Around sixty rich white university-educated people gathered today in Manchester to discuss aviation’s contribution to global climate change, a crisis that is already harming millions of non-white, non-rich people around the world. At the end of an hour and a half, witnesses had given testimony, commissioners had pressed them on that testimony and members of the audience had had the chance to vent. Everyone seemed happy enough. [Update: See another attendee’s account here! He stuck it out for the whole day!!]
The hearings were set up by the Airports Commission, one of the sorts of arms-length investigatory/policy-shaping bodies that is becoming ever-more common in this new age of “governance”. It is chaired by Howard Davies, and he opened proceedings by explaining that the Commission would be producing an interim report on “capacity” by the end of the year, and then a shortlist of “plausible development options” at a later date.
Presentations from three witnesses – Tim Johnson from the Aviation Environment Federation (“the principal UK non-profit making organisation concerned with the environmental effects of aviation“), Jean Leston from WWF and two gentlemen from “Sustainable Aviation,” an industry group of airports, airlines, manufacturers etc who believe that technology and carbon trading will enable aviation to grow but still help the UK meet its legally binding 80% reduction by 2050 target.
First witness was Tim Johnson of the Aviation Environment Federation. The central thrust of what they were saying is that even getting fuel efficiency gains would take both regulatory and political pressure, and neither of these exist. He felt that whatever happens at the next International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) shindig in September, the existing aviation agreement within the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme was “unlikely to come back at any size”, given the resistance from airlines that fly into Europe from beyond. They have managed to “Stop the Clock” and it won’t be starting anytime soon. Part of a funeral for t’species?
Mr Johnson’s “take home” to the commissioners was that No New Runways Are Needed.
Next up was Jean Leston of WWF. She outlined aviation’s role as the biggest carbon generator (per passenger mile) within transport and that mitigation (reduction) within the sector was dwarfed by overall growth. Her main goal seemed to be to highlight the work of WWF around convincing businesses that it was in their interests (financial, reputational) to fly less. To this end she advertised the “Moving On: Why Flying less means More for Business” [pdf] report. She also took a pot shot at the Department for Transport’s “massive underestimation” of the potential for video conferencing.. She also gently chided the Airports Commission’s own work on ‘carbon leakage,’ saying its assumption that other EU countries will have unconstrained aviation growth is unrealistic, given that they’ve signed up to EU climate targets.
Her line, as with both the other speakers was “we can allow aviation to grow within environmental limits” but that “more capacity would be “stranded assets.”
Finally Matt Gorman and A.N. Other (sorry!) from “Sustainable Aviation”, of which Manchester Airport Group is a member, told the commissioners that according to their calculations (and they had a graph, minus a labelled x-axis, to show it), technology would if not Save The Day, it would Save the Industry. That and bio-fuels. Therefore it was going to be possible to keep expanding the industry. They seemed to remain tactically agnostic about the need for further capacity-building…
Then it was over to questions. Howard Davies asked the WWF woman about one of her suggestions – that landing slots be re-allocated. He wondered how this could happen, given the general EU-ness of it all. WWF punted the ball to AEF chap, who said something about auctions for slots, and the chair then made a UKIP jibe.
Next up Julia King (“Vice Chancellor of Aston University and a member of the Committee on Climate Change, with a background in the aerospace industry”) pressed the Sustainable Aviation people quite hard on this “technology” question. Which technologies? When? Does that include “open-rotor” engines which, while more fuel-efficient are a lot noisier, with all that that implies for local wildlife and voters. Does that include blended-wing and delta wing aircraft, with the implications they have for width of runways? What is being done to “pull through” the technologies quicker than they otherwise would.
It’s hard to judge these things, but she didn’t seem totally convinced by the Sustainable Aviation people’s replies on all this. The folks from AEF got the chance to say that the Sustainable Aviation “roadmap” was – on the subject of technology turning up quickly “”unusually optimistic” and that anyway, new planes efficient planes don’t replace existing ones, given that the fleet is growing, so existing “inefficient” planes will still be around for many years to come.
Other commissioners then entered the fray. Geoff Muirhead, former MAG supremo, challenged the WWF factoid that by 2017 on current rates of infrastructure building we will be “locked in” to emissions taking us into dangerous climate change . As his fellow commissioner Julia King clarified, this recent IEA report refers to power stations as well as airports. Mr Muirhead’s pondering of “where do we find the right balance in the absence of a global deal?” was countered by various witnesses who pointed to the existence of EU and G8 commitments to keeping climate change to less than the “dangerous” two degree limit. He didn’t seem convinced either.
Commissioner John Armitt mentioned UK population growth (and the likelihood that people will continue to fly for leisure and “VFR” (today’s acronym; stands for Visiting Friends and Relations”). Jean Leston from WWF said that cheap flights had boosted UK aviation usage since 1990 but that there were signs of market maturity [if only we could have species’ maturity!!], given that the flights may be cheap, but all the hidden extras aren’t, and people have a limited amount of holiday time. Therefore, again, no need for new capacity.
