Uncharted Territory

February 2, 2009

Jim & Tim

Filed under: Aviation, Global warming — Tim Joslin @ 5:47 pm

Me & Big Jim Hansen, we’re like that {written with a crossed finger gesture, even though it probably means something unfortunate in some parts of the world}.

I refer of course to my stand – so good I made it not just twice, but three times – against the ill-judged campaign against the third runway at Heathrow Airport.  The alternative that some were asking us to buy into was to build an airport in the Thames Estuary.  And a few weeks later a bird-strike brought down a plane on the other side of the pond.  Maybe the Estuary plan is viable, and maybe it’s not, but it turns out that the risk of overcooked game induced engine failure would be even greater over the Thames. You couldn’t make it up.

There always was less support for the Heathrow protestors than they thought.  Personally I don’t think you win people over to your cause if you simply create an an unholy alliance with groups who would otherwise cross the road to avoid you – in this case the dreaded nimbys of West London.

And it turns out that even among the concerneds about climate change it isn’t just me who has serious doubts.  Yeap, Big Jim has spoken.  What I particularly liked about the Observer report was its concluding comment that Jim:

“…would not fly to the help of those who disrupted airports and flights…”

Well that’s something anyway!

I don’t want to harp on, but even the problem of carbon emissions just from transport is not going to be solved by attempting to reduce network capacity.  It just might be solvable by technological change, though.  As I said before, campaigning for something – improved train services powered by renewable electricity somehow springs to mind – might garner a little more public support.  (Though having said that, I do understand that this is the UK, the world’s most negative country.  Probably.)

Using up public goodwill on a campaign that would be ineffective even if it succeeded strikes me as just a little bit dull.  Maybe the “environmental movement” will someday come up with just one campaign idea that doesn’t fall foul of the Displacement Fallacy.


December 12, 2008

Planely Sensible at the FT

Filed under: Aviation, Flying, Global warming, Rail, Transport — Tim Joslin @ 7:45 pm

A comment piece by Philip Stephens in the FT caught my eye today.

Some wise words, not least about the bad timing of the Stansted protest.  I noted it was a distraction from the (under-reported) Poznan talks.  It’s clear too that – as implied in Stephens’ article – the rejection of consumerism is likely to find more support in boom times than during a recession.

Stephens’ main argument, though, is that, in general: “Self-flagellation does not sell” (unless, of course, the customer is Max Mosley trying to set an example to the F1 teams by reducing his costs), and that: “The case must be framed as an opportunity rather than a burden.”  Indeed.

I do disagree on one point, though.  Stephens writes:

“The young campaigners at Stansted had a point. There is something odd about the British government’s twin commitments to lower carbon emissions and to promoting a headlong expansion of London’s several airports.” [The grammar is not mine!].

If we just stop building runways we’ll just end up with even more overcrowded airports, and all but the most affluent will be forced to fly at inconvenient times.

No, what Plane Stupid should be doing is renaming themselves to something like Train Crazy and relocating from Stansted to King’s Cross (for some reason Gerald the Gorilla comes to mind as I write this).  Perhaps they could all dress in sardine costumes, invite the TV cameras and see how many of them could cram into a carriage on the 17:15 to Cambridge on a Friday evening (returning the space to the travelling public before the train leaves, of course).  Maybe highlighting the dire state of the rail service – and showing a little consideration while about it – would garner a little more support than screwing up people’s holidays.

December 10, 2008

Even More Planely Stupid

Filed under: Aviation, Global warming, Media, Science and the media — Tim Joslin @ 11:11 am

In yesterday’s post, I forgot one aspect of the idiocy of the Invasion of Stansted Airport.  The demo was timed – presumably deliberately – to coincide with the start of the climate change talks in Poznan, Poland.  Indeed, one delayed passenger interviewed on the radio had been trying to fly to the conference.  (Listening to this, I was a little bemused as I thought good form was to travel to these shindigs by train, however inconvenient, let alone admit, on national radio, to contributing to high altitude emissions).

Far from drawing attention to the underlying global warming issues, Plane Stupid have distracted us all.  They’ve put people’s backs up at a time when there was an opportunity to educate them a little on the GW disaster.  The attention of the media has drifted over the last year or so away from climate change and on to the economic crisis.  It’s as if a background theme is required for the news.  Now, every story refers to the economy, often when it is irrelevant (“especially in a recession”), whereas a couple of years ago there would have been a comment about rising temperatures or sea levels.

I admit I’ve read the reports in yesterday’s Guardian (prominent on pages 4 & 5) on the fun and games at Stansted, but not (until now) their other Poznan-synchronised articles.  A shame, because the paper included a fascinating “carbon atlas” (p.20-1 – the print version includes tabulated data, the online version is impressively interactive), showing the worldwide distribution of emissions, and growth over the period 1996-2006.  Looking at these sorts of charts, I’m always struck by how much work there is to do: stopping global warming is basically a European project at the moment and our blobs are only around a fifth of the total.  And most of the circles representing other countries are growing faster…

… a visual impression reinforced by the Guardian’s commentary on the next page (we’re at 22 now).  Focusing on “climate scientist Kevin Anderson”, the article notes that far from reducing our emissions, globally they are increasing rapidly.  But the mantra that the damage can be limited (to 650ppm and a “4C average rise” – I see we’ve dispensed with the annoying little degree symbol), “only… if rich countries [adopt] ‘draconian emission reductions within a decade’ ” no longer makes any sense.  What has to be done is persuade the rest of the world (the biggest blobs are China, US, Russia and India, and of these, only blob no.2 is “rich”) to make “draconian reductions” as well.

