Offsets - taking it easy(Jet)
Hello and welcome to another edition of the Sustainable Futures Report.
First of all, why was 19th November historic? easyJet says that it’s because from then on the fuel for all their flights will be carbon-offset. In their announcement they didn’t claim that their flights were carbon-neutral, but the press didn’t hesitate to claim that for them. ITV, CNN, one mile at a time and euro news - among many others - put carbon neutral in their headlines. In fact, if you googled easyJet and carbon neutral you found a paid advertisement at the top of the page offering easyJet’s net-zero carbon flights. It’s gone now, but I copied it and you’ll find it on the Sustainable Futures Report blog.
So is it true? Is the airline carbon neutral? Absolutely not. It’s the worst kind of greenwash as many in the media and the Twittersphere have rushed to point out. It’s not just greenwash, it’s irresponsible, because people who just read the headline will think it’s OK to fly. They will think that easyJet is carbon neutral so they can fly as much as they like without affecting the planet. The problem is that easyJet’s offsetting is not carbon-neutral.
Yes, they will invest only in schemes accredited by The Gold Standard or Verified Carbon Standard, and these bodies will confirm that the schemes are properly operated. Despite all this, supporting wind energy production and safe water provision and similar schemes does not reduce the amount of emissions in the atmosphere by any amount at all. I’ve covered this before so I’ve put a detailed example at the end of this episode. Yes, easyJet is investing in preventing deforestation, but that does not have a neutralising effect either. It’s only if you plant new trees which actually absorb carbon as they grow or have some sort of mechanical systems with extract CO2 from the air that you can reduce the overall amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. An average tree takes 30 years to absorb a tonne of carbon. An average weekend in New York adds takes a few days to create emissions about twice that. Mechanical CO2 extraction is little more than a fantasy at present.
The conclusion is that the cleanest aircraft is the one that never takes off. Selling that idea is next to impossible. People are used to air travel as the cheapest form of travel once you get over a few 100 miles. It’s cheap for the passenger but at a staggeringly high price for our children.
I ran a conference in Edinburgh last weekend. Where shall we go next year? came the question. Manchester? York? Cork? Top choices were somewhere in Spain or maybe Marrakech. Flights to Marrakech are advertised at £100 or less. I could make the journey by train, but the ferry from Algeciras to Tangier on its own would cost about £100 and the journey would take two days. Hard choices.
I won’t fly to Marrakech so I hope we end up somewhere near a railway station in Spain.
Ian Jarvis asks, “What about the role of water vapour in global warming? Isn’t it by far the most important greenhouse gas and shouldn’t we be controlling it?”
Well, yes and no. Water vapour is indeed a very potent greenhouse gas, but it differs from the others in one important way. All the others remain as gases in the atmosphere at all times. Water vapour traps heat like any other greenhouse gas, but also condenses into water droplets at times, making clouds. Clouds can have a warming effect: you’re less likely to get a winter frost overnight if there’s cloud cover. Clouds also have a cooling effect: they reflect sunlight - and heat - back into space.
We do not directly affect the level of water vapour in the atmosphere but we do affect it indirectly. By warming the atmosphere through the effect of man-made gases we increase the capability of the atmosphere to hold water vapour, and the warmer the atmosphere the less that vapour will condense into clouds. The more we contribute to global heating the more water vapour and the more water vapour the more global heating. It becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
There are suggestions for a fleet of ships roaming the oceans spraying water into the air to encourage the formation of clouds and the dimming effect. It might work. Who would pay for it? Might it affect the weather, and with more effects in some countries than in others? If we try this experiment on the earth and it all goes wrong we won’t have a second chance.
Ian also asks, “Could we use faster-growing plants than trees to lock up carbon?” He suggests hemp and bamboo which can yield two crops per year. They can be transformed into paper or cloth.
