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Greta Thunberg

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Is This Really a Turning Point?

People who look for silver linings (aka optimists) think that Covid-19 might be the inflection point where we start getting serious about our relationship with the planet. There’s no direct link between coronavirus and climate change, but if a tiny virus can bring our whole bustling civilisation to a halt, then how vulnerable will we be to a disordered environment driven by out-of-control global heating?

Just in time we are being taught humility and perspective, the optimists say. Even better, some of the things we urgently needed to do are now happening without our help. People are learning to work from home, air travel has been closed down, the oil industry is collapsing. Etc., etc.

By contrast, the pessimists (who often refer to themselves as realists) believe that crises don’t make people behave better. The Great Depression led to the Second World War, 9/11 led to wars all over the Middle East, the Crash of 2008 led to ‘austerity’, slow growth, mounting popular anger and the rise of populist regimes across the world. Don’t expect any better from this crisis.

Moreover, they say, most people can only process one problem at a time, and that has the unfortunate ring of truth.

Last year saw an unprecedented upsurge in public concern about climate change – Australian wildfires, record floods all over the place, Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg – but all that has now been pushed aside by the coronavirus. Global heating and its associated disasters will kill far more people in the long run, but Covid-19 is killing them now.

There’s no time for climate this year, and last year’s climate momentum will not automatically return when the virus is under control. Momentum takes time to build, and we are running out of time. There is no magical deliverance on the way, and on balance the current health emergency is setting back the cause of climate sanity, not advancing it.

Nevertheless, we can take some comfort from the fact that behavioural moulds are being broken all over the place, and several generations are learning together that disruptive changes, even very big ones, can be accepted by most people if they understand the need.

A small example from my own trade: this column has appeared in newspapers all over the world for decades, but the relentless retreat of the print media before the online onslaught has eaten deeply into the revenue base of the press everywhere.

Many papers have died, almost all have downsized, and that hit my own income hard. My solution was to do more speaking engagements, which involved more time away from my real job and a lot more travel. No show, no dough, so I did it – but then came coronavirus, social distancing and a temporary halt to air travel. End of that solution. What to do next?

So I put my talks on video and offered them to the usual suspects – universities, schools, libraries, conference organisers – saying I could do a live Q&A session afterwards on some web hosting site for the widely distributed audience. They would never have accepted that arrangement two months ago. Now there is no alternative, so we’re back in business.

Some of this business will go back to the old model when normal service is restored, but I suspect quite a lot of it will not. This is happening all across the business world, and will mean permanent, significant change: more working from home, less commuting, more teleconferencing, less travel. And lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Another positive change coming out of this emergency is that we are finally beginning to take a chunk out of our biggest problem: our heavy dependence on oil. Coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, has been declining fast as an energy source for years in most places, but oil, the second-worst fossil fuel, just kept going up.

In January the world was pumping and burning 100 million barrels of oil a day. (That’s about two litres a day for every man, woman and child.) Demand this month has fallen to 70 million bpd, and while some of it will return when the coronavirus is contained, it will probably never see 100 million again. The inexorable decline of oil has begun.

But those are about the only bright spots. This year is forecast to be the hottest ever, and the major climate summit that was scheduled for November has been postponed until next year. Total annual emissions may be down by a few percentage points this year, but most of the decline is only temporary.

Do not despair. The planet is now hot enough to produce several major local calamities every year, so we’ll quickly get re-motivated to worry about global heating once the current emergency is past. Although probably not fast enough to save us from having to resort to geo-engineering by the 2030s.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Last…advancing it”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The Cure for Flygskam

Qantas, the Australian airline, has just test-flown the world’s longest commercial air-route: 10,200 miles (16,500 km.) from New York non-stop to Sydney. There were only 60 passengers aboard the Boeing 787, all in business class, because the plane needed all the rest of the weight for fuel. And, we are told, they danced the Macarena in the empty economy class to stay limber during the 19-hour flight.

I don’t think Greta Thunberg would have been pleased.

There is a Swedish neologism, ‘flygskam’, that has gained some currency among environmental activists in Europe. It means ‘flight-shame’, which is the emotion righteous people should feel if they take a plane trip and contribute to global heating.

Ms Thunberg took a sail-boat across the Atlantic because the fuel that is burned to get each airline passenger to North America causes warming equivalent to about 10% of the average Swede’s annual ‘carbon footprint’. A bit dramatic, maybe, but her point was that flying causes major emissions, and the only way to avoid them is not to fly.

Aviation accounts for around 2.5% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions at the moment, but the contrails the planes leave in the stratosphere turn into cirrus clouds that reflect heat back to the surface, and that causes an equal amount of heating.

So in reality 5% of current warming is already due to aviation, and industry representatives estimate that the number of people flying annually will almost double (to 8.2 billion) in the next twenty years. By then flying will have grown to 10% of the global heating problem, or even more if we have made good progress on cutting our other emissions. So must we stop flying?

That’s not the way we deal with other climate-related transport problems. We haven’t abolished automobiles; we have just worked on ways of reducing and ultimately eliminating the emissions associated with them. Electric cars now lead the field, but other alternatives may emerge.

By contrast, we are told, there are no alternatives available for aviation.

People have been nibbling around the fringes of the fuel problem, but ‘biofuel’ won’t cut it: it would take an area the size of Australia to grow the plants needed as feedstock for the fuel that aviation industry consumes. Batteries are too heavy to use in electric planes, and there’s no solution for the contrail problem. We’ll just have to stop flying.

Not necessarily. The problem has been neglected, because the aviation industry was too lazy or stupid to look down the road and start preparing for a future that more attentive people could see twenty years ago. But the fuel problem is not insoluble. In fact, it has already been solved. The solution just needs to be scaled up.

A number of people have been working on DAC (Direct Air Capture of carbon dioxide) for more than a decade already, and the leader in the field, David Keith’s Carbon Engineering, has had a pilot plant running in British Columbia for the past three years.

Keith’s business model involves combining his captured carbon dioxide with hydrogen (produced from water by electrolysis). The electricity for both processes comes from solar power, and the final product is a high-octane fuel suitable for use in aircraft.

It emits carbon dioxide when you burn it, of course, but it’s the same carbon dioxide you extracted from the air at the start. The fuel is carbon-neutral. Scaling production up would take a long time and cost a lot, but it would also bring the price down to a commercially viable level.

The contrails and the cirrus clouds in the stratosphere are a considerably harder problem, but there are a number of measures that would help.

The planes are flying so high for two reasons. The air is less dense up there, so you don’t use so much fuel pushing through it. But the main reason, especially for passenger planes, is that there is much less turbulence in the stratosphere than in the lower atmosphere. If the planes flew down there, they’d be bouncing around half the time, and everybody’s sick-bag would be on their knee.

So what can you do about it? Well, contrails only form in air masses with high humidity, and therefore only affect 10-20% of flights. With adequate information, most of those flights could simply fly around them. Alternatively, fly below 25,000 ft. for that section of the flight, and contrails won’t form anyway.

It will be more turbulent down there, so in the long run we should be building aircraft that automatically damp out most of the turbulence. This is probably best achieved by ducted flows of air that instantly counter any sudden changes of altitude or attitude, but if aircraft designers started incorporating such ducts into their designs today, they’d only come into regular use in about fifteen years’ time.

So the order of business is first, carbon-neutral fuels (half the problem solved); second, flying around or under air masses with high humidity (another quarter solved); and finally, turbulence-damping aircraft technology (most of the rest done).

By the way, how is Greta Thunberg getting home again?
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 9. (“That’s not…flying”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.