Monday, February 02, 2009

stop emissions but keep flying

It was an extraordinary thing. Greenpeace activists had occupied a coal-fired power station yet the jury acquitted them.

Perhaps the key aspect of the Kingsnorth 6's defence was the testimony from NASA scientist Jim Hansen. One of the most prominent climate scientists on earth, he made clear that we have little time to scale back our carbon emissions, so plans to increase them were not far short of murderous. He's subsequently offered to help people who blockaded a coal plant in America.

Strange, then, that this week he's spoken out against activists opposing Heathrow's third runway.

The number of runways you need for your airports depends on their traffic. You don't want to be so restrictive that you end up burning more fuel because planes are having to circle and wait to land because of lack of runway space.


Heathrow is already running at near-capacity. The whole point of building a third runway is to double the number of flights, which is far worse than any circling could be. The emissions from the extra flights readily compare to a large coal-fired power station.

Hansen could similarly argue that you don't want to stop new coal-fired power stations as it would mean older, less efficient, ones were kept in service leading to greater emissions.

The crucial point, as he's an order of magnitude clever enough to know, is that we cannot carry on with certain high-emitting activities. If the government were to get its way and double aviation capacity in the UK then by 2030 that sole industry would be likely to exceed our carbon budget before we touch a lump of coal.

Additionally, as he's also surely aware of, like Kingsnorth Heathrow is a flagship. It leads the way for other similar projects. If this first project gets stopped then it makes it much less likely that the ones queueing up behind it will go ahead.

"Coal is 80% of the planet's problem," he said. "You have to keep your eye on the ball and not waste your efforts. The number one enemy is coal and we should never forget that."


He is clearly right on that. But the thing is, most of the activists involved in fighting Heathrow are fighting coal too. There is a culture of action around climate change, one thing inspiring another.

There are a handful of industries that need radical change. Passenger transport, food production, power generation, heating, freight, they all have alternative methods and technologies to help us make the change. Aviation alone has no alternative. It is the one industry that needs to wither to almost nothing. Fortunately, also unlike those others, it is the one that is a complete luxury that we can live without.

As Hansen told the court, obstructing Kingsnorth prevents carbon emissions that kill. Blockading runways to cause flights to be cancelled does exactly the same thing.

In a heavy-handed pun, the article closes

Aviation was not a danger, and he would not fly to the help of those who disrupted airports and flights, he stressed.


He would, of course, fly into Heathrow. It is extraordinary that a climate scientist can take such a stand. The only reason I can think of is that he flies a lot himself and wants to avoid thoughts that make him stop.

He's not alone. The campaign against the third runway has got Greenpeace to gather and coach several celebrities, including Emma Thompson who, laying into Transport Secretary Buff Hoon, said,

They're planes! Give me a break! They use up a lot of energy, they let out CO2 emissions! Not even Mr Hoon can hide that from us.


Hiring celebs against flying is like hiring dogs against arse-sniffing. It's a gift to the aviation lobby that they're bound to enjoy. And sure enough, Hoon responded

"She has been in some very good films. Love Actually is very good, but I worry about people who I assume travel by air quite a lot and don't see the logic of their position, not least because the reason we have got this problem in relation to Heathrow is that more and more people want to travel more and more," he said.

He added: "BAA do not wake up in the morning and think 'we need a bigger airport' and airlines do not say 'we need to put on more flights' unless there is a demand for it. So the point is about not just Emma Thompson, but lots of people.


Hoon's assertion that the aviation industry don't advertise or lobby anyone to increase business is almost as mad as his belief that Love Actually is a very good film.

But anyway, Thompson said that he had 'completely missed the point' and that - get this one - 'this is not a campaign against flying'.

Er, right. Show me anyone who flies whose emissions are sustainable. I'm willing to put a hefty bet of my personal body parts that Emma Thompson's aren't.

Unless you are against the runway from the perspective of the localised impacts of noise and demolished houses, it is surely all about stopping people flying. How stupid and hypocritical can she get?

The answer came the following week

The government is treating us as if we're stupid. They're asking all of us to reduce our energy consumption while they build another runway at Heathrow. I think it's the most egregious piece of hypocrisy I've seen in a long time.


One person on the Greenpeace email list asked if this meant Emma Thompson wouldn't be flying any more and got the reply

We are not campaigning to stop people from flying altogether, but we do want to prevent the number of flights from growing to dangerous levels


This is clearly implying that Greenpeace believe present levels aren't dangerous. They could do with talking to a proper climate scientist. Though they'll need to find one not blinded by his own hypocrisy.

14 comments:

Dunc said...

