A Traveller’s Realistic Approach to Climate Crisis
- Present Situation
- The Right Energy Adoption
- Off-setting Emissions
- Air Travel
- An Integrated Transport System
- AITO’s Approach to Climate Change/Crisis and Air Travel
May 5th 2021 Clive Stacey, Discover The World
This document has been written to provide Members with a view of some of the main issues surrounding the Climate Change debate, put into perspective some of the solutions being bandied around, and present a way forward to enable members to present a sympathetic and pragmatic approach to offering travel arrangements, especially in respect of air travel.
There is increasing pressure for commercial enterprises of all shapes and sizes to show their green credentials and assure their customers that they are earnest in their endeavours to do their bit. This causes distinct issues for the travel industry, because a great many of the journeys we operate would not be possible without the use of air travel, and of course the airline industry is the target of a great deal of criticism from environmental groups.
The emissions of excessive amounts of greenhouse gases due to human endeavour is without any reasonable doubt a very serious problem, which needs to be clearly understood and measures taken on a global scale. What is obvious however is that there is no clear general understanding about the ‘whats’, ‘wheres’ and ‘hows’– and worse still there is an enormous amount of action taking place to limit Climate Change, which has little or no effect on reducing emissions.
Bill Gates points out in his recent book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” that greenhouses gases, and in particular carbon, once omitted will stay in our atmosphere for up 10,000 years. He goes on to say that a useful analogy would be to compare the earth’s atmoshere to a bath tub and the emissions we make are like the water flowing into the bath. Wether we have the tap on full flow or as a tricle, eventually the bath will overflow – its just a matter of time.
There is no one solution to the highly complex climate change problem, but a clear global strategy does need to be agreed. It’s largely pointless for one area of the world, such as Europe, to become carbon neutral if enormous areas of the rest of the planet just go through the motions, or worse still accelerate the problem. Undoubtedly mankind can solve the Climate Change issue, but there is no internationally agreed way to do so. If a clear international agreement can be found to act in a common way the rest is simply semantics.
If the correct options are chosen the new cleaner ways of producing energy could be far cheaper and more efficient than the old carbon-based ones we are leaving behind. This, together with the adoption of other environmentally friendly measures will have a significantly positive impact on people all over the world. We therefore need to subsidise the early stages of this process rather than charging more for ‘green energy’, which is never going to be either popular or sustainable in a world where much of the population are struggling to survive.
The Right Energy Adoption
It is important that we select methods and processes which are as much as possible carbon neutral throughout their life cycle. Renewables in most of their shapes and forms are part of the answer, but we need to ensure they are suitable and generally fit for purpose. For example, wind and solar power are very weather dependant and on average only productive for around 15-30% of the time (Belton 2020). In addition, they are also quite costly, in an environmental sense, in respect of their use of materials and in decommissioning at the end of their lives. Despite this fact they should still be considered part of a balanced energy system, but only as a back up to other less marginal power sources. We must have other forms of energy production to deal with the spikes and indeed normal every day and seasonal requirements. It is inevitable that technology will provide other new solutions, such as a cost-effective way to use Carbon Capture to deal with greenhouse and other noxious gases being emitted by fossil burning power stations, allowing some to continue to burn fossil fuels without emissions.
Carbon Capture technology (the process of taking gases out of the atmosphere and burying them in rock or underground caverns) has already been developed and is in use, but at present is far too costly to be widely adopted.
However, the majority of scientist agree the only credible way of producing unlimited supplies of largely non-carbon energy is by nuclear power. Nuclear has the ability to provide us with unlimited amounts of non-carbon electricity at an extremely low cost. And with the right safeguards, will be by far the safest and most efficient of all the various forms of energy production. (More on nuclear below).
In the future electricity should be the conduit for just about every type of energy process. It is the most efficient means we know to transmit raw energy to its end use. For example, an electric car uses energy stored in its batteries, which is produced principally by fossil derived fuels but less so by renewables or nuclear energy. This does not mean that everything must directly run off electricity, but green electricity does need to be part of the process. In itself it is a completely clean form of transmission and by using carbon free processes to produce it we can in turn ensure products such as hydrogen-based fuels are manufactured in a carbon-free way.
Fossil Fuels & the Transition to Carbon Free Alternatives
Fossil fuels is a term principally referring to the combustion of materials such as coal, gas, oil and wood, which produce large amounts of greenhouse gases as a by-product of either their manufacture or use.
Whilst going through the transition of adopting clean energy, it is extremely important that we accept that traditional forms of power production are still a vital part of our everyday life. The companies which provide these power sources should not be demonised, but encouraged to clean up production methods as much as possible, whilst also investing in the development of new non-polluting forms of energy. We must not make enemies of these enormous enterprises, rather encourage them to be part of the process and transform their businesses into being part of the long-term solution.
