Wednesday, October 26, 2016

So it's Heathrow

Last week I commented on the then impending decision on a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick. At the weekend I was pleased to see an opinion piece in The Observer by David Mitchell, where he raised a question: 

Climate change is definitely happening. Aviation contributes hugely to it. So global levels of aviation must be significantly reduced. Why is it, then, that everyone with a whisker of a chance of power agrees that London’s airport capacity should increase?

George Monbiot also weighed in on this in The Guardian last week. He is dismissive of the idea that any large-scale aviation can be carbon-neutral:-

The airline companies seek to divert us with a series of mumbo-jumbo jets, mythical technologies never destined for life beyond the press release. Solar passenger planes, blended wing bodies, hydrogen jets, algal oils, other biofuels: all are either technically impossible, commercially infeasible, worse than fossil fuels or capable of making scarcely a dent in emissions.

I remain open to the possibility of a synthetic fuel derived largely from biomass using renewable energy but that still doesn't point to aviation continuing on anything like its present scale. I have my queries about some of Monbiot's detailed points but his conclusion looks sound: flying needs to be reduced and airport expansion makes no sense.

Today the the decision in favour of Heathrow was announced. Particularly in view of the Paris Agreement, I was interested to see what the government had to say about climate change in their announcement. It said:

Today’s announcement follows an unprecedented UN global agreement achieved earlier this month to combat aviation emissions. Under the deal, airlines will offset their emissions with reductions from other sectors to deliver carbon neutral growth for the aviation sector from 2020. The government believes that a new runway at Heathrow can be delivered within the UK’s carbon obligations.

It remains to be seen how the government will try and justify that belief. The Committee on Climate Change gave its response earlier this month to the Paris Agreement. It does not help us very much on this issue but it acknowledges the difficult issue that aviation poses:-

Even with full deployment of known low-carbon measures some UK emissions will remain, especially from aviation, agriculture and parts of industry. Greenhouse gas removal options (e.g. afforestation, carbon storing materials, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, and direct air capture and storage) will be required alongside widespread decarbonisation in order to reach net zero emissions.

I can't help feeling that there is a lot of wishful thinking in high places that tackling climate change is compatible with business-as-usual. Facing the possibility that our way of doing things might need to change radically seems not yet politically acceptable.

This isn't just my feeling. A year ago, Professor Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, upbraided his scientific colleagues in a think-piece in which he concluded:

The IPCC’s synthesis report and the scientific framing of the mitigation challenge in terms of carbon budget was an important step forward. Despite this, there remains an almost global-scale cognitive dissonance with regards to acknowledging the quantitative implications of the analysis, including by many of those contributing to its development. We simply are not prepared to accept the revolutionary implications of our own findings, and even when we do we are reluctant to voice such thoughts openly.

Policy on airport expansion seems to me to be the clearest sign of this cognitive dissonance.

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