Cop21 - A background report from Paris - 3rd December 2015

4th December 2015
Press Release

An Taisce has a few members attending CoP at various times over the next two weeks. We are bringing you a frequent series of background reports on what is (or is not) happening on the ground.

You can see them all at http://www.antaisce.org/articles/whats-happening-on-the-ground-at-cop21

Our fifth is from Paul Price, a member of An Taisce's Climate Change Committee. Paul is a conservation carpenter with a MSc in Sustainable Development.

We really recommend you read these for the quality of Paul’s pen pictures of CoP21 as seen by a NGO participant

Day 4 at #CoP21 - Thursday 3 December at the Paris climate conference

Even if while in Paris most of the attendees commute to this conference by public transit, most of them have arrived by plane. By huge irony though, neither aviation, flying so many people around the world every day, nor shipping, transporting our imports and exports, have yet been included in any climate agreement to control emissions. At home we pay a carbon pollution fee on the coal, oil and gas we use, yet the fuel for planes and ships travelling internationally is completely untaxed, and the emissions almost entirely uncontrolled. How can this be? At a couple of events today I got to find something about projected aviation emissions and how they can fit into doing something to help in limiting climate change.

I also finally managed to make my way into a meeting room to watch a discussion about ‘the text’ of the agreement, learned more about equity thanks to University College Cork’s ‘Climate Lab’ and also spent more time over in the public part of the conference so I’ll talk about that too.

First up in the first panel I went to today was Prof. Alice Bows-Larkin [Note 1] (from the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, one of the UK’s and the world’s leading groups of climate scientists and experts) comparing the doubling or even tripling of aviation emissions forecast by 2050 emissions pathway within the very limited amount of emissions remaining to the world if we are to limit global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels. Only relatively minor technical improvements in aviation seem feasible in that timeframe – engines, materials and infrastructure have all improved but technically there is very little room left for substantial gains in efficiency, certainly nothing that would even begin to keep up with the anticipated rate of growth (never mind substantially reducing or eliminating aviation emissions). Solar or other electrically powered flying at large scale is still very far off (at best, it has been demonstrated to be technically possible with very small payloads).

What about changing the fuels for conventional engines? The only immediate option is biofuels. A panellist, who had been a senior EU advisor on biofuels, said that we should not be wasting precious biofuels on domestic car travel, given the competition for land between agriculture for food and fuel. Rather, a large portion of biofuel should be reserved for planes. To date though, biofuel use is very limited, and as Bows-Larkin made abundantly clear, all delay in cutting emissions around the world eats up the diminishing carbon budget distance to 2ºC making even harder and faster emission cuts necessary in future. This time urgency means no economic sector can be excluded from serious action right now to contain emissions. The idea that aviation or shipping can escape this reality does not make sense but that means cutting emissions rapidly, not growing them at all, let alone doubling or tripling them.

Given the technical limits already nearly reached, the only significant remaining option, in the critical decades immediately upon us, is ‘demand management’ which is the fancy term for flying less. In the UK, not building a third runway for Heathrow has limited the possible number of flights and so emissions have been lower than they would have been. If as in Dublin, a runway is added to a major airport, this increases capacity and far more emissions result, all fuelled by aviation kerosene which is subsidised by all of us (whether we fly or not) because the industry does not have to pay in any way sufficiently for the climate and pollution impacts burning the carbon will create over future decades, and indeed for hundreds of years to come.

The panel’s aviation industry representative responded by talking about past efficiency gains, about biofuels and about buying ‘offsets’ (paying for supposed emission reduction in other sectors) but none of his pitch addressed the core problem of the necessity of meeting a limited and diminishing carbon budget for aviation as for other sectors. On offsets, a member of the audience from the EU transport commission pointed out that one of the industry rep’s graphs showed ‘cost-effective’ efficiencies priced at €30 per tonne of CO2 whereas the cost of offsets they were actually buying was 50 cents, making it unlikely that the long list of possible efficiency gains would be judged to be cost effective unless the carbon price was closer to the €30 mark. A young economist on the panel, working with Thomas Piketty showed that heavily taxing the most frequent, wealthiest flyers, who contribute most to passenger aviation emissions would both reduce emissions and efficiently raise revenue for carbon reduction and adaptation to climate impacts. He noted that Air France already progressively charge a higher pollution fee on more expensive tickets.

At the later aviation panel, this time dominated by industry representatives, it fell to the last questioner, a Tyndall Centre economist, to ask: Given that all sectors need to cut emissions very rapidly and the global economy needs to stop burning carbon by soon after 2050, from which other sector exactly will the aviation sector buy their pollution offsets from? Entertainingly, he commented, “it’s rather like hopefully buying papal letters of indulgence though in that case there is more chance of them working”.

It was obvious from their, I have to say smug, confidence in batting away these realities that the industry expects that our personal and global desire to fly when we need to or want to will mean that our governments will not be lobbying very hard to put aviation into any Paris climate agreement. The same likely applies to shipping which brings us cheap goods from China and exports our food and other production. The incremental damage to our global future is being discounted.

Thanks to meeting up with Jerry MacEvilly of Trocaire I finally made it into one of the committee rooms discussing actual climate treaty text, something apparently to do with agriculture, though not in any way obviously. Two hundred people in a room took two hours over a couple of paragraphs to accept a report and move on. Suffice to say it was not an heartening or illuminating introduction to the nitty gritty of negotiations. It seemed very far away from the expertise on hand in the next hall over the way.

An excellent event put on by University College Cork spotlighted the hard and eye-opening realities of distributing the remaining 2ºC carbon budget fairly. James Glynn noted his great grandparents (I think) in Ireland in the 1890s when Ireland’s per capita emissions were about three hundredths of a tonne of CO2 each year. By his parents’ generation in the 1950s annual emissions were about one tonne per person but now we are up to 12.5 tonnes per person even though we have to make our way back down to near zero emissions again. To do this and still have energy, means both keeping peat, coal, oil and gas in the ground (in that order) and getting there fast while also ensuring poorer nations can address severe development needs without going “high carbon”. As Dessima Williams from Granada (and Mary Robinson’s Foundation for climate justice) said, 1.3 billion people in the world do not have any electrical power and yet business as usual in the rich world is eating up the very survivability of organised human society, ultimately on all of the planet, but most of all the survivability of poorer, more exposed and more vulnerable communities right now and ever more so.

As the Indian academic pointed out, it we don’t price this uncosted effect, a “negative externality”, into what we do then we are not judging what is ‘cost effective’ in real terms at all.

Over at the public part of CoP the experts are again much in evidence at films, debates and available to talk to. One would wish it were more crowded with people waking up to the urgency of what we face but at least there are visitors in good number able to listen to and ask experts in every scientific field. There is great technology on show that can illustrate coral bleaching events almost live and in virtual reality, diving without diving, to reach beyond scientific papers and conferences into classrooms. If we turn our attention and some of our busy lives toward getting on a better path then much more is possible.

Perhaps that is the biggest question for us all. Do we prefer to be distracted by our immediate lives and businesses, or can we look up and spend some of our time pushing our leaders and government to let us all get ourselves – and our businesses, our farms, our children, and other future generations at home and elsewhere too – on the road to a far safer future?

ENDS

For further information, please call:
Charles Stanley-Smith, Communications, An Taisce Tel: +353 87 241 1995
email: publicaffairs@antaisce.org
An Taisce The National Trust for Ireland
www.antaisce.org

Note 1 Prof. Alice Bows-Larkin http://www.tyndall.ac.uk/people/alice-bows-larkin