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Reflections on Eyjafjallajokull: let’s not waste another wake-up call

volcanoLast week none of us had ever heard of an Icelandic volcano called Eyjafjallajokull, and still even now, very few of us can actually pronounce its name. The volcanic dust spewn forth across Europe as a result of its spectacular eruption has had a remarkable effect, leading to, among other things, the total grounding of the UK’s aviation fleet for several days until this morning. The headline on Metro, the free newspaper the person next to me on the train is reading as I write this, is “Fly, fly again”. It will take days to clear the backlog and to get things back to normal, but let us not pass up this opportunity to meditate on vulnerability and resilience, which led to major disruption to the air freighting of produce from Kenya and other places, thousands of people stuck in their Easter holiday destinations, and Liverpool Football Club having to travel to its Europa League fixture with Athletico Madrid on public transport . But perhaps rather than seeing it as the ‘misery’ most news broadcasts labelled it as, we might see it as good practice for the near future.

Two days ago, 400,000 Britons were stranded around the world, 268,000 across Europe, the rest mainly in the US, Home Secretary David Miliband calling for the ‘great British spirit’ to be invoked by stranded tourists. The navy fleet was on standby for a Dunkirk style ‘rescuing’ of Brits from the European mainland to get them home. A Royal Navy ship picked up tourists from Spain, the captain saying “it’s a warship so the civilians won’t be used to the austere conditions, but they will get fresh rations, fish and chips for dinner tonight and curry tomorrow. We will provide as many camp beds as we can, but it’s not a 5 star hotel. An Englishman who organised a flotilla of boats to sail to Dunkirk to pick up tourists in a restaging of the Dunkirk evacuations of World War 2, was turned back by French authorities who told him that such behaviour was anti-commercial and could affect the viability of French ferries (at least that’s the story as it was told to me, true or not, it’s a great story).

Kenya’s horticulture industry, mostly flowers such as roses, grown for the UK market, has been losing $2 million a day in exports, with tonnes of roses and other fresh produce being thrown away each day (at least they were ‘composted’, according to the Guardian). One of the tabloids headlines yesterday was “TFI Flyday!” such was the media jubilation at the return to the skies. However, as Heading Out at the Oil Drum notes, this might just be the beginning of a series of eruptions, this may be just the beginning, rather than just the end of a week-long interruption to business-as-usual.

As a result of the grounding of the UK’s planes, Europe’s carbon emissions from aviation fell by 60%. This great graphic from informationisbeautiful.net answers the question of what produces more CO2, the volcano, or aviation? In spite of the huge amount of carbon pumped out by Eyjafjallajokull, aviation is still a far greater polluter.

planes_volcanos

Of course that was partly offset by the rather large amount of carbon belched forth by the unpronounceable volcano, but I spent Monday reading a fascinating piece of research by Meinshausen et.al.(1). It puts into context what ‘misery’ actually means, and it goes way beyond a few days stuck in a foreign airport or composting roses. Runaway climate change, accompanied by 2 metre sea level rise, crippling impacts on agriculture and most other aspects of modern life, would be utterly catastrophic. While not wishing in any way to denigrate the experience of those who have had a stressful, costly and disruptive few days, perhaps looking at this experience as a dry run for an oil-strapped near future might be healthier.

Of course we have had these ‘wake-up’ moments before. In 2000 the lorry drivers went on strike, blocking refineries, and the UK was a few days away from a major food crisis. The same thing was threatened a few years later when Grangemouth refinery was blockaded. Then there was the oil price spike of July 2008, and the impacts of the oil price rises. There was the snow of last winter, many communities cut off and distribution of essential goods made rather tricky. Oh and I think there was the world nearly coming to the brink of economic meltdown quite recently if I remember rightly, although I’m told that is all fine and sorted out now.

