Global vs national priorities and Hansen on Heathrow

February 3, 2009 at 2:09 pm | Posted in Climate change, Heathrow expansion, Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Choices among alternative energy sources—renewable energies, energy efficiency, nuclear power, fossil fuels with carbon capture—these are national matters.  

But the decision to phase out coal use unless the CO2 is captured is a global imperative, if we are to preserve the wonders of nature, our coastlines, and our social and economic well being.

~ wrote James Hansen in his letter to Prime Minister Fukuda dated 3 July 2008, stressing the global need to eliminate all coal use without CCS above all other national choices for energy sources.

So, the way I read it, the entire world should focus on introducing CCS capabilities to all coal plants as fast as possible.  That is a global priority.  Good.

However, at the national level, the picture becomes more complicated and nuanced, for both alternative energy choices and for tackling top emissions sources.  The fact that we have a global priority to eliminate non-CCS coal use does not preclude any country from also having a national priority to cut emissions in the most efficacious way too.

A case in point for Britain is our dear government’s love affair with Adding Capacity at Heathrow Airport.  Expansion of Heathrow airport to facilitate greater emissions is a national issue with global implications.  More precisely, it is a national issue with national implications for Britain’s global leadership in the global fight against climate change.

Actions speak louder than words, and expanding Heathrow is an action by our nation decided by our government that will undoubtedly increase emissions, no matter how many words are used by diplomats, politicians or public relations officials to make it appear otherwise.  We cannot trade our way out of climate change, even if we can make it look like we hit national targets by reducing emissions through clever fixing of aviation industry deals with Polish power companies (!)

I’m a bit surprised that the science editor of a respected national newspaper  chose to stir up trouble by reporting a top climate scientist’s opinion on a political hot potato that is not high on the list of global climate scientists’ concerns.

So, when I read this Guardian news article in The Observer dated Sunday 1 February 2009:

Climate expert Jim Hansen snubs Heathrow runway protesters

and saw the flurry of blogs crowing that third runway protesters are silly little campaigners who have it all wrong on climate change, I was saddened.

I find it difficult to believe that a science editor worth his or her salt (not being sure whether this particular Robin is male or female) would run with such a damaging headline and follow with an equally damning subtitle:

Campaigners are told coal power is the priority danger, not more runways

It is obvious that this reporting of Hansen’s opinion undermines the case of Greenpeace and Plane Stupid (and me).  Unfortunately, the way Hansen justified his stance, in this paragraph:

However, Hansen said cutbacks in new runways would be ineffective. “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.”

shows that he completely misunderstands the reason for expansion, and has fallen—hook, line and sinker—for the pro-expansion argument without realising the catch.  The point is that the reason for adding a runway is not to allow current levels of traffic to operate more efficiently.  No, that is, at the veneer level, how it is marketed.  The real reason for expansion it is to enable more traffic—that’s what Adding Capacity means, allowing more passengers and flights—which will simply lead in the end to similar levels of efficiency to those which we are struggling with now.  It’s a plain old case of greed, not need.   (An analogy is building more roads to make vehicles flow more freely.  That idea has been proven wrong.  If you were stuck in the 50-mile traffic jam on the M25 earlier this week you may appreciate that point more than most.)

There are very good reasons for scientists and engineers being kept well away from politicians, analysts and media folk most of the time.  On the other hand, there’s no excuse for people who earn their living writing articles for national Sunday papers to cause deliberate problems for all campaigners who are opposing the expansion of Heathrow airport—and this includes local residents who already suffer enough and are told by this Government that they will suffer more, whether they like it or not.  (The heartlessness of British transport and construction policy being played out for all to see over the village of Sipson.)

Here’s the crux of the matter, as reported by Robin McKie:

Hansen has told them (eco-campaigners) that there is no comparison with the dangers posed by coal power. “I don’t think it is helpful to be trying to prevent air flight,” Hansen told the Observer. He said he would make no move to help protesters arrested during occupations or disruptions at Heathrow.

