climate change is difficult enough. Just try
defending our projected behaviour.

When you stack it up, the aviation industry is in a much bigger fix than its
victory in the Heathrow third runway battle would suggest. The price of oil has
crept back up from $35 a barrel to about $71 today and will almost certainly peak
if the economy picks up. Meanwhile, aviation’s unhealthy closeness to government
— symbolised by Brian Wilson, a former Labour energy minister, heading Flying
Matters, the campaign for flying funded by the airlines and BAA — is unlikely
to be repeated under the Tories, who will scrap new runways at Stansted or Heathrow.
You would have thought an alternative business model to selling more cheap flights
was long overdue.

I suspect the British public is a lot shrewder than its politicians give it credit
for. We want to fly, but we also don’t want to feel hypocritical about flying.
We want to pay our environmental costs. We would, I reckon, be happy with a cap
on emissions that would make flying more expensive — and therefore less desirable
— as the economy improved. That happens to be what the committee on climate change
is suggesting.    It is a fair bet, when the committee publishes its full report
later this year, that it will conclude that the opportunities for aviation to
expand are far more limited than the government has assumed until now.



and there are number of comments …

a surprising number from the usual rash of climate change deniers, who remarkably
(suspiciously?)  jump on all these sorts of articles with amazing speed.