Now we have the grounding of the entire UK air fleet, and still the press coverage focused on newly-weds stranded in their honeymoon locations, or school choirs stuck in the US, rather than questioning how utterly reliant we have become on aviation, and how perilously unresilient we have grown as a culture. One minor interruption and everything starts coming unstuck at the edges rather quickly, developing countries find their agricultural sectors on the edge of bankruptcy, school exams might have to be scheduled, we will be short of fruit and other imports, etc.etc.

Meinshausen et.al. look at what level of cuts in emissions we need to make if we are actually going to avoid runaway and catastrophic climate change. They estimate that there is about a 70% chance of staying under 2°C if global emissions are cut by 50% from 1990 levels by 2050, and that emissions would need to have peaked and started to decline by 2020, and that they would need to continue being cut beyond 2050, and would need to have reached zero before 2100. A cut of 72% by 2050 would give us an 84% chance of avoiding runaway climate change.

VOLCANO ASH FLIGHTSThey suggest that a programme of reductions capable of producing cuts in emissions necessary to avoid a 2°C rise, would mean that by 2050, the annual UK personal carbon allowance would need to be between 1.96 and 1.10 tonnes of CO2e per year, a cut of between 86% and 92% on 1990 levels, a level of emissions similar to that of Mozambique today. In this context, there really is little or no place for aviation, and that’s before we add in the question of what, by then, planes would even be running on.

We are talking about reducing emissions, personally and societally, by over 90%. Personally I don’t think future generations will be especially bothered that I had a few days over Easter chilling out in Rome or snorkelling in Thailand as they come to grips with the irreversible nightmare they have inherited from us. They will almost certainly look at any interruption to our “Fly, fly again” collective madness as having been a good thing, and would have hoped that we might have learnt something instructive from it.

Profoundly thought-provoking though the implications of Meinshausen’s study is, it is seen by some as being the optimistic scenario. A different study by Helm et.al. argues that even this scale of cuts is unrealistic, because presently the emissions of different nations are based on production rather than consumption, that is, they don’t factor in the carbon emissions that go into making imported consumer goods, which could be seen as ‘outsourced emissions’. If emissions were allocated to countries on the basis on consumption rather than production, the UK’s emissions would increase by 50%. Then there’s the fact, as set out so clearly in the recent Climate Safety report, that we haven’t even reached 2°C yet, we have gone up 0. 8°C and are already seeing feedbacks starting that the IPCC didn’t think we’d see for many years yet.

A re-immersion in the climate change literature is always a chilling experience (the word ‘sobering’ doesn’t somehow feel anywhere near strong enough). We are talking about a profound shift, such as that set out in the excellent forthcoming ‘Zero Carbon Britain 2030’ report, that takes as its basis the need to cut emissions to zero by 2030. In that context, in spite of all the wonders that aviation brings to our lives, whether it be 2 weeks in Rome over the Easter hols or early spring broccoli, roses and green beans airfreighted from Kenya, we are going to have to let it go.

The Department of Transport argue that air passenger numbers will have grown by 200% by 2030 (this is, of course, the same government that argues that peak oil won’t be a concern until 2030 at the earliest), and 21% of all the UK’s transport emissions come from aviation. It is, however, the key element of our transport infrastructure that defies decarbonisation. The aviation industry is already nearly as fuel efficient as it could become, electric planes are a non-started, hydrogen powered planes put 2.6 times the water vapour that ordinary planes put into the upper atmosphere, and biofuels for planes would be a humanitarian disaster, hitting food security hard. We have no option than to consciously, intentionally and urgently design for the end of the aviation industry.

Listening to 5 Live yesterday morning the speculation was all about whether or not planes would get into the air today, like a ‘which-airport-gets-planes-back-in-the-air-first’ competition. Gave me a mental picture of Boeing 737s on runways up and down the country, white knuckles clenching joysticks, revving their engines ready to reconquer the skies as soon as they get the green light. The sky with no planes is clearly seen by some as abhorrent, like a football match with no players, or, in my own case, a garden with no vegetables growing in it.