The people I know are not against Heathrow, nor are we against airports, and we are not trying to prevent flights.  What many in the Heathrow area are fighting against (along with complete destruction of communities such as Sipson) is the unrestrained expansion of flight and passenger numbers.  Business-as-usual forecasts are based on economics that have failed us already, and these unlimited increases in carbon-locked traffic are not inconsequential: they do have severe local and symbolic global implications—especially if Britain wishes to be taken seriously as a leader on the world stage when the climate talks come to Copenhagen in December 2009.

How can Britain command the rest of the world imperiously:

“Do as I say, not as I do!”

while our government’s actions encourage other countries to build as many more airports as they wish to satisfy their eager, ambitious and rapidly growing populations who naturally want what we already enjoy and are expected to desire for eternity (i.e. cheap flights to shops and sunny beaches).

The third runway at Heathrow will enable that airport to become the largest single source of carbon emissions in the country.  Greenpeace produced a bundle of information on this topic in:

The Case Against (Heathrow) Airport Expansion

The third runway is a euphemistic way of introducing a new airport the size of Gatwick (complete with shopping complex) just to the north of the existing Heathrow airport footprint.

I think it’s best if Hansen helps campaigners around the world on the coal issue alone, though it would have been a considerate gesture if he had said something favourable towards people who are trying to prevent significant increases in harmful emissions in their own backyards (and I’m not talking about barbeques) 😉

Heathrow expansion is a national problem, and campaigners in the UK need support from around the world.  Better still if we had more of our own climate scientists helping with the media battle, instead of relying on a single renowned American scientist who was unfortunately ‘used’ by the media for purposes unknown to me.

In summary, the blind expansion of Heathrow symbolises what is wrong with our government’s agenda: conflicting policies have been developed, such as transport vs climate, and energy vs climate.  In such competing situations, there is always a loser: unfortunately, it is climate policy that will be defeated in both these battles.  Perhaps this is partly because there is no well-developed ‘climate industry’ as such, no cohesive business entity armed with the persuasive powers of PR professionals and benefitting from easy access to the inner ears of members of the inner circles of the establishment at the highest levels, no united force to call the shots against the influential transport, construction, retail and energy industries which have embedded themselves within government circles over decades.

P.S.  I just read in his guest post So sorry over at Gristmill that Hansen has kindly apologised for being caught out (by a journalist and circumstances) over Heathrow.

P.P.S.  I wrote a letter to Gordon Brown last month that included the following quote from a speech given by Lord Turner.  In brief, the First Report of the Committee for Climate Change (CCC) was published on 1 December 2008.  In his speech at the launch of that report, Lord Adair Turner outlined the committee’s recommendations.  On aviation emissions, in particular, he explained:

“Second, I would like to be clear about our recommendations on international aviation and shipping.

Aviation and shipping are both rapidly growing sources of emission. And in the case of aviation in particular, there may be less potential to cut emissions via new technologies than there is, for instance, in electricity generation. Therefore aviation and shipping would, under business as usual scenarios, amount by 2050 to a very significant proportion of the maximum emissions that the world can safely emit – perhaps as much as 6-8 gigatonnes – about 30% of all acceptable GHG emissions and about 50% of acceptable carbon dioxide emissions.

And even these forecasts assume either significant technological progress or per capita aviation travel in developing countries in 2050 well below the level in developed countries today. If today’s per capita aviation emissions for the developed world applied across a world population of 9.8 billion, total aviation emissions of carbon dioxide would total 5 gigatonnes – about 40 per cent of total global acceptable emissions in 2050 and something like 100 percent of acceptable 2100 emissions.

It is therefore essential that aviation and shipping are covered by targets and by policies which encourage technological and energy efficiency improvement, and which constrain demand below business as usual projections.”

The final paragraph in that excerpt from Lord Turner’s speech is crucial.  Aviation emissions are required to turn away from the growth path the sector actively promotes, and passenger demand for flights must be constrained, not expanded.



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  1. I see Lord Turner was at the Environmental Audit Committee earlier this week. The FT gave a brief report :

    Lord Turner, chair of the climate change committee, said that personal limits would have to be considered at some point to constrain pollution from flights…..he raised the possibility of the new runway at Heathrow could be left half-empty because of the high level of emissions.