The thing you have to remember about Hansen is that he's previously stated that he doesn't think there's enough oil left in the ground to be worth fighting over. As far as he's concerned, we can burn all the (economically recoverable) oil left in the world without making that much difference, whereas he believes that there's more than enough coal available to kick us into an end-Permian style runaway feedback loop.

Whether he's right about either of those things, I couldn't say...

merrick said...

Dunc,

I'm no petroleum geologist either, but as I understand it the very phrase 'peak oil' means the decline of production, the halfway mark. That implies that there's half left.

I think he's right that the recoverable coal embodies waaaay more carbon than the oil, and that coal's got to be the main target (as I said here when the runway three announcement was made, I'd choose the runway over Kingsnorth) but still the oil is a lot of carbon too. And we need cuts now, and a carbon-conscious society now.

Also, it depends what we mean by economically recoverable oil. As it becomes more expensive, the harder to reach stuff becomes economically viable and the even worse climate assault of tar sands come into play. That's a fuck of a lot of carbon.

Surely all cuts are worthwhile cuts. When aviation is around 12% of the UK's climate impact, surely we should be looking to cut it back.

And, as it's the most luxurious of our emission sources, it's the easiest one.

The thing that makes me suspicious of Hansen's position is not the coal vs aviation thing (he's right about priorities, but it should be both/and not either/or); it's the way he comes out with that utter guff about planes circling would emit more than if they came straight in to land.

It is so obviously stupid that I cannot believe he really thinks it. It's a little game, designed to hide the real reason.

Which makes me speculate what that unstated reason might be, and the one that leaps to mind is well, how much flying do you reckon he does?

Dunc said...

Oh, I fully agree with your position myself. As for Hansen's personal motivations, I don't like to speculate too much... However, I get the impression that he's decided that fighting over oil use is not politically expedient, and that he's decided to cede that battle in favour of concentrating on the one he regards as more important. Strategy and tactics, rather than science... But yes, there are certainly a great many people out there who are simply too invested in flying to be able to assess the matter objectively. Whether Hansen is one of them, I couldn't say.

Personally, I tend toward the view that the days of cheap air travel are very much numbered anyway, and that the projected demand growth simply isn't going to materialise. It doesn't take a huge rise in the price of oil to dramatically alter the economics of air travel for the vast majority of people. Investing in airport capacity now seems rather like building a huge new whaling fleet sometime around 1850...

merrick said...

Hansen's personal motivations, I don't like to speculate too much

Yeah, I was just really rattled by the bollocksy thing about planes in holding patterns burning up extra fuel, and implying that the third runway might decrease emissions. He must know its bollocks. And when someone's saying something they know is untrue, you've got to look for the secret reason, the thing they're ashamed to say out loud.

the days of cheap air travel are very much numbered anyway, and that the projected demand growth simply isn't going to materialise

Totally agree, and indeed I said that I hope the Heathrow go-ahead makes it more likely they'll back down on Kingsnorth. Gimme the third runway over a new coal power station any day.

But now is the key time. decarbonising is the most important task of the next few years. To declare a big expansion of the most unnecessary carbon-heavy industry is a massive push in precisely the wrong direction. Plus, even if they only get 5 or 10 years of expansion, that's a fuck of a lot of carbon that we could've prevented.

Investing in airport capacity now seems rather like building a huge new whaling fleet sometime around 1850

The letters 'lol' are much overused, to the point where I actually don't understand the usage any more. However, I would like to use it here in it original antiquated sense. Literally laughed out loud at that.

Derek Wall said...

Hi mate,

just wanted to flag Jerry up!

Ballot papers going out for Britain's second largest union General Secretary, please spread the word about the one candidate in the race who wants to stop Heathrow expansion

'Backing nuclear power and Heathrow expansion is a disgrace. Wreaking havoc on the environment in the name of jobs is without vision and a falsehood.

An immediate public works programme building schools, hospitals, council houses and raliways would create 100,000 jobs. Renewable energies such as wind, sea and solar can provide a million new jobs', argues Jerry Hicks


http://another-green-world.blogspot.com/2009/02/why-greens-should-back-jerry-hicks.html

John G. Spragge said...

Dr. Hansen has it just about exactly right. And for the record, aviation does have alternatives. Aircraft in production right now cause, in the aggregate, less than 30% of the effective emissions attributed to the current generation of jets.

I believe that to get people to the point where they will agree to real change requires two things: adhering strictly to the known scientific facts, and not tacking lifestyle agendas onto the issue. Anyone with access to Google can discover that individuals like George Monbiot have an antipathy for aviation. I can't speak for anyone else, but I don't make a habit of listening to people if I suspect them of misusing science to impose romantic notions of the "right" way to live on me-- or anyone else.

