By Laura Watson
Across the world, many stories are being told about climate change. Below are some you may or may not have heard. The complex interactions in these stories between people and the planet mean that they offer us learning opportunities: about the importance of a balance with nature, about the centrality of climate mitigation to human rights, and about the need for action now.
Stories of too little water
The Aral Sea was once the 4th largest lake in the world, but 60 years ago Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to industrialise agriculture across central Asia with dramatic consequences for the lake. To achieve Khruschev’s lofty agricultural goals, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, which are part of the Aral Sea drainage basin, were diverted into irrigation for cotton fields, and the lake slowly started to dry up. Over 25 years ago, an international fund for saving the Aral Sea was set up, but due to a lack of cooperation between the 5 Asian countries involved on key issues surrounding water, the fund has however had little success; the Aral Sea has now all but disappeared.
The disappearance of the inland sea is an issue in and of itself, but its implications go further. Silt from what used to be the lake-bed can now be subjected to wind erosion, with resulting dust storms in 2018 blotting out the sky, turning rain brackish and causing issues for crops. The industrial production of cotton, often using forced labour, in the surrounding region has led to the salinisation of the soil and serious accretion of persistent, toxic pesticide residues, leading to significant health problems. The loss of the moderating influence of this large body of water has made winters colder and summers hotter and drier.
It’s not just the people in the surrounding area who have been impacted by this disaster. As the lake became smaller and the salinity of the water increased, fewer and fewer fish species were able to survive. The lake ecosystem has now collapsed, contributing to the decimation of the once thriving fishing industry in the towns surrounding the lake, and the loss of a number of land animals whose life-cycles depended on the health of the lake.
Water issues are amplified by climate change, and the ecological crisis. The Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, for example, are fed by glaciers in the distant Pamir mountains which are now rapidly shrinking. But what is even more important is to realise that it didn’t have to go this way. The lesson to learn from the Aral Sea is one which should be applied to the rest of the planet, especially as the climate changes and water becomes more of an issue. This story shows the need to find a balance between extracting water from nature and leaving it where it is, to support the complex ecosystem dynamics which depend on it.
The Aral Sea is a worst-case outcome, but one which could soon become true for the rest of the world, including for large rivers like the Colorado River, USA, in the face of both climate change and human exploitation. Water management issues are playing out across the world, and we could soon have conflict breaking out over access to water. For example, an Ethiopian hydro-electric dam project which will affect water levels downstream for countries such as Sudan who already experience water issues will soon begin construction. Some experts claim this could cause a war over water in as little as a few years. We must learn from the mistakes of the Aral Sea before it is too late.
Stories of snow
The upper reaches of Finnish Lapland are a largely pristine landscape of forests, marshes, deep clean lakes and scree-covered fells. They are also the homeland of the Sami (Saami, or Sámi) people, as well as lynxes, brown bears, wolves and golden eagles. This important region acts as a buffer against climate change: the peat-rich soils of the area trap significant amounts of carbon, acting as a massive carbon sink. Unfortunately, the area is under direct threat from climate change, as well as the proposed construction of a railroad across the region.
The Sami culture is highly adapted to their home in Finnish Lapland. They use hides for clothing, bones and reindeer antlers for tools and handicrafts. Around 1,000 words in the Sami language exist to describe the appearance and behaviour of reindeer, and 360 relating to snow.
But conditions for snow and the reindeer are now no longer predictable; the snow now arrives later, there is less of it, and its structure is different. These changes to snow conditions are threatening the Sami way of life, and in particular their herding practices. Some have now turned to modern technologies to ensure that their reindeer survive in longer snow-free periods. It is likely that as the Sami people lose what was unique to their way of life, the Sami culture and language may begin to disappear too.
Sadly, issues relating to snow are not limited to Finland. Across the world, retreating snowlines have “beached” places like ski resorts. Taking the example of the French mountains, climate change is a threat to the winter ski industry there, as they are receiving declining amounts of natural snow, and the snow they do get falls over shorter periods. The elevation where snow can reliably be expected to fall is predicted to rise, by up to 600m in the Pyrenees, and up to 300m across the Alps.