Finally, Commissioner Ricky Burdett asked whether the absence of witness statements on substituting surface transport for short-haul meant it wasn’t significant. Kate Hewitt of AEF said the main UK challenge is around long-haul flights, Matt Gorman of Sustainable Aviation cited a Committee on Climate Change report saying limited modal shift was possible and Tim Jackson of AEF pointed out that reducing short-haul flights might increase availability of slots that could then be used by long haul…
Then there were questions from the floor. Kevin Lister of Plane Stupid (to be honest I didn’t know they were still in existence) pointed out that new aviation technology had been coming in every year since the Wright Brothers, but still the emissions go up (it’s a good line, which bears repeating!), that BiofuelWatch had challenged Tesco on the sustainability of its biofuels and Tesco had dropped the whole campaign, that Carbon Trading would drive up prices for the poor “how many inner city riots are acceptable?” (I think that may have been rhetorical) and that given the starkness of the climate science about the short-term global temperature rises, it wasn’t exactly clear where people were going to be doing their VFRing in 30 years time. “where will people go on holiday on a boiling planet?”
A PCS union representative called for a “publically-owned integrated transport system. A chap from Stop Stansted Airport Expansion asked about whether the Airports Commission will be looking at non-carbon dioxide emissions (the much-loved Department for Transport is not doing so, it seems).
Jeff Gazzard of the Aviation Environment Federation asked for real-life examples of where the “reduction” wedges around biofuels and better navigation systems have reduced emissions at the rate we need to.
Some hothead (no name) berated the Sustainable Aviation people for producing a colourful graph with no x-axis, saying it reduced the levels of knowledge in the room.
Ruth Wood from Tyndall Centre (or possibly SCI, I can never tell) pointed out that we need emission reductions now, that we can’t reply on techno-optimism and that lots of other sectors are saying they will use biofuels to reduce their emissions and that it is therefore not at all clear there are enough sources of biofuels on the planet to do this.
Last up the Friends of the Earth Aviation campaigner requested that the Airports Commission get clarity over whether they are making planning recommendations on the basis of a specific emissions constraint, and what methodology it would use.
What happens next:
a) The Airports Commission produces an interim report about “capacity” by the end of the year
b) The Airports Commission produces a longer report on capacity in about June 2015.
c) Whoever forms the next government either uses or ignores the report, depending on what they want to do. (Bismarck said that laws were like sausages – it doesn’t do to look too closely at how they are made. Ditto that for aviation [policy]).
Meanwhile d) We all keep flying – or keep expecting to be able to fly.
to be followed by
e) At some point in the not-to-distant-future, the future – with all its assumptions of continuity and manageable risk – unravels. Fast or slow, I don’t know, but unravels. Money will protect some people, for some time, but not in a world you’d much like to be part of.
All the witnesses were saying, with subtle-ish differences, the same thing; that it is going to be possible to have our cake and eat it. Whether it was technology, or jiggery-pokery with landing slot auctions or whatever, they claim that circle can be squared. All were at pains to say they were not “anti-aviation.” This is ludicrous, confused Green Confucianism (see disclaimer.)
No-one whatsoever from any Manchester-focused campaigning group was present.
These events are rituals. They are rituals of safety, rituals of redemption. People attend/participate/lend their good names to the process because, well, that’s just what people of their social class do. And they want to nudge the policies of the State in one direction or another. While, understandably, paying their mortgages.
All perfectly “reasonable,” and a theoretical improvement on the bad old days when policy discussions were held Behind Closed Doors.
But you can have a Reasonable Ritual that is totally inadequate to the scale of the problem.
The infrastructure we have built, and in all likelihood will continue to build are the mother of all stranded assets. Twenty or thirty years hence we will be able to see this very clearly, I suspect. By then it will of course be twenty-five to thirty-five years too late to do anything meaningful about it. So it goes.
Disclaimer: I’ve flown a lot. Most recently, I flew from London to Australia in 2010 (VFR) and from Australia to Shanghai in 2011 (swimming wasn’t an option). I thought about flying out to
watch cricket, VFR this year, but didn’t (the reasons weren’t to do with emissions reductions – personally, I believe it’s too late in the day to worry much about how much more wood we throw on the fire. We should be using our brains do design asbestos suits). I, like everyone else, want to be able to fly. I have no moral superiority whatsoever. But what we want as individuals and the responsibilities we have for future generations are two different things. What struck me most forcefully today was what the austere Victorian men looking down from the walls (the meeting was in the Manchester Town Hall reception room, which is rotten with the portraits of 19th century mayors) would think of us. They sorted out the air and water pollution. It took them time, it looks like they knew what they were doing with the benefit of a retrospectively imposed narrative. Maybe it was every bit as frustrating and messy a process as what we are doing. The difference is, if you didn’t like the consequences of Manchester’s industrialisation, there were other places to go. The planet’s a lot fuller nowadays…