Uncharted Territory

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.

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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.

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