Rather than claim that we "must" stop flying, it makes sense to talk about a reasonable goal for carbon emissions and let the engineers and scientists try to meet it.

merrick said...

John G Spragge,

When I speak of alternatives I mean methods and technologies that can treduce emissions to the levels required to avoid runaway climate change. We're needing a global cut of around 60% by 2030.

I don't know what new production jets you mean as you don't name them (those EasyJet prototypes with the rotors - which would be illegal under European noise rules?), but a 30% cut is too small anyway. Even without the drive to expand aviation.

As far as I'm aware, George Monbiot's antipathy towards aviation is based on the fact that it is so environmentally destructive. So, rather than it being making science fit a preconceived notion, it is a notion borne of adhering to the science.

I wholeheartedly agree that 'it makes sense to talk about a reasonable goal for carbon emissions and let the engineers and scientists try to meet it'. So I presume we agree that, as the present generation of aircraft cannot do that, they should be grounded.

John G. Spragge said...

No, I mean that aircraft flying commercially right now produce 70% less global warming effects than jets. We can cut the environmental effect of aviation well over 60%, now, without more than mildly inconveniencing anyone. Certainly, the aviation industry has absolutely no need to "wither away to almost nothing".

By 2030, we should certainly have replaced the power plants, or the fuels, or both in the vast majority of aircraft. And by 2030, we will have a lot more options. The first actual zero-emissions aircraft have actually flown. But today we could reduce emissions as much as you claim we need to by replacing jets with slightly lower and slower turboprop aircraft.

As for the attitude of people like Monbiot towards aviation, I think the article I have linked suggests a much deeper antipathy towards aviation than concern for the (proportionately minor) damage the current generation of aircraft do, as well as the dismissal of technological work on the next generations of low (or zero) emissions aircraft.

merrick said...

John,

to the best of my knowledge you're right that lower flying and slower propeller aircraft have a much lower climate change impact (do you have a credible figure on how much?).

However, the considerably increased journey times would make a huge difference to long-haul flights, as would the scrapping of jets and the cost of building a new generation of prop planes.

Whilst it certainly would allow a greater level of aviation within a safe limit, it would still be a lot more than a mild inconvenience to travellers and airlines.

You are somewhat vague in your vision for what lies beyond that. What non-oil fuels are you thinking of for your 2030 planes? How would any aircraft be zero emission? Of those that you say already exist, can you tell me what they are and where we can find more information?

And do you agree that, pending the deployment of such things, we should be grounding the carbon profligacy of the contemporary jet fleet?

John G. Spragge said...

No claim of an "exact" figure for the reduction in global warming effect caused by a transition to lower altitude flying has much credibility, because the estimates, including those of IPCC, depend on poorly understood atmospheric processes. The IPCC estimates suggest that the amplification of the global warming effect produced by stratospheric emission accounts for 50-60% of the climate impact of aviation. I added the lower fuel consumption of these aircraft models to complete the picture.

While transitioning to turboprops would mean some changes in travel patterns, such as increasing the time required for an average transatlantic flight to twelve hours from eight, I have no doubt that most travelers, as well as most of the airlines that serve them, can accommodate the change relatively comfortably. As for whether airlines will put off purchases of Dreamliners and Airbuses in favour of "greener" Q-400s; well, they will probably not opt for a "green" alternative from the current coalition of anti-travel romantics and well off NIMBY groups telling them to "ground the fleet".

As for the technologies we will use for travel in 2030, I don't know, and I don't particularly trust predictions of future technology. In 1989, how many people predicted the World Wide Web, 16GB jump drives, and Skype? We know what we have the technological basis to accomplish: fuel cell aircraft and non-food based biofuels, to name two. But which of the technologies now under development will define aviation powerplants in 2030 and beyond I don't know, and I don't believe anyone who says they do.

merrick said...

As for the technologies we will use for travel in 2030, I don't know, and I don't particularly trust predictions of future technology. In 1989, how many people predicted the World Wide Web, 16GB jump drives, and Skype?

This is an irrelevant answer, John.

i asked about what fuels you think will work. To say, essentially 'I dunno but people have invented stuff before that nobody saw coming' is risible. We might as well say to alcoholics that they can keep drinking because we might invent synthetic livers before they kill themselves.

Non-food biofuels are just as much of a problem as food-crop ones, for the same reason. It's not the crop that's the issue, it's the land use. Where is the spare land lying around to grow these things? Or is it OK to price poor people out of feeding themselves so we can have luxury vehicle transport?

And please, for the third time of asking, if you do believe in magic aircraft fuels, can you agree that, pending the deployment of such things, we should be grounding the carbon profligacy of the contemporary jet fleet?

John G. Spragge said...