We can move and repurpose hotels, but the ecosystems that these places had as their foundation are changing and even disappearing. While the depopulation of mountain regions may be a feasible response strategy for humans, it is not necessarily one available to the animals and plants left behind. Further concerns for the non-human population arise in relation to potential conflict between humans and animals. Skiing activities will respond to the retreating snow line by moving further up mountain slopes. At the same time, suitable ranges for high elevation bird species may significantly contract (by up to 67% in the Alps). As bird habitats and skiing areas increasingly overlap, conflict between species may ensue, a pattern that may be seen for many animals and ecosystems as climate change progresses.
What can we learn from these stories?
By Emily Passmore
If all human activities were ranked by how much pollution they created per hour, flights would be very high on the list: it is between two and ten times worse for the climate to travel by plane than by any form of surface transport. About 6% of UK emissions come from the aviation industry (and between 2 and 5% globally); without intervention, this could grow to 25% by 2050. If we’re to tackle climate change, it’s obvious that we need to tackle air travel.
However, these headline figures can obscure an important complexity in the data; the distribution of flights across the population is incredibly unequal. In the UK in 2018, 20% of all flights abroad were taken by only 1% of the population, and over half were taken by just 10% of the population. Meanwhile, a full 48% of the population did not take a single flight abroad. Furthermore, a single flight from the UK to America produces more CO2 than the average citizen of over 56 countries produces from all their activities in an entire year.
In sectors like agriculture or energy, we all contribute to the total emissions output, so it’s justified to create solutions that either ask us all to change our behaviours or are developed through financial contributions from the whole population. The same cannot be said for the aviation industry. Flights are often a luxury, and many simply cannot afford them. Furthermore, even within the population who take flights, the emissions of a family taking an annual holiday abroad, and those of people who regularly fly for either leisure or work will be massively different.
These observations have two important ramifications. First, they shine a light on the relevance of the no-fly movement, which pushes for people to cut down on or entirely give up flying. Campaigns publicising the environmental damage done by flights are essential if people are to be convinced of the need to change their behaviour. However, for just under half the population, there isn’t any behaviour to change in the first place. Thus, there’s a danger that pushing these campaigns could alienate people from the climate movement, creating an impression that it’s simply not that relevant to their lives.
Furthermore, if the journey is long, alternatives to flights can often be incredibly time consuming and likely far more expensive – travelling to and from China by train takes about a month for example. This is simply not a valid alternative for many people, and it’s asking a lot for people to forsake all international travel, including visits to family. The tone of the no-fly movement is thus incredibly important; whilst shaming those who travel to Davos by private plane to discuss climate change is understandable, shaming everyone who flies is unfair and unjustified.
So, if eliminating all flights is effectively impossible in the short-term, how should we go about funding schemes to reduce aviation emissions? It seems fair that only those who fly should pay for such a scheme, rather than increasing everyone’s taxes in order to offset the environmental damage caused by a few. In fact, such a tax may well undermine the effort to convince people not to fly, creating the impression that they have already contributed to tackling the problem, so they don’t have to feel too guilty about worsening it.
Frequent flyer levies would be a far better solution. Under such a system, for every flight you take, you pay a slightly higher tax on the ticket. Thus, people are required to contribute to help fix the problem in proportion to how much they worsen it. This avoids placing an undue burden on those who don’t fly or have little choice but to fly: it’s a progressive levy, similar to the system of income tax, and it’s possible to set the levy on the first flight to zero.
Of course, this solution would risk building the cost of the environmental damage into the ticket, and thus reducing the moral incentive to avoid flying. One famous study found that where fines were introduced for late pick-ups at a day-care, late pick-ups increased after the fine was introduced; parents could essentially buy off their feelings of guilt for their tardiness. For those who can afford it, these levies may thus materially change nothing, whilst allowing them to feel ethically justified in continuing their polluting behaviour.
Yet something must be done. The number of miles travelled by air has increased by 300% since 1990, and it’s unlikely that technological developments or carbon offsetting can balance out all the associated emissions. Combining a strong and compassionate ethical argument for reducing flights—considering the different relationships of different classes to air travel—with a targeted monetary disincentive could well be the way forward.