One of the issues with offsetting is that the carbon needs to be locked up for at least 100 years, because that’s about the time it takes for CO2 to be absorbed by nature. Even if the hemp and bamboo are processed into other products, they are unlikely to last as long as that. And if the fields need clearing and replanting twice a year it needs to be done without fossil fuel powered machinery. Trees need management, but far less than semi-annual crops.
“What about the good old meadow?” asks Ian. “I read some years ago that even a lawn absorbs a quantity of CO2 but for the life of me cannot recall any figures or other details.”
In August this year the IPCC published Climate Change and Land, a Special Report on Climate Change, Desertification, Land Degradation, Sustainable Land Management, Food Security, and Greenhouse gas fluxes in Terrestrial Ecosystems.
“Land is both a source and a sink of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and plays a key role in the exchange of energy, water and aerosols between the land surface and atmosphere. Land ecosystems and biodiversity are vulnerable to ongoing climate change and weather and climate extremes, to different extents. Sustainable land management can contribute to reducing the negative impacts of multiple stressors, including climate change, on ecosystems and societies.”
“An estimated 23% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (2007-2016) derive from Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU).”
I’ve only skimmed the document, but the major concern is that climate change leads to the degradation of the the land. It urges that action should be taken to protect the land and explains that this can help with both mitigation and adaptation.
Ian’s lawn will certainly do more to absorb CO2 than bare earth, and even more still if he plants trees instead of grass. There’s a link to the full text of the report on the Sustainable Futures Report blog.
The Guardian reports that Global heating is “supercharging” an increasingly dangerous climate mechanism in the Indian Ocean that has played a role in disasters this year including bushfires in Australia and floods in Africa.
Scientists and humanitarian officials say this year’s record Indian Ocean dipole, as the phenomenon is known, threatens to reappear more regularly and in a more extreme form as sea surface temperatures rise.
Of most concern are years in which the sea surface off the coast of Africa warms up, provoking increased rains, while temperatures off Australia fall, leading to drier weather.
It is similar to El Niño and La Niña in the Pacific, which cause sharp changes in weather patterns on both sides of the ocean.
The Production Gap
The Production Gap is the discrepancy between countries’ planned fossil fuel production and global production levels consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C or 2°C. A new report by academics from the Stockholm Environment Institute, the Centre for International Climate Research and others working with the United Nations Environment Programme examines the current global position. They say:
“Though coal, oil, and gas are the central drivers of climate change, they are rarely the subject of international climate policy and negotiations. This report aims to expand that discourse and provide a metric for assessing how far the world is from production levels that are consistent with global climate goals.”
A chart on the first page of the website shows that global emissions are currently around 30 GtCO2 per annum and on course to reach 40 GtCO2 by 2040. To hold the temperature rise to 2°C means cutting emissions below 20 GtCO2 by that date. To achieve 1.5°C needs a cut to some 12 or 13 GtCO2. Key findings of the report include:
“Governments are planning to produce about 50% more fossil fuels by 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 2°C and 120% more than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C.”
“The global production gap is even larger than the already-significant global emissions gap, due to minimal policy attention on curbing fossil fuel production.”
“Several governments have already adopted policies to restrict fossil fuel production, providing momentum and important lessons for broader adoption.”
This is another report which analyses the present situation and warns how business as usual will drive the world to destruction in only a few years.
“International cooperation plays a central role in winding down fossil fuel production,” they say.
Some 190 countries came together in 2015 to sign the Paris agreement on controlling emissions and keeping global temperature increases below 2℃, yet their current policies will drive temperatures way higher than that. The risk is that the longer we continue to increase emissions in the atmosphere the greater the chance of setting off unstoppable feedback loops. Water vapour is only one example: methane released by melting permafrost and warming oceans is another.
Meanwhile in China coal-fired power stations delivering 42.9GW were opened in the 18 months to June. This substantially exceeded the 8GW of coal-fired capacity retired elsewhere in the world.