Let's start with the adjectives. The global atmosphere doesn't care that you consider jets "profligate" polluters, "luxury" vehicles, or that you see air travel as analogous to alcoholism. The atmosphere doesn't care about your attitude, or mine. It reacts to physical emissions. And the physical facts remain that (1) we now have the technology, in production aircraft currently carrying passengers, to reduce the effects of aviation emissions by 60% or more; and (2) global aviation emissions in any case amount to only 2% of the total greenhouse gas emissions, and 4-5% of the total climate change effect.

What does that suggest? It suggests that first, Dr. Hanson's got it spot on with his comments on global priorities: road traffic produces three times the global climate change effects of air traffic , and electricity generation with coal causes even more emissions. Secondly, it suggests that while we should phase out high altitude jet flight (above 24000 feet) and bring in new aviation technologies, we need not do so all at once. Given the economic disruption these changes will entail, it makes sense to allow the industry to adapt, and save the energy and political capital of climate change campaigns for the big pollution problems.

As for future aviation fuels: the American military has just announced a test of camelina, a plant producing a non-edible oil that grows in conditions unsuitable for food crops, or Salicornia bigelovii, a plant that grows in salt water. Other candidates include fully synthetic hydrocarbons produced using solar power. We have a general idea of what the technology will look like; we just don't yet know which alternative will scale best.

merrick said...

The global atmosphere doesn't care that you consider jets "profligate" polluters, "luxury" vehicles

I didn't say it did.

I use those adjectives because, in the best traditions of using language, their definitions are accurate. Aviation is profligate because it uses resources wastefully; it is a luxury because it is non-essential.

you see air travel as analogous to alcoholism

Well done, two misquotes in one sentence. I didn't say that air travel is analogous to alcoholism. I said your apparent belief that we can continue with destructive behaviour and rely on undiscovered breakthrough technologies to save us is like an alcoholic relying on the invention of synthetic livers.

we now have the technology, in production aircraft currently carrying passengers, to reduce the effects of aviation emissions by 60%

You've said this already and how it would only 'mildly inconvenience' the industry to scrap its entire jet fleet and vastly increase journey times.

global aviation emissions in any case amount to only 2% of the total greenhouse gas emissions, and 4-5% of the total climate change effect.

For an activity only a tiny minority of people do, that's way out of proportion. Given that all of those people emit more than a safe personal level of emissions, it's they who have to make the swiftest and deepest cuts. What activities do you suggest they start with?

I'm willing to bet that, in the main, they prefer being warm and eating to flying.

In the UK, where we can really affect things, it's much bigger that 5%, somewhere around 11.5% of our climate impact.

Aviation minister Gillian Merron (written answer to the House of Commons, 2 May 2007) says in 2005 aviation was 6.3% of UK emissions. From this she extrapolates that it is about 13% of our climate impact.

The calculations are wrong but the figure is almost right. They use an uplift factor of 2, whereas (for reasons explained here) more recently it's become usual to use 1.3. However, the government only count emissions from departing flights, whereas flights taken by UK citizens account for 70% of UK flights.

So, if we take the 6.3% of emissions Ms Merron cites, multiply by 1.3, then divide by 50 and multiply by 70, aviation accounts for 11.5% of our climate impact.

merrick said...

Dr. Hanson's got it spot on with his comments on global priorities

Agreed. Coal has to be the major focus. Also, new coal power stations commit us to 50 years of burning coal. Even with the expansion of airports, mass aviation is likely to die a death within our lifetimes due to the price of oil and lack of a cheap plentiful substitute.

Given the economic disruption these changes will entail, it makes sense to allow the industry to adapt

There speaks someone whose subsistence farmland isn't being flooded by rising sea levels.

Given the economic and other disruption climate change will entail, it makes sense to recognise it is a crisis that needs swift and drastic response. That should start with the high-carbon activities we can live without, with a programme of retraining for those whose jobs are abolished.

As for future aviation fuels: the American military has just announced a test of camelina, a plant producing a non-edible oil that grows in conditions unsuitable for food crops

Whether land is suitable for food crops or not isn't the point. There is already something growing there. The water required is already in use. There simply isn't a load of 'spare' land lying around.

When Virgin started using a little coconut oil in its planes it was calculated that it would take a coconut plantation twice the size of France to supply the world's aircraft.

Salicornia bigelovii, a plant that grows in salt water. Other candidates include fully synthetic hydrocarbons produced using solar power.

These sound all well and good. I know nothing of them and would be genuinely interested if you could provide reliable links with more information. However, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that synthetic hydrocarbons are some way off from being available.

So - and forgive me if the question feels a tad familiar to you - do you agree that, pending the deployment of such things, we should be grounding the carbon profligacy of the contemporary jet fleet?