Event summary by Olivia Oldham
Flying has become a staple of the modern world, though mostly for the global North. The carbon emissions of aviation are hotly debated, but it is generally agreed that it is responsible for around 3% of global emissions. So why do we care so much about flying? First of all, it is significantly--around 100 times, in fact--more carbon intensive than car travel. It also creates transport inequality--while exact statistics are hard to come by, it is unlikely that more than a couple of percent of the world’s population actually flies each year; and for those who do fly regularly, flying is their highest carbon activity.
Aviation is one of the highest emission sectors, and it is also one of the fastest growing. Now, however, due to the pandemic, the aviation sector is in crisis. How can we continue to fly while also mitigating climate change? How will Covid-19 affect our attitude towards flying into the future? We invited two experts, Michael Gill and Adam Klauber, to come speak with us to find some answers to these questions.
Michael Gill, the Director, Aviation Environment of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), spoke first. In his work at IATA, Michael leads work on sustainable regulation and policy advocacy with governments, the UN, and business partners. He is also the Executive Director of the Air Transport Action Group, leading their work to promote the aviation industry's sustainable growth. He has almost 20 years of experience in the aviation sector and he played a leadership role in the adoption of the international agreement on aviation and climate change (CORSIA) in 2016.
The long-term crisis of climate change means we need to take a long-term strategic approach to climate impact. In response to the acknowledgment in 2008 that the aviation industry was collectively responsible for a growing percentage of global emissions, airlines came together to decide a number of climate goals:
The overriding message Michael wanted to convey was that the aviation industry has recognised for over a decade that it has a significant impact on climate change and has a proactive and ambitious approach to addressing it by setting out targets that it will meet and having a very clear strategic plan involving collaboration across the sector--not just airlines but also manufacturers, airports and air traffic management. What is needed now is greater buy-in from governments through policy support, greater investment in alternative fuels, and a better understanding within the general and flying public of what the aviation industry is doing to address its impact.
Adam Klauber spoke next. He is the Principal, Sustainability and Energy at the Cadmus Group, an environmental consultancy firm. He also leads the sustainable aviation team for the Rocky Mountain institute (RMI), leading their global initiative to decarbonise aviation. He also writes for Forbes on aviation and the environment and was also the previous Head of Sustainable Aviation for ICF International. While at ICF Adam served as a representative to the UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation's Carbon Working Group
The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) is a global contributor to climate action. It was founded over 35 years ago and has focused on market-based solutions to climate change since its inception. One challenge it has focused on is how to unlock additional capital to support the sustainable aviation fuel price gap. Alternative fuels are very expensive, and airlines operate on low margins in a highly competitive environment, which makes it difficult for them to be able to spend funds on more expensive, more sustainable fuels. This creates a problem for investment, because investors are not usually willing to provide capital for a project unless they believe there will be market uptake.
To this end, RMI was involved in 2019 in the set-up of Clean Skies for Tomorrow (CST): a group of leaders in the aviation industry and the ‘demand sector’ (which includes large corporate buyers of passenger and air-freight travel). Work conducted by this group has determined that it may be possible for alternative fuels to replace all the liquid fuels used by the aviation industry.
CST is also working with climate NGOs so that the corporations involved can be recognised as global leaders who are adopting best practices. Offsets are currently seen as a method of last resort--it is much more desirable to achieve carbon reduction goals from within the sector itself. Sustainable fuels can achieve this, whereas offsets can’t. As such, CST is seeking to achieve recognition of sustainable fuels as a viable option to meet emission reduction tools.
Currently, the most competitive alternative fuel is twice the price of kerosene (traditional airline fuel), even after government subsidies have been applied. However, CST and RMI are working on a Sustainable Aviation Fuel Credit scheme to help reduce this difference, which Adam was confident will be successful. Importantly, work on this scheme is still moving forward despite the economic challenges brought to the aviation industry by the pandemic.
If you want to learn more about this issue and hear the answers to some of the questions posed, then tune into the video, up on our YouTube channel now: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vBMbo0h1VXs
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.