Christine Shearer, an analyst at the NGO Global Energy Monitor, said: “China’s proposed coal expansion is so far out of alignment with the Paris agreement that it would put the necessary reductions in coal power out of reach, even if every other country were to completely eliminate its coal fleet.”
“China has a strong advantage that it is a global leader in solar and wind power, and last year it sold more electric cars than the rest of the world combined. China can become the world’s foremost clean energy superpower,” said Jeanett Bergan, the head of responsible investment at Norway’s largest pension fund, KLP.
At the moment China continues to be the largest developer of coal power both at home and throughout the world. It will take immense international pressure to persuade it to change course, pressure which is unlikely to come from the US or from Russia, and there aren’t any other countries strong enough to be heard. It is worrying, because a response I get all too often is, “Why should I do anything when anything I do is wiped out many times over by emissions from China?”
Good question, but at the very least, we have to lead by example.
Of course nuclear power is clean, or at least emissions-free, once it’s in operation. The Financial Times reports that continued delays at the new plant at Flamanville are trying the patience of the French president. France has the biggest fleet of nuclear stations in Europe, many of which are coming up for retirement. The question is whether they will be replaced or supplanted by renewables. In the meantime new stations are not to be built until the Flamanville plant is up and running to prove that its new design can work.
Last week there was a 5.4 earth tremor in the Rhone Valley where four nuclear stations and a fuel processing plant are located. It was not strong enough to do damage, but three off the stations have been closed for safety checks. Another question mark hanging over France’s nuclear future.
Oxford Dictionaries declares 'climate emergency' the word of 2019. (Isn’t that two words?) Anyway this must reflect the fact that we’re hearing about it and thinking about it more and more. Let’s hope that in 2020 those with the power will stop thinking and start acting.
Before I go…
I’ve added a couple of footnotes about types of offset and easyJet and my latest conversation with Julia Hartley-Brewer on Talk Radio.
Types of offset
There are two types of offsets - extractive and preventive. Extractive offsets take emissions out of the atmosphere. Preventive offsets stop emissions being added to the atmosphere. They stop the level rising, or rising as fast, but preventives do nothing to reduce the existing level.
As an example, think of a bath half full of water. The water represents the emissions. If both taps are running the level will rise. If you take the plug out and the pipe is large enough the water will run out as fast as it’s pouring in. The level of water will not rise and the inflow is neutralised.
That’s an extractive offset. The plughole represents the trees which can absorb CO2 as they grow. You’ll need a lot of trees.
Now consider that the bath doesn’t have a plug, so the water’s not flowing out. easyJet operates one tap and a community in Africa operates the other tap. easyJet offers to pay the Africans to turn off their tap. The flow of water, or emissions, is cut, but the level in the bath continues to rise, albeit more slowly. The water from easyJet’s tap, its emissions, continues to flow. This is a preventive offset and it does not deliver neutrality.
More on easyJet. It says it will save fuel by using only one engine when taxiing. That will represent a minute proportion of the total fuel used on a flight and will it really be a saving? Surely it takes just as much energy to push the aircraft along the taxiway, so that one engine must have to push twice as hard!
Now here’s my chat with Julia.
Will I ever persuade her to fly less?
As I close I notice there’s a Channel 4 debate on the climate crisis tonight, featuring all the political parties except the Conservatives and the Brexit Party who have declined to take part. I believe that there will be a similar debate in my local constituency later this week, also without a Conservative representative. Make of that what you will.
And that is it for this week, but before I go thanks for listening, thanks for your ideas, thanks for being a patron - if you are - send more ideas to email@example.com and there will, I’m sure, be another Sustainable Futures Report next week.
Bye for now!
Can carbon offsets tackle airlines’ emissions problem?
Global heating supercharging Indian Ocean climate system
Fossil fuel production on track for double the safe climate limit
China's appetite for coal power returns despite climate pledge
Oxford Dictionaries declares 'climate emergency' the word of 2019
Advert which no longer seems to appear