The idea of Kyoto was that the “rich” world led the way.  I suggest that, now, though, it’s clear that we have to decarbonise the entire global economy at the same time.  To put it another way for those who don’t think in terms of just one global economy, “we” have to persuade developing countries to do something “we” have only just started doing.  This logic happens to be true even if, as is the case, a large proportion of the emissions of some developing countries (China, in particular, of course) is attributable to the manufacture of export goods.

As usual, emotion overwhelms reason.

December 9, 2008

Plane Stupid? No, Spherically Barmy!

Filed under: Aviation, Flying, Global warming, Rail, Transport — Tim Joslin @ 10:27 pm

The title, for those who might miss the reference, is a small homage to Fritz Zwicky, a cosmologist who doubted the Big Bang theory.  I strongly suspect that his scepticism will eventually prove to have been fully justified, but his cause was not helped by his habit of referring to his colleagues as “spherical bastards”, that is, bastards whichever way you looked at them.  In return, they ridiculed his theory of “tired light“.  How to win friends and influence people, eh!  I suspect though, that Zwicky was doomed by being very much in the minority, whereas I reckon I can get away with a corny dismissal of the activities of Plane Stupid because on this one I am very much in the majority, notwithstanding Leo Hickman’s attempts to justify the group’s action.

Whichever way you look at it, the invasion of Stansted does the cause of saving the planet from global warming no good at all.  Here are a few ways in which it is daft:

1. It creates cognitive dissonance in the mind of the average punter, who is struggling with his conflicting desires to jet off to Dublin for a stag do and to preserve the planet.  Actions such as this latest jolly wheeze send the message that global warming is a cause for smelly privileged students, not the mainstream.  It’s not sensible to provoke this sort of reaction.  A far superior strategy is to create sufficiently widespread feelings of guilt that people put up with the necessary measures – taxes and so forth – that will encourage alternative technologies or patterns of travel and other consumption.  So in this regard, Plane Stupid’s actions are counterproductive.

2. The protest seems to have been directed at the proposal to increase Stansted’s capacity.  Hence the threat to move on to Heathrow, where a new runway is also planned.  Now, failing to expand these airports will simply focus the industry on using the space more efficiently.  What you actually want them to be doing is using fuel more efficiently. We need to change the technology, not slow the increase in flying in the UK, which is the most the protestors could achieve.

3. If Heathrow and Stansted do reach capacity, then businesses that generate a lot of air-traffic – financial services, say – will simply relocate where the protestors can’t bother them.  Dubai, say.  The global warming problem will not be solved by reducing transport capacity.

4. There is a complete lack of vision.  It may turn out that aviation can be decarbonised more easily than other modes of transport.  There’s certainly a lot of scope for short-term energy savings.  Flying is high value-add, so may attract investment in low- or zero-carbon technology more effectively than, say, legacy rail systems.  Obviously, if we don’t have enough airport capacity, we won’t be in such a good position to exploit any advances in aviation technology.

5. Back on the psychology of the issue, surely the public is more likely to support a positive vision?  Why not campaign for the full electrification of the UK rail network?  Or for new routes?  For example, Stansted is by far the most convenient airport for residents of Cambridge and the surrounding area.  But Cambridge has no good rail link to the North – you usually have to change at Ely just to get to Peterborough to pick up the East Coast main line.  Surely many, many journeys could be moved from air to rail were there a fast train route from Cambridge to Peterborough.

In general we’d be best off building plenty of transport capacity, and making sure that the price of travel reflects as closely as possible the cost of fuel and hence carbon emissions.  That way, people will reduce their emissions simply by choosing the cheapest way of getting from A to B.

Nope, whichever way I look at it I can’t avoid the conclusion that actions such as the occupation of Stansted airport are counterproductive.  Plane Stupid by name, plain stupid by nature, that’s what I say.

February 29, 2008

The Icarus Project

Filed under: Aviation, Energy policy, Global warming — Tim Joslin @ 2:08 pm

There was an excellent Cambridge Energy Forum (CEF) meeting on aviation yesterday. As someone said there, it’s astonishing that flying is now a sin. Is this really justified? Do we all have to stop flying? How can we reduce carbon emissions from flying?

It turns out that some work is already taking place to develop (small) aircraft powered by electricity. This could be scaled up, or a development path via hybrids to minimal reliance on liquid fuels.

I drafted the rest of this post in response to an email before the meeting, but nothing was said there that changes my mind – I’m now just somewhat better informed!

I intend to address the thorny issue of aviation in the book I’m (slowly) writing. I don’t agree exactly that the aviation industry should create technologies such as CCS (companies, in my view, should do what they do best), but it should certainly pay for them.