    I must try to look up his evidence when the minutes are published.

  2. Hello Tim,
    Thanks for that. I, too, shall try to remember to keep and eye out for those EAC minutes.
    I thought the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change produced a Briefing Note on the decision regarding Heathrow’s third runway, but I can’t find that right now, however this quote from Professor Kevin Anderson sums up the point I’m trying to make:

    “It is difficult to underestimate the impact this single decision will have not only on the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, but also in undermining the UK’s hard-earned credibility as a nation at the vanguard of the international climate change agenda. If aviation emissions in 2050 will be no more than they were 2005 (as announced today by the Transport Secretary) then by 2050 the aviation sector will consume all of the UK’s permitted carbon budget”

    and the Tyndall Centre has produced plenty of documents on the impact of aviation emissions on Britain’s overall targets (e.g. this 3-year-old working paper), most of which documents and emissions are happily ignored by this government.
    In that 3-year-old document, for instance, you’ll find this section, the history and context of which I would suggest James Hansen was unaware of when he was interviewed for Sunday’s Observer (and see how things have moved on from 60% to 80%, for example, i.e. constraints have become tighter, not more lax, since the working paper was released as a work in progress):

    6. Investigation of the Implications of C & C for European Civil Aviation

    6.1 Immediate policy context and debate
    The climate change implications of the projected on-going growth in global aviation emissions over the next 50 years are becoming increasingly controversial. This is particularly so in the UK, an island state with both a major international aviation hub in the form of Heathrow airport, and a governmental commitment to reducing carbon dioxide emissions by some 60% by 2050. Add to this ministerial prioritisation of climate change for both the EU and G8 presidencies in 200517, an
    Air Transport White Paper with the stated aim of including intra-EU flight emissions in the second phase of the European Emissions Trading System (i.e. from 2008), and entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol in February 2005, and it is not perhaps surprising that the climate impact of aviation emissions is an increasing focus of attention.

    Through 2003-4, the UK House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee vigorously debated projected aviation growth and its impacts with the DfT. The Committee’s concern about the impact of aviation emissions on the UK’s long term carbon dioxide reduction target was echoed by the House of Lords EU sub-committee on environment and agriculture in November 2004 (House of Lords, 2004), who recommended incorporating the full climatic forcing effects of intra-EU aviation emissions into the European Emission trading Scheme at the earliest possible opportunity.

    The UK House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (2004a, summary point 7, p.7) have questioned whether an EU or international emissions trading system can accommodate global projected aviation growth while “delivering carbon reductions of the order needed” and questioned DfT as to whether and what modelling had been undertaken on this matter. DfT replied that they had not modelled this for the EU emissions trading scheme but would need to.18

    More significant, perhaps, was DfT’s response to Q.343 on what modelling had been undertaken: DfT makes it clear that in its view the 60% target relates to ‘domestic’ emissions only and that if the UK was to be held responsible for its international aviation emissions on the basis, for example, of a 50:50 split between origin and destination countries, then the 60% target would need to be re-examined. Table 7, appended, summarises related estimates of 2030 UK aircraft emissions.

    Clearly, aviation emissions are increasingly a high-stakes issue, raising serious technical and policy concerns. For example, the need to properly represent high altitude effects alongside ground level greenhouse gas emissions in an emissions trading system (e.g. Lee and Sausen, 2000; Cames et al, 2004), leading to debates centring on scientific uncertainties, location- and region-specific effects and the need to avoid perverse signals to manufacturers and airlines19.

    More than any other industry sector, aviation emissions threaten the integrity of the world stabilising carbon emissions at a level that avoids dangerous climate change. The UK government response to this challenge will likely influence the reaction of other European states. As Europe’s position is in turn important in terms of international progress on a post-Kyoto agreement, modelling the implications of aviation growth under conditions of an international 550ppmv, 450ppmv or other stabilisation commitment is becoming an increasingly pressing issue. This study is an early step in that process.

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