In the same way it makes little sense to scrap existing infrastructure, way before the end of its useful life. For example, motor vehicles or aeroplanes which have been manufactured efficiently using a significant amount of earth resource must be retained until such time as alternative much clearner technology is perfected and ready to take over. We have to remember that the process of moving from carbon-based fuels to alternative fuel systems will take several decades at least and if we move too fast it will produce a great deal of unnecessary problems which could undermine and slow the whole process. For example, an electric car at present produces far more emissions during its manufacturing process than a petrol or diesel vehicle, which means the average saving of CO2 emissions over the lifespan of a typical electric car to compared to a petrol version is at best around 20% (The Green Age)
Nuclear Energy – A Carbon Free Answer
The benefits of nuclear energy are unquestionable, and many firmly held misgivings about nuclear power do not stand up to scrutiny. In order to appreciate the enormous benefits it can and has brought to mankind, we need to understand its dangers and a little bit of its history. Even though it has been used as the basis of a horrendously deadly weapon which has and can cause mass destruction it was adopted by much of the environmental movement in the early days as the perfect alternative form of power source. It was said to be a gift to mankind and one of the true benefits of the immense amount of research which took place during WW2. However due to a campaign of misinformation by vested interests its credibility was eroded, and many environmentalists turned against it.
In 1979 the fiction movie “The China Syndrome” surrounding the meltdown of a power station in California, with monumental consequences, only added fuel to the feeling that nuclear power stations were an accident waiting to happen. Then, by coincidence, a short time after the release of the film, the first major nuclear reactor accident happened at Three Mile Island when a cooling malfunction caused part of the core to melt in one of the reactors. Some radioactive gas was released a couple of days after the accident, but not enough to cause any dose above background levels to local residents, no fatalities were linked to the accident, but hysteria ensured. There is no doubt that nuclear power stations can be dangerous if badly operated or located in the wrong places and later the far more serious accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima illustrated this fact. However, in comparison to any other major forms of energy production it is by far the safest and there are no greenhouse gasses produced throughout the process. It’s interesting to learn that many of the environmentalists who once railed against nuclear are now devotes. If you have a moment go to YouTube and listen to some of Michael Shellenberger’s presentations, they will explain the thinking, much better than I can.
At present there are 440 nuclear reactors located in some 30 countries around the world. In some places they produce a significant proportion of all electrical requirements. In France, for example, 70% of electricity is produced by nuclear. In the UK we have 7 nuclear reactors, which produce 20% of our electricity requirements. Six are due to be closed by 2030 and the seventh by 2035. Simply put, this makes no sense.
On the positive side the UK GOV is recommending the construction of some 16 modular nuclear reactors in various parts of the country, to be built by Rolls Royce. This is a new world leading concept and if adopted will make nuclear energy much more accessible in areas where large amounts of energy are required, such as industrial hubs. These units produce around one sixth of the energy of a large nuclear power station but are much more economic. The expectation is that these will be up and running within 10 to 15 years and be a more efficient and cost-effective way of using nuclear energy. However, they only produce one sixth or a traditional nuclear power plant and there needs to be enormous investment in both modular and conventional stations as a matter of urgency.
One of the other issues with Nuclear of course is the waste it produces. However, taken from a different perspective all the waste produced by the process of producing nuclear energy is contained, rather than emitted into the atmosphere. It can then be dealt with – although there is some debate around how this is best managed.
Interestingly there is a process being pioneered to use spent radio isotopic material in specialised batteries. These could be used for anything from charging posts for electric vehicles to full sized power plans for cities. They can even be used to balance the grid when renewable energy dips, and it’s an Anglo-Australian company called Infinite Power, which is leading the way. The technology already exists and was launched into space by NASA in 2019 and is expected to provide power for hundreds of years. This is just one example of technology coming up with answers to what previously seemed to some as unsurmountable problems.
One final point, nuclear power production is totally carbon free, however the process of mining uranium and building the reactors is extremely energy intensive – which in the present world produces CO2 emissions. However as the world moves towards an energy system which does not emit greenhouse gases this situation will change.
Hydrogen is produced by splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen. However, the process is rather energy intensive. The lifetime emissions impact of hydrogen use depends on the underlying hydrogen production method. Hydrogen is classified as “grey” if it is produced using fossil fuels causing carbon emissions, “blue” if those emissions are captured or offset, and “green” if it is generated by renewable or nuclear energy with no carbon emissions. “Green” hydrogen can also act as a clean energy storage option for excess electricity from intermittent renewable power generation, such as wind and solar.
Simply put, if you are going to replace a fossil burning fuel with hydrogen you need to use a renewable source which produces blue or preferably green hydrogen otherwise the process is pointless. In the present environment there is no excess supply of non-carbon fuel, so this means that the vast amount of hydrogen produced is grey hydrogen, with no savings in emissions. However, if nuclear energy is significantly scaled up so hydrogen production would be made through sustainable energy then hydrogen would be an exceptionally useful tool in certain forms of propulsion. This would especially be the case with air travel, with a new generation of specially designed aircraft. Also, the marine environment would benefit hugely and in double quick time, assuming most ships could be retrofitted without too much hassle.
A term covering a number of process and referred to in the airline world as SAF (Sustainable Aviation Fuels). Simply put biofuels are the result of refining plant material or general waste substances into an oil substitute, which can then be used as a replacement for fossil fuels, or mixed with them. Some processes are said to save CO2 emissions by up to 80%. In the case of SAF the maximum mix possible between biofuels and kerosene is 50%. However, the devil is the detail…..
……certain biofuels have a negative overall environmental impact. For example, if crops are grown specifically for the sole purpose of being used as the basis for biofuels then they are in essence taking land which could otherwise be used to grow crops for food, or better still left in its natural state to absorb CO2 and support the natural biosphere. This is sometimes referred to as grey biofuel. Even processes which use the by-product of plant materials can be somewhat suspect. For example, large areas of tropical rainforest have been cleared and replaced with palm trees, causing enormous environmental damage. If the material which is surplus to the manufacture of palm oil is used to make biofuels, it helps to greenwash the whole basis of palm oil production. There is also a question of whether the amount of biofuel materials are available in large and regular enough quantities to make the process truly viable, and also how much fossil based energy is used in the process of bringing the substance to the end user.
Nevertheless, one process which definitely does look like it has a future is the production of biofuel from general waste material, such as non-recyclable household and industrial waste.
A factory is planned to be opened in the UK shortly, which will see an investment of approximately £600m, and uses a proven waste-to-fuel process, which is already being deployed by a US company called Fulcrum at its pioneering facility outside of Reno, Nevada, where operations are due to begin later this year (see https://fulcrum-bioenergy.com/). The plan is for Fulcrum to construct, own and operate the plant within Ellesmere Port, on Merseyside. This will be the first Fulcrum plant outside the United States. And is expected to produce 100m litres of SAF annually. It will also utilise direct pipeline access to pump and transport the SAF to UK airports through the Manchester Jet Line and the UK Oil Pipeline network, thereby cutting emissions normally expelled on the transportation of biofuels. In addition, the plant will also use the heat from the process to produce electricity which in turn is used in the manufacture process – providing further efficiencies. If the plant could also come to use processes such as Carbon Capture to prevent emissions from the process escaping into the atmosphere this would be even more environmentally sound. However, the utilising of waste which would otherwise go to landfill, or be simply burnt, obviously provides enormous benefits. It also leads to the intriguing possibility of mining the vast number of landfill sites scattered across the planet, which would provide material for waste-to-fuel plants as well as recycling centres for centauries to come!
This is the process which involves reducing our carbon footprint by investing in processes which reduce carbon emissions, and therefore offsetting personnel emissions created by our own actions. It provides a pragmatic answer for activities which have no immediate alternative to change into a low or zero emission model. This system is necessary whilst the world moves through the gears to carbon zero, but there are many different forms of offsets, some of which unfortunately are maybe not providing the benefits which are claimed. For example, planting a tree, or paying someone else to do it, is a very simple and emotive way of showing our love for the planet, but, in order for the tree to maximise the carbon capture claimed, it will need to be the right tree planted in the correct environment, and a certain amount of nurturing provided during its early life. There is evidence that sometimes this does not always happen, and the end result is a significantly reduced benefit to the planet, in relation to the claims made. The whole system needs to be looked at and regulated and perhaps it may be logical for AITO members to join together to get behind a number of worthwhile schemes which genuinely do actually do what they set out to achieve. (see the Guardian 2019)*
Pre-pandemic aircraft emissions contributed a relatively small amount to overall climate change, thus: 2.5% of the world’s CO2 emissions (2018); 1.9% of greenhouse gasses (2018) and 3.5% of effective radiative forcing – a closer measure of its impact on warming (2016)– (FT January 2021)
Many people may be surprised how relatively small this is, as the hype would suggest it’s far more. In comparison the cities of the world emit 70% of the world’s greenhouse gases. Yet, predictions have shown that, if left unfettered, the airline industry could be a much larger contributor to emissions in the future. However, it’s important to bear in mind here that aviation emissions have doubled since the mid-1980s. But, interestingly air travel’s share of global emissions has continued at a relatively stable level of around 2%-2.5%, even though air travel has increased exponentially. This is because global emissions from many other sources have increased during this period and aircraft and engine manufactures have continued to make improvements to aircraft fuel efficiencies.
During the pandemic it is estimated that world greenhouse gas emissions dropped by around 5%. Bill Gates points out that “this small decline is proof that we cannot get to zero emissions simply – or even mostly – by flying and driving less”.
To put it bluntly, airlines are in a very difficult financial situation and post -pandemic it is likely that politicians will not want to over burden them with too many new environmental restrictions. We need to be mindful of this fact and not push too hard until there is some semblance of normality returned to the market. Having said that, we still need to work towards encouraging government to legislate in such a way that some of the airline industry’s worst excesses are tackled, especially with the COP26 conference coming soon. We need to use this as a catalyst to push for change in the near future.
An incentive scheme put forward to reward best practice is also necessary. Airlines need to be rewarded for investing in new more fuel-efficient equipment, environmentally sound SAF and sustainable offset schemes. At the same time airlines need to desist from wasteful practices, such as “hub and spoke” systems. This is the process whereby airlines create major hubs and encourage feeder traffic into these from smaller airports. The most fuel hungry parts of any flight are the take offs and landings. This system creates one additional landing and one additional take off – which is tremendously wasteful, especially if the end destination is another smaller airport, reached by further flights. In addition its important to divert domestic flights to more environmental alternatives. France and German have recently announced they will be making such changes in the near future, and no doubt other nations will follow.
Airlines need to reflect the true cost of travel in their fares, maybe rewarding their passengers with rebates if the load factors are higher than expected, rather than offering fares which are below cost. Governments need to tax airline fuels in the same way they would with any other transport but take away the necessities for airlines to fly uneconomic flights just to save their slots. Finally, a holistic approach to air travel, as part of a smart transport system is also important. (Finger, M. and Audouin, M. (2019) The Governance of smart transport systems)
An Integrated Transport System
A great deal of natural resource is wasted daily due to the vagrancies of the transport industry in all its variations, this often causes a great deal of inconvenience and often necessitates us to go significantly out of our way in order to reach our end destination. However, if all public air, sea, rail and road transport was planned and to work together in a holistic system which provided the most efficient and environmentally sound transport options for each stage, an enormous amount of needlessly spent emissions would be saved. A scaled down version of this system already works in certain parts of the world but by the smart use of data and technology we could easily integrate most transport schedules to allow seamless journeys, with potential delays automatically delt with by computerised rerouting. Such a development is within our power to instigate reasonably quickly – again, all we need to do is get the buy in from all the players. In such a system Air Travel would benefit in that it would only be offered where it was a realistic option. This would likely mean an increase in travel between smaller hubs and a reduction in traffic from major hubs.
AITO’s Approach to Climate Change and Air Travel
Of course, Sustainable Tourism is much more than addressing the reduction of emissions we expel, it is also about how we conduct ourselves as an industry to preserve our planet, its wildlife, the diverse cultures and much, much more.
Of course all AITO members understand the tremendous benefit travel provides to the well being of the human race. It broadens the mind, refreshes the spirit and at its best brings the best out in all of us. It has also brought millions out of poverety across the planet and countless friendships have been struck up across boarders. In short, travel broadens the mind and counters isolationism and intolerance.
The latest series from David Attenborough: “A Perfect Planet,” mentioned that mankind is at present using the equivalent of one and a half times the resources of the world, when referring to the fact that we are mining and consuming vast amounts of carbon based materials which were stored over the course of millions of years. It is principally for this reason that we are now experiencing the present crisis.
Many AITO members already have their own extremely effective Responsible Travel policies, dealing principally with the way they operate their trips within the destinations they sell, but with regard to the challenges of Climate Change we need to also address the thorny question of how can we justify the large carbon footprint flying creates. Based on the fact that there seems to be no viable alternative coming anytime soon to mitigate the pollution caused by air travel, here are some suggestions:
- Encourage clients to take fewer trips, and therefore flights, but to stay longer and immerse themselves in the experience – make your flights count.
- Design trips with more surface transport, where viable, especially by train.
- Encourage clients to carbon offset their flights on suitable schemes, until a better solution is found.
- Encourage clients wherever possible to use airlines which invest in the latest most fuel-efficient aircraft.
- Lobby government to introduce environmental pressure on airlines as part of COP26 initiatives.
ACT Net Zero Target
Jono Vernon-Powell, ACT Chair and Nomadic Thoughts
The enormity of the challenge cannot be overestimated
A Traveller’s Realistic Approach to Climate Crisis
May 5th 2021 Clive Stacey, Discover The World