Congested thinking

As this is an aviation-themed blog, I try to keep my ranting focused on issues relating to aviation and climate change. But today, I'm breaking this self-imposed rule to vent spleen on the pompous residents of West London and their allies in the knee-jerk media. That's right: it's congestion charging.

An article in the yesterday's Evening Standard by Valentine Low sumarises perfectly the stubborn stance taken by these ill-informed hacks. Low starts by name-dropping a few select friends and relatives for whom 'Red Ken' has made the borough of K+C nothing more than a ghetto. "Two of my son's friends... were removed from school after their parents were offered a place at a school nearer their home", he says; "the clincher was the knowledge that... they were going to have to fork out far more than they could afford just for the pleasure of driving their twins to school".

Low continues, describing a family with four children and how they've had to move into the zone (and closer to school) to qualify for the 90% reduction. 'Melissa' is quoted, tears no doubt falling thick and fast, as she describes the sheer nightmare of juggling kids, rugby kits and an urban 4x4 down the King's Road at 8:30am. He quotes a further friend, scarred for life as she has to admit taking her children on a bus (yes, a bus! shocking).

Now, much as I love reading about the suffering of Mellisa and her progeny, there's a serious side to this - and one which links back to the aviation debate. Firstly, Low assumes that the lifestyle changes his cabal have had to impliment are unintended. In Valentine's world, Livingstone never realised that the extension would penalise people who choose to live 5 miles from a bus route and send their children to school in the next borough.

Nonsense. The charge is entirely about reducing the distance and frequency you drive - particularly unnecessary school runs brought about by ill-thought out living arrangements. If you want to live a lifestyle which relies on excessive consumption of fossil fuels, then expect to pay.

Secondly, if Melissa or anyone else living on the King's Road chooses to give birth to four children, that is arguably their choice - even though her carbon footprint increases with every child. But there is a caveat - children cost money, and it is not an acceptable arguement that legislation unfairly impacts upon you because you chose to have a certain number of offspring.

No one complains when a trip to Alton Towers costs more for a family with four children than for a family with two. So why are people so surprised that the effects of measures designed to reduce your impact upon the earth's resources have a greater impact upon larger families? You made your bed, now lie in it.

What's this got to do with aviation? Well, the future will need to hold more of these measures if we are to reduce the effect of aviation on the climate, as, short of a deus ex machina techno-fix, we're going to need to reduce the existing capacity - meaning flying less than we do now, and closing regional airports, not expanding them.

That will impact upon your life - especially if you bought into the whole low-cost lifestyle, and either emigrated or bought a second-home abroad. So yes, if your parents or children live in Spain, you'll see them less. So yes, I am saying you can't nip over to Malaga for the weekend. And yes, choosing to fly will cost you.

Ken's charges are just the beginning. There's more to come, and like the residents of K+C, we will simply have to learn to deal with it.