Alain de Botton wrote a beautiful piece for the BBC, a Transition Tale in effect, writing about life in 2050 with no planes, and people thinking back to the day when people flew. Writing in yesterday’s Guardian, George Monbiot wrote that “over the past few days, people living under the flight paths have seen the future and they like it”. Would it really be that bad to have a vastly scaled back aviation industry? Of course not. I haven’t flown for four years, and it has had no adverse impact on my quality of life at all.

In talks I sometimes use the analogy of the 7 League Boots, how people in the world before oil couldn’t imagine being able to travel long distances in any way other than by foot or travelling on an animal. Now we have lost any sense that distant places are, well, quite distant. The Canaries is actually a long long way from the UK, it’s an island in the middle of the sea. New York is also really a very, very long way from London. Cheap oil and not giving a toss about our carbon emissions has enabled us to shrink distances and as George Monbiot put it yesterday;

“it made everywhere feel local, interchangeable. Nature interjects, and we encounter – tragically for many – the reality of thousands of miles of separation. We discover that we have not escaped from the physical world after all”.

Rather than seeing the past few days as an interruption to our inherent right to go wherever in the world we want to whenever we want to, perhaps we ought to reflect on the awesome power that fossil fuels have brought, albeit temporarily, to our lives.

Helm et.al. argue, as does James Hansen, that the ‘tipping point’ for the Earth’s climate was a 0.5°C increase on pre-industrial levels. Given that the global climate is already committed to a 1.4°C increase, this might seem an impossible task. As Spratt & Sutton write in ‘Climate Code Red’, “the fact that we have long passed this point in no way detracts from its importance as a policy goal, and a state to which we should wholeheartedly endeavour to return the planet”. The Climate Safety Report and the forthcoming second edition of Zero Carbon Britain argue that this means nothing less than a target of zero carbon within the next three decades, a target clearly far in advance of current UK government policy, which, as set out in the 2008 Climate Change Act, is to cut UK emissions by 34% by 2020 and at least 80% by 2050.

Is such an ambition feasible without some major rethinking of many of the assumptions that underpin a business-as-usual approach? I for one struggle to imagine that aviation has any place whatsoever in a world of volatile oil prices, liquid fuel shortages, where biofuels have taken a backseat to actually feeding the world’s population and where avoiding the undermining and irrevocable destabilisation of the world’s climate systems is afforded the seriousness it deserves.

As Rosie Boycott wrote in today’s Guardian, #

“… perhaps this cloud of ash will have a genuine silver lining. Maybe we’ll wake up to where our food comes from, the real price it costs to get here, and the vulnerability of the systems in place. By ramming home the message that what we eat is now at the mercy of acts of God – as well as dwindling resources such as oil and the threat of climate change – I sincerely hope we’ll all start to reconsider how and what we eat”.

Indeed. As George Monbiot concluded yesterday in his typically forthright style:

“we have a choice. We can start decommissioning this industry (aviation) while there is time and find ways of living happily with less of it. Or we can sit and wait for physical reality to simplify the system by more brutal means”.

Designing creatively for this inevitable transition will require a shift in our expectations, shifting what we think of as being the best thing to do when the kids have 2 weeks off school, and what we expect to find on supermarket shelves.

However, as Rafa Benitez, Liverpool manager, told 5Live yesterday after expressing his disapproval with UEFA for making them play their tie in Madrid in spite of the flying ban, and contemplating a very long journey made up to coaches, trains, and at the end, a plane, “we will adapt”. Of course we will, and be healthier, leaner and better connected for it, and we may just, still avoid runaway climate change. Let’s just not have a bank style bail-out for airlines please.

References.

(1). Meinshausen, M. Meinshausen, N. Hare, W. Raper, S. C. B. Frieler, K. Knutti, R. Frame, D. J. Allen, M. R. (2009) Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2 degrees C. Nature 458, 1158-1162

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