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Archive for February, 2008

The public consultation on the proposed expansion to Heathrow Airport is over. This week has seen climate change activists from Greenpeace climbing a plane(1) and some from Plane Stupid on the roof of the Houses of Parliament(2) to protest at the expansion, and the way the Government has dealt with consultation on it. We knew from the start that it wasn’t going to be much of a consultation at all(3). More of a statement of intent.

The intent is to add a third runway of 2.2km, and ‘associated passenger terminal facilities’ which would enable a 50% increase in traffic in the airport (4).

According to the summary document, the expansion plans have been “set in the context of [the Governments] wider aviation policies”. These include seeking to “reduce and minimise the impacts of airports on those who live nearby and on the natural environment.”(4).

Let’s just think about that for a minute. They are going to make a massive expansion to Heathrow, and yet it’s been set in a context of reducing impacts of airports. How does that work then? I can only assume that before they remembered the inconvenient ‘context’ they were going to bulldoze many more than the estimated 700 homes that are going to have to be demolished (4).

The Department of Transport have clearly tried to launch an assault of reassurance on the main opposing body – people who realise that building a new runway is a disastrous and absurd idea when we are staring devastating climate change in the face. The resulting writing in the document is hilarious and pathetic.

Part one of the Summary states that “We believe that a well-designed, open, international emissions trading regime for aviation is still the best way of ensuring that the aviation sector plays its part in tackling climate change.” Well okay, but I believe that the best way of ensuring that would be not building any more airports, and looking instead at the irresponsible use of planes to fly between Manchester and London more than 30 times a day, or anywhere else that should be reached by train. That would seem to make a lot more sense, in economic terms too, but maybe that’s just me.

It goes on to say that emissions trading would mean that “aviation emissions would effectively be capped at the average level over the period 2004 to 2006.” This would mean that “airlines would have to pay for the equivalent emissions reductions in other sectors.” Apparently they “continue to explore and promote other measures including carbon offsetting schemes.”

Well as I see it, paying for emissions reductions in other sectors is offsetting. Is exploring carbon offsetting schemes supposed to reassure me? Carbon offsetting a few hundred thousand flights a year? Have they asked the Department for the Environment how they could go about doing that? Maybe they are planning on making France into one big forest? I’ll draw up a consultation document to send to the French………….

These people just don’t get it do they. If airlines are going to pay for emissions cuts in other sectors then those magical other sectors are going to have to reduce their emissions even more than they were going to need to anyway. And that ain’t going to be easy. With their logic, what will happen in the end will be lots of the big powerful important sectors paying the little rubbish ones to reduce their emissions. Before they know it they’ll have to reduce their emissions 100, 200 or 300%.

If these were absolutely essential flights we are talking about then some people might forgive the Government for this approach. But so many of them are short-haul flights to places that can easily be reached by other means, – surely getting rid of those should be the first priority, and then think about trading or offsetting or whatever.

The telling sentence of the whole consultation document is the following – “Our work shows that a third runway at Heathrow would bring net economic benefits of around £5bn in net present value terms, even after taking into account of climate change and noise costs.”

Hooray! We’ll be up to our necks in floods and a few local residents will be deaf and homeless, but it’s okay because think of the money! Woohoo! (This money would be over 70 years by the way – and the economic reasoning behind it has been branded ‘flawed and misleading’ by a report from an independent research and consultancy firm, CE Delft (5).)

It’s the last bit that gets me. “….even after taking into account of climate change and noise costs.” You can’t figure climate change into an economical calculation and then forget about it. A financial cost of climate change is not the only cost. There are lives at stake here.

Unfortunately the Government is not adverse to including human lives as part of the economic balance sheet – as pointed out by George Monbiot discussing the Stern Report (the report which the Government has a habit of trying to use as it’s get-out-of-jail-free card whenever it can – including in this consultation document)(6).

The UK’s fastest growing source of emissions is aviation. Is the Government really trying to tell us that Heathrow is going to be the exception to their professed green credentials? Are they really saying this is the only carbon-generating idea they are going to use our money for, and that apart from this they are going to be little angels? Pull the other one. What about coal powered energy generation that they are just about to revitalise? Are we going to offset that too?

We need to do everything we can to stop this runway being built. The protests this week were just the start.

References
1. ‘Climate campaigners bring peaceful protest to Heathrow’ – Greenpeace, 25th February 2008.
2. ‘Climate campaigners hang ‘NO 3rd RUNWAY’ banner before PMQs’ – Plane Stupid, 27th February 2008.
3. ‘Legal action threatened over ‘sham’ Heathrow consultation’ – The Independent Online, 23rd November 2007.
4. ‘Adding Capacity at Heathrow Airport – Summary’ – Department for Transport. 27th February 2008.
5. ‘The Government’s support for a third runway at Heathrow is “flawed and misleading”’ – HACAN ClearSkies.
6. ‘An exchange of souls’ – George Monbiot, 19th February 2008.

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A Letter

My Dad get’s a bit pissed off, as I do, with the inadequacies of the UK Government. But instead of moaning about them on a website like I do, he writes letters to newspapers (amongst other things) – and every now and then he writes a good one.

Below is a recent ‘good one’……..

Sir,

The three main political parties appear to be agreed on the importance of addressing the vital issue of climate change.The bill presently proceeding through the House of Lords will shortly arrive at the House Of Commons where all Parties could set aside party politics and unite on this issue for the benefit of the residents of the British Isles and provide some leadership globally.
Everyone realises that if climate change is to be addressed effectively it will involve actions across the board – Housing, Transport, Planning, Education, in Local Authorities etc. It is not just a problem for the Secretary of State for the Environment.
Most people also realise that unless we are told what to do we are unlikely to act, as many changes in lifestyle will be required; – this will be challenging for any one Party to introduce, for fear of losing votes.
The current bill provides for a committee to advise the Sec. of State. Why not collectively agree to reverse this traditional approach? On this issue of national importance expand the committee into a Commission by including seats for all three parties and representatives of all the regions of the British Isles (not just the Devolved Countries) as well as the experts already provided for in the bill. Thereby creating an entity with national credibility. This body would be responsible for long term Strategy,reviewed on a regular basis in the light of Scientific research and report to Parliament every two years on the progress being made by the Government which was in office.
This would provide for a consistent strategy, avoid Ministerial ‘initiatives’ and hold all governments to account for their progress, or lack of it.
Do the leaders of the three parties have the courage and leadership to take a step forward for the benefit of us all? And if not – why not?

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The IPCC’s third assessment in 2001 predicted a temperature rise of between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees worldwide by the end of this century depending upon how the world responds to the threat of climate change over the coming years (1).

Mark Lynas decided to try and understand what this would actually mean. What would a temperature change of six degrees change around the world? How serious would the consequences be? Over a period of two years he did his best to find out, by reading hundreds of peer-reviewed science papers and collating them, degree by degree, into chapters for his book ‘Six Degrees’ (2).

The information in his book can largely be grouped into two types. It is either formed through computer modelling to make predictions of future conditions and knock-on effects of warming, or through examinations of what life was like on the earth previously when global temperatures were different than they are today.

The findings are, understandably, very alarming. Instead of listing some of them here, I will direct you instead to Lynas’ website (click here), where there are short videos of the findings, degree by degree, detailing the increased natural disasters, rising sea levels and increased desertification, amongst other things. These videos are taken from an adaptation of the book’s findings, made by National Geographic and broadcast in the U.S. recently (3).

Realclimate.org, the climate change site run by a collection of climate scientists, gave the book a good review (4), as did many other people, including the journalist Johann Hari (5).

Unlike other books that have been written about climate change recently, such as ‘Heat’ (George Monbiot) or ‘The Hot Topic’ (Gabrielle Walker and Sir David King), Six Degrees does not examine how we can combat the problem, but instead lays it out in front of us to explain the severity of the problem.

This is a crucially important aspect of the book, because the more that the general public hears about global warming, the more they will wonder what all the fuss is about if the potential consequences are not explained to them beyond polar bears and hosepipe bans.

In ‘Heat’ George Monbiot packs in a huge amount of science, as well as practical observations on what can be done to combat the problem and also, importantly, what shouldn’t be done (6). However, ‘The Hot Topic’ will benefit from having Sir David King (ex-chief scientific advisor to the UK Government) as an author (7), as he may be viewed by some people as more of a ‘qualified’ writer on the topic than either Monbiot or Lynas. Unfortunately, what King’s book has in ‘qualification’ it lacks in urgency, which both ‘Heat’ and ‘Six Degrees’ have in spades.

At a talk by Sir David King this week, I asked him what the Government is planning to do to educate the ‘general public’ on climate change. He responded by saying that that was exactly why he had written his book, and alas they had not allowed him to write it while he was in Government. I was going to ask if therefore he was planning on giving a copy to every man, woman and child in the country, but I didn’t get a chance. I suspect he isn’t going to.

He also said that not only do we have to educate the ‘general public’, but also the academics and “you and me” – which led me to wonder why academics and I were no longer members of the general public ourselves. People such as Sir David King should be combining their privileged position and knowledge of the science, with the urgency that they know the issue requires, in order to educate and include the ‘general public’ (and everyone else!) in the solution to the problem. Presently, the issue is being tackled most seriously by journalists and activists such as Monbiot and Lynas, but in order to reach more people we need those in positions of authority to be making the same kind of noise about the problem we face.

In writing this book Mark Lynas has done us a great service. He has written a review of the scientific literature, but unlike the majority of scientific reviews he has focused on how this science will help the general public. The result is a book that effortlessly informs the reader of the present scientific understanding, with an emphasis on the consequences of the findings, and not on the science itself. In doing so, Lynas has bridged the gap between scientific research and ‘everyday life’, which means that his book stands up to scientific interrogation, whilst still providing an easy to understand warning to the reader of the likely consequences if we do not tackle climate change as best we can.

It is this kind of interface between science and the general public that will be of increasing importance over the coming years. The global nature of the problem means that everyone will become a climate change expert in their own eyes, but only a small number will remain experts in the science of climate change, and it is these people to whom we have to listen.

References

1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group 1, Third Assessment Report, Figure 5(d). This can be found here.

2. ‘Six Degrees – Our Future on a Hotter Planet’ – Mark Lynas, Fourth Estate, 2007.

3. http://www.marklynas.org, ‘Six Degrees’ section.

4. Realclimate.org, November 2007. Review can be found here.

5. ‘It’s Getting Hot in Here’ – Johann Hari, New Statesman, 2nd April 2007.

6.’Heat – How to stop the planet burning’ – George Monbiot, Allen Lane, 2006.

7.’The Hot Topic – How to tackle global warming and still keep the lights on’ – Gabrielle Walker and Sir David King, Bloomsbury, 2008.

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