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Newsletter 3rd August 2007

- Planes, the environment and personal choice - Who pays for new transport links? - Climate (un)certainties - Soil Association takes a dim view of international airfreight

Planes, the environment and personal choice

Air travel has become a particular focus of environmentalist criticism, partly because it is believed that jet engine exhaust gases high in the atmosphere may have a proportionally greater effect on climate change than low level emissions, and partly because of the continued strong growth of the aviation sector. This, of course, is in addition to the natural concerns of people living near airports who already suffer from the noise and fear worse things to come as new terminals and runways are built.

On the other hand, air travel is growing because the demand is there. An increasingly prosperous world wants to take the opportunity to go on holiday to exotic destinations, or have more short breaks in resorts closer to home. Business travel continues unabated. It seems that most people are not heeding calls to reduce their carbon footprint by flying less. And governments continue to have a somewhat Janus-like attitude to flying, on one hand exhorting their citizens to reduce carbon emissions, on the other supporting aviation as a driver of economic growth.

 All this has come to something of a head because of the proposed “Camp for Climate Action” planned for Heathrow for 14th-21st August to protest against expansion of the airport. Rather heavy handedly, BAA, Heathrow’s owner, attempted to slap an injunction on all members of a range of quite respectable organisations (including the National Trust, RSPB and Campaign to Protect Rural England) to prevent them even approaching the area. Not surprisingly, they have now drawn back and named just four individuals in their application, plus the organisations behind the camp, including Plane Stupid, the group which disrupted operations at East Midlands airport earlier this year.

 BAA is right to fear the consequences of disruption. Flying from Heathrow is already among life’s less pleasant experiences, and increased security checks have only made this situation worse. Severe delays caused by protestors could make it intolerable. Not that many travellers are likely to have much sympathy with activist tactics which disrupt their plans.

 In fact, this whole saga reflects quite poorly on all concerned. Activists have every right to hold strong views, but no right to make the lives of others a misery for the sake of publicity. BAA have every right to protect their business and their customers, but taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut only gives more publicity to the critics of the aviation industry. Important issues such as this deserve proper debate and a clear and sensible decision-making process.

 In the meantime, the growth of air travel may slow down of its own accord if airport delays become any worse. People make their own choices about means of travel, and the success of Eurostar shows that they do not automatically hop on a plane for short-haul destinations if there are viable – and arguably better – alternatives.

 Who pays for new transport links?

The reason why Eurostar is successful is that there has been a large investment in new infrastructure over the years. The channel tunnel was built and linked up to a growing network of high-speed trains in France and neighbouring countries. Even the UK finally built a high-speed line through Kent, and the long-awaited St Pancras terminal will become operational in November.

 But other projects, which are almost unanimously considered to be highly desirable, continue to languish in limbo because no-one wants to pay for them. The channel tunnel, in retrospect, was difficult to justify financially, but its wider economic benefits have been very significant. The latest long-delayed project to come under the spotlight again is Crossrail, the ambitious (and expensive) proposal to run direct trains from Berkshire, through central London to Essex. First put forward 18 years ago, in the Thatcher era, a bill is now being debated in a Commons committee. But the problem is that the government does not know how the £15 billion cost will be paid.

 Compare this to France. Over several decades, the government has invested heavily in an excellent network of TGV trains, now linked into the networks of Germany, Belgium and other near neighbours. Despite the enormous infrastructure costs, French trains still represent significantly better value for money to passengers than their UK counterparts. And Paris has been crossed by several fast RER underground lines for quite some time. Building  a high quality transport system is not cheap, but projects such as this surely deserve greater breadth of vision from the UK government than they have ever seen before. The costs of the London Olympics will spiral and much of the infrastructure is of doubtful value. Why not invest in something really worthwhile?

 Climate (un)certainties

A group of scientist from the University of California San Diego and the Nasa Langley Research Center have just published a paper in Nature which looks at the effect of the so-called Asian brown clouds: the aerosols formed by the burning of wood and fossil fuels. While it has been recognised for some time that they cool the Earth’s surface by scattering the Sun’s rays, the researchers now say that they also have a significant warming effect on the atmosphere.

 According to the BBC report:

"We found that atmospheric brown clouds enhanced lower atmospheric solar heating by about 50%. "[The pollution] contributes as much as the recent increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gases to regional lower atmospheric warming trends," they suggested. "We propose that the combined warming trend of 0.25 Kelvin per decade may be sufficient to account for the observed retreat of the Himalayan glaciers."

 They also say that, before their studies, there remained a degree of uncertainty, because estimates had largely been derived from computer models…presumably the same models on which the IPCC base their own supposed certainty about climate change.

 Soil Association takes a dim view of international airfreight

It has been reported in the Times that the Soil Association, the UK’s pre-eminent organic farming advocacy and certification body, is considering removing certification from air-freighted produce. This could ruin the export market for thousands of third world farmers (there are 150,000 in Kenya alone) who get a premium price for their organic produce (not necessarily organic by choice, but because they cannot afford fertilizers and other inputs).

 Organic farming grew from philosophical roots which emphasised “working with Nature” and, until recent years has essentially just been about lower input, less intensive farming. Many of its practices make sense and have been incorporated into conventional practice. Notwithstanding the fact that it would be impossible to grow enough food to feed the present world population if no synthetic fertilizer was used, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with much of what it proposes.

 However, the advent of GM crops was a turning point. Not only did the Soil Association prescribe how crops should be cultivated, they also dictated that they should not be tainted by the products of modern biotechnology (although radiation-induced mutation was considered fine). Now they are taking yet another fork in the path – some might say a blind alley –  and seem likely to insist that produce from developing countries cannot be considered organic if it is shipped by air. Admittedly, the organic movement was originally about localised production, but it has become a victim of its own fashionability and much organic produce is now imported. If the Soil Association does take this step, it will surely concentrate people’s minds on what is more important to them – local production or the livelihood of third world farmers.