There is a clear economic problem to be overcome if the goal is to reduce carbon emissions from flying. If you just put a price on carbon, or on fossil fuels for that matter, then you introduce disincentives for different activities disproportionately, because, (among other reasons) fuel costs are a different proportion of the total cost of different products and services.

Consumers would still quite happily fly at a carbon cost of $100s per tonne [as was pointed out at a recent CEF talk, if I recollect correctly], but at such levels people would be switching away rapidly from other uses of carbon fuels, e.g. road transport, power generation. Incentives for suppliers to introduce technological changes depend on (inter alia) (a) competition from substitute products – for long-haul flights this will only become significant at a very high price for carbon (for business travellers, the cost would surely have to be $1000s/tonne) and (b) the availability of alternative technologies and the cost to introduce them. It is politically impossible to go straight to a carbon cost of $100s. Therefore, if we simply put a (gradually increasing) price on carbon, the aviation industry will continue to grow for some decades. George Monbiot reaches a similar conclusion, I believe, just by considering possible alternative technologies (an incomplete argument). If the policy agenda is to simply impose a flat cost on carbon emissions, then, by 2050 (say), the global economy will be hugely dependent on an unsustainable mode of transport, making it difficult to achieve further emission reductions.

So we have two distinct reasons for taxing aviation emissions more than other emissions:
(1) the additional Radiative Forcing of aviation emissions (because they take place at altitude);
(2) the need (because of the urgency of the GW problem) to encourage technological innovation in aviation and the development of substitute products (high speed rail, etc.) in parallel with, rather than after, other technological changes (such as the decarbonisation of power-generation and road/rail transport).

It seems to me that it is therefore a no-brainer to impose additional costs on aviation emissions beyond a carbon cost proportional to emissions. It seems logical to use these to pay for CCS, the idea being that once we reach the point where we can afford zero net anthropogenic GHG emissions, the aviation industry will have to pay to capture a multiple (based on the scientific assesssment of the damage of high-altitude aviation emissions) of its GHG emissions (though such an equation would not be climate neutral). Obviously the carbon sequestered shouldn’t come ultimately come from fossil-fuel burning, that would be double-counting, i.e. aviation has to pay for both extracting carbon (and/or other GHGs) from the atmosphere and sequestering or destroying these GHGs.

I wouldn’t completely write off the possibility of decarbonising aviation, though. There are certainly a lot of efficiency savings that could be made (I guess we’ll hear about some of these later today), but, apparently, experimental entirely solar-powered aircraft have been built. My idea (OK, just a thought-experiment to support my argument for the possibility of zero carbon aviation) is to increase the energy available to aircraft by putting up a few (thousand) satellites with computer-controlled solar reflector arrays (any old orbit will do, computers will be able to deal with the problem). Solar-powered aircraft would book slots for satellites to focus light on them (note the word “focus” – nothing below or above the aircraft need get fried). Just an idea, but maybe it could reduce emissions at altitude, which is where you want to get rid of them. (There is also a multiplier effect to be exploited, since, with an external energy source, an aircraft could fly higher for a given onboard fuel to payload weight ratio, reducing air resistance. Also, we should be able to focus a lot of light on solar panels on top of an aircraft, since the surface would be air-cooled). At the airport, an alternative way of using external power would be to accelerate aircraft using electricity (why stop at towing them to a stationary stop at the start of the runway?), e.g. maglev ought to be able to get you to take-off speed. Obtaining power this way during landing could be tricky, though, but maybe after the recent incident at Heathrow, it might be a good idea to develop non-powered landing techniques purely involving drag and braking, anyway! I’m a bit surprised, really, that carbon-fuel free flying isn’t one of the 14 great engineering challenges: http://www.networkworld.com/community/node/25219

Campaigning to prevent runway development is not the way forward, IMHO, since:
(1) It’ll simply displace economic activity that causes flying, i.e by the Displacement Fallacy, the available fuel will simply be used in China, India, Africa… rather than UK.
(2) It may have unintended consequences and reduce opportunities for efficiency savings.
(3) It second-guesses where technological breakthroughs will occur – i.e. what if we manage to decarbonise flying before, say, shipping, and are left without enough airport capacity?
(4) It pisses people off, motivating political opposition (and I’m sure there will always be people who want to do less about GW than others).

My alternative proposal would be to turn airports into more general transport interchanges, adding high-speed rail connections to take advantage of the existing local transport infrastructure that currently only supports air-travellers. This would encourage people to switch transport modes, perhaps initially for part or one leg of a journey. Btw I worked out recently that you could save around 10%, on average, of total journey carbon emissions if you simply got people to take the train rather than drive to Stansted. But I bet you FoE et al would object that improving rail services from, for example, Cambridge to Stansted would “encourage people to fly”. But I’m starting to digress…

It seems to me that a practical first-step would be for (say) the EU and US to get airlines to fund CCS trials, either via a levy/tax or through a voluntary agreement with the industry. We need to know a lot more about the viability and likely costs of CCS, ASAP. There are huge policy implications if the potential of CCS has been overblown (or understated, but that’s never happened before in the whole of human history for a technology at this stage in its development!).

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