Tyndall Centre blog on the Airports Commission’s task reconciling aviation’s demands with UK climate responsibilities

A PhD student at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research recently attended the public evidence session by the Airports Commission, on aviation and climate change. He writes in a blog that aviation’s climate impact is a strategic question that the Airports Commission will have to try to answer – but that ultimately we as a society will have to answer.  In deciding on future runway capacity the Commission will need to make a very stark decision on climate change mitigation: rely on a highly optimistic outlook on energy efficiency development, put forward by the aviation industry, to materialise; or fail the UK target under the Climate Change Act. (Or else build airport infrastructure that we will have no use for in the future – stranded assets). The Tyndall Centre says flying is one of the most carbon intensive activities you could possibly engage in (the most efficient aircraft, when fully seated, burn about one million kcal per person, per hour – try that for a workout – equating to about 100kg of CO2 added into the atmosphere).  It is about the highest carbon activity known to man, on a per hour basis. 




Should aviation do its homework before further airport expansion?

a typical day just outside of Manchester

Michael Traut on aviation and climate change.

17.7 2013 (Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research)

Last week, the Airports Commission held a public evidence session in sunny Manchester. The two-hour session has prompted me to begin penning down a few points on aviation, something I’ve been meaning to do for quite some time.

Many here at the Tyndall Centre have done some fine research on aviation and climate change, inquiring, who is flying, and why, on the challenge of reconciling climate change targets and aviation in a UK context, and on the on-going policy debate, to give a few examples.

While traditionally, scientists love to work across borders, and in turn tend to fly around quite a bit, it is one of the most carbon intensive activities you could possibly engage in (the most efficient aircraft, when fully seated, burn about one million kcal per person, per hour – try that for a workout – equating to about 100kg of CO2 added into the atmosphere). So we stage sparkling debates, and some of my colleagues have written about the decision to fly or not to fly, and considered some of the social science issues underlying that decision. What I would like to write about are strategic questions, such as the one that the Airports Commission will have to try to answer – but that I think ultimately we as a society will have to answer.

The question that the Airports Commission has to answer is whether the UK should increase its airport capacity. In answering it, the commission will need to take into account economic, social, and environmental considerations. It also involves a very stark decision on climate change mitigation: rely on a highly optimistic outlook on energy efficiency development to materialise, or fail the target under the climate change act (or else building infrastructure that we will have no use for in the future – stranded assets such as this one, as pointed to by the WWF’s Jean Leston). [A stranded asset is  a financial term that describes an asset that has become obsolete, or non-performant, but must be recorded on the balance sheet as a loss of profit. The term has particular relevance to pricing long-term economic and environmental sustainability.]

Under the climate change act, the UK must cut its emissions by 2050 down to one fifth of what they were in 1990. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) analyse different sectors, create budgets, and advise the Government on how to achieve the target. The CCC put aviation in a preferential position, assuming that its CO2 emissions in 2050 remain constant at their 2005 level, meaning that the rest of the economy have to cut their emissions by even more than 80%. Even for aviation emissions to remain constant at 2005 level, the CCC scenarios show that at current airport capacity, demand needs to be constrained. The DfT’s UK aviation forecasts suggest that, without any new runways built, aviation emissions will grow by between 4% and 56% from 2010 out to 2050. Both analyses account for operational and technological improvements in fuel efficiency.

Representing the aviation industry at the evidence session was Sustainable Aviation. While arguing in favour of capacity expansion, they wouldn’t favour investing in stranded assets but neither could they state an intention to kick the climate change act in the teeth. So they produced their own road map. It assumes demand will grow by 150% from 2010 to 2050, but “net emissions” will then be at half their 2005 level. According to the road map, four wedges will bring about this five-fold increase in carbon efficiency: optimised engine and airframe technology; streamlined operations; alternative fuels; and carbon trading.

The Sustainable Aviation report assumes an optimistic 1.3% per annum improvement in aircraft efficiency and, to make the wedge more beefy, adds another 15% improvement on top of that for every new airplane that becomes available between now and 2050. The second wedge, improved operations, accounts for another 9%, due to optimised flight envelopes and harmonised airspace control, for example, which certainly seems worthwhile and not unreasonable. By 2050, so the next assumption, one third of the fuel airplanes burn, will be biofuel. The life cycle emissions associated with the biofuel will be 60% lower than those of kerosene. Both assumptions, on the availability and the carbon efficiency of biofuels for aviation, are on the very optimistic end of the spectrum.

These three wedges bring emissions in Sustainable Aviation’s scenario down to 115% of their level in 2010. At this point, carbon trading is invoked to reduce “net emissions” from 115% to 50%. While the first three wedges are optimistic scenario assumptions, the fourth is unreasonable. According to the climate change act, all other sectors have to cut their emissions by more than a factor of 5, (ie more than 80%) and the mainstream opinion is that this is a rather steep challenge. So which sector would reduce its emissions even more, to create allowances for aviation to snap up? The report doesn’t say. Instead, the carbon market looks a bit like Rumpelstiltskin’s crafty brother, spinning emissions to gold.

One decision implicit in the Airport Commission’s advice is then whether to risk wrecking our climate change targets or to make sure that progress towards sustainable aviation is on track before expanding capacity. While one might intuitively lean towards the latter, there is an additional, and important, argument. While it’s clearly hard to predict the future, and whether making the efficiency gains suggested by any of the reports is likely, it certainly becomes less likely without the right incentives.

If complying with climate change commitments is a pre-condition to the sector’s growth, there should be some incentive. Contrast that with the current regulatory framework. In 1997, ICAO, the international regulatory body for aviation, was tasked with controlling greenhouse gas emissions, and the aviation industry is resoundingly unanimous in stressing the need for a ‘global deal’. So what progress has been achieved? According to Sustainable Aviation hardly any over the first one and a half decades. But recently, some progress has been achieved towards achieving a road map towards a measure for controlling aviation emissions.

One committee member, John Armitt, suggested that one thing doesn’t change: people. And it stands to reason that the committee should cater for what the people demand. For the aviation industry it is, after all, about profits and jobs. It will be there to make itself heard. But what do we, as a people want? And will we make ourselves heard?







See also

Damian Carrington’s environment blog: “Aviation is a rogue industry on a runway to nowhere”

Date added: July 18, 2013

Damian writes that the turbo-charge to the lobbying for more airport capacity 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. With many UK airports, particularly Stansted, very underused, the argument for new runways is shaky at best. But it is the global problem of climate change that is fundamental to UK aviation growth. So far the industry has cleverly used the global nature of the problem to avoid action. When the permissible CO2 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.

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Passionate, heartfelt letter to Sir Howard Davies in response to public evidence session on climate on 9th July

Date added: July 11, 2013

On Tuesday 9th July, the Airports Commission held a public evidence session in Manchester, taking evidence on climate change and aviation.Tim Johnson and Cait Hewitt, from AEF, and Jean Leston from WWF took part. The Commission is due to publish transcripts of the session next week. One member of the audience, Kevin Lister who is a climate campaigner, has written a letter to Sir Howard, to set out the key issues on the link between aviation and climate, and the need for this to be clearly understood by the Commission. The letter reminds Sir Howard that his opening remark, “wanted the day to tease out the issues on aviation’s impact on climate change,” but it is “just a bit difficult to know what there is to tease out that is not glaringly obvious – atmospheric CO2 will exceed 450 ppm towards the end of this decade”; also that climate change is probably already causing instability in the Middle East and is likely to cause more problems to societies; that biofuels may cause even worse problems to the natural world and the climate than fossil fuels; and that the robustness of demand models post 2030 is extremely questionable.

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