To me it feels like the issue of aviation and the UK’s airports is slowly emerging from hibernation. This cauldron of debate, misinformation and lobbying is beginning to feel hot to the touch again.
However, perhaps that’s just because I was personally thrown right into the thick of this debate at the start of the week. I endured and enjoyed what was one of my toughest experiences on behalf of the RSPB to date. At the Transport Select Committee’s inquiry into aviation I represented the RSPB and subjected myself to 30 minutes of questioning by a roundtable of MPs. I felt very grateful to be flanked by very able colleagues from WWF and a fellow RSPB-er.
We must start with the environmental limits
Sitting in front of the MPs and attempting to answer their questions, alongside colleagues from WWF, was a demanding task. However, we all did our best to outline the key principles we believe should shape the UK’s aviation strategy:
- we need to start with the environmental limits on aviation; our legally binding climate change limits must be at the heart of aviation policy
- there is substantial spare capacity in the aviation system: if we use it better we can reduce, probably eliminate, the need for any new runways or airports
For the MPs the potential loss of competition and economic benefit looms large. However, as we clearly outlined, these risks are overstated by the aviation industry - and the starting point has to be the environmental limits we absolutely can’t afford to breach.
Putting aside for one minute the legally binding nature of our climate targets and the local, site-specific ecological impacts of any particular airport expansion, the planet can’t afford to cope with runaway emissions from this rapidly growing sector.
(Thousands of wading birds rely upon the Thames Estuary, one of the sites where many have proposed we could build a new airport; photo credit Matt Adam Williams)
Demand is down
Figures released by the Department for Transport this week show that projected demand from aviation has fallen again. These demand figures have been on a downward trend for the past ten years. Predicting 315 million passengers per annum, the Department has revised its figures downwards by 90 million compared to four years ago.
Dramatically falling predictions of future demand adds more weight to questions about the wisdom of building new runways or airports.
The EU ETS is not currently a viable solution
A new paper this week from the University of East Anglia claims that because emissions from aviation are capped overall by the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme - we don’t need to worry about how much we fly – the absolute cap will ensure emissions don’t grow too much.
This is wrong for four reasons:
It has been an interesting week and it’s clear that an objective perspective and the value of the environment need to play a far greater role in this debate.
Helen Blenkharn, Climate Change Policy Officer
'Carbon Bomb' projects threaten explosion in global emissions
Yesterday, this was a headline in BusinessGreen. The article was about a new Greenpeace report called ‘Point of No Return’ which suggests that the world’s 14 largest planned fossil fuel projects will increase emissions by 20 per cent. It seems absolutely crazy to me that despite all the warnings about climate change, the world ploughs on with burning fossil fuels regardless.
Climate change isn’t just a problem for future generations. It’s already affecting birds and wildlife in the UK and globally. One study published in ‘Nature’ indicates that climate change could cause up to 35% of species to be committed, by 2050, towards extinction. That’s easy to read but hard to take in – yes, 1 in every 3 species!!!
As well as long term impacts, the extraction of fossil fuels is causing environmental damage here and now. Some of this damage is unavoidable if we want to extract fossil fuels, like loss of land for open cast mining. Some of it is potential for damage i.e. risk, for example, the risk of oil spillages. Usually the level of risk depends on how carefully the site is managed and how well they respond in an emergency. We’re concerned that these ‘risks’ are only going to increase as new techniques are explored and oil and gas reserves that have previously been considered uneconomical are reconsidered, for example using deep sea oil drilling techniques, and in increasing hostile but unique environments like the Arctic.
Pink footed goose by David Tipling (rspbimages.com)
Here are a few things to remind you why birds don’t mix with coal, oil and gas
Disturbance to Species - Both construction and ongoing use of mines and drilling sites can disturb wildlife, for example by loss of habitat or the levels of noise, activity and traffic movements, even pipelines as obstacles. Exploratory drilling for shale gas is currently taking place not far from Morecambe Bay and the Ribble Estuary, two internationally important places with huge numbers of wildfowl. Species like Pink-footed goose and Whooper swan could be particularly affected by disturbance from drilling and activity.
Some types of fossil fuel extraction, particularly surface coal mining, require large areas of land, not just for the extraction process but also for infrastructure related to storage, processing and transportation. It’s likely that some loss of habitat and connectivity between different habitats will occur, making it more difficult for species to move through the landscape.
Air pollution –Emissions to air and water from fossil fuel extraction processes can include a variety of harmful substances such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides and sulphur oxides. Sometimes these emissions are planned for and captured but quite often they’re not. One of our big concerns about the ‘fracking’ process is the amount of ‘fugitive’ methane emissions i.e. the ones that escape uncontrolled. Exposure to sunlight causes some of these gases to react with other gases in the atmosphere to form ground level ozone (O3). Evidence suggests that O3 can reduce rates of plant and tree growth, rates of photosynthesis and the ability of vegetation to act as a carbon sink, thereby making tackling climate change even harder.
Water pollution – There are serious issues around contaminated water from extraction processes leaking into surface and ground water, causing pollution. For example, fracking fluid contains toxic chemicals and the fluid that returns to the surface will also contain ‘NORMs’ - naturally occurring radioactive materials. This waste water needs to be carefully contained and treated to make sure it doesn’t find its way into the groundwater.
Oil spillages can cause horrific water pollution. For birds in particular, the oil impairs their ability to use their feathers for waterproofing which exposes their skin and makes them likely to either overheat or get too cold. Swallowing oil also causes severe damage to internal organs.
Result of oil spill in Shetland. Chris Gomersall RSPB Images
Renewable energy isn’t perfect, but deployed with care it’s a whole better than this. Oh, and then there’s the carbon aspect to consider...
Much of the UK is hunkering down for a weekend of expected snow. My friend Andrew, along with farmers across the land, will be bracing himself for a hard slog of feeding animals – he sent me this today from Wiltshire:
It is January, when snow probably should be expected here, and it’s not too hard to forget about global warming, and perhaps even accord a little credence to the deniers.
Yet beyond our immediate experiences, there’s all sorts happening. Sydney today (Friday) had its hottest day on record, with 45.8C was recorded at Observatory Hill topping the 1939 record by 0.5C. Further west, Penrith was even hotter, reaching 46.5C.
Bondi Beach J Bar, WikiCommons
Across the world in Canada, Toronto also basked in record breaking weather, albeit of the northern hemisphere variety. Last Saturday it reached 15C, breaking the 12 January record by 5.5C, but not quite matching the January record of 16C, set in 1967. Across southern Ontario, temperatures were 10C to 15C higher than normal. Meanwhile in neighbouring Manitoba, winter has been progressing more typically, reaching down to a truly shuddering -23C and with blizzards and 60 km hour winds. ,
The world is a big and varied place and yet the annual averages tell a compelling, trending story. 2012 was the ninth warmest year for more than a century and the warmest recorded by far for the continental US, says NASA. In common with other parts of the world, climate change is already affecting how Americans live, and changing America itself, according an early draft of the 2013 National Climate Assessment.
Globally, each decade has continued to be warmer than the last. Tellingly, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen dramatically, from around 285 parts per million in 1880, to 315 ppm in 1960 to the current level of almost 395 ppm parts per million. This is a rather frightening 38% increase, with no sign of slackening. Although the MetOffice has slightly reduced its climate projections for the next five years, the future of climate change is clear, as Shell’s climate scientist clearly explains.
So, have a nice weekend, take care in the snow. And don’t go mad with the central heating – more on energy and fossil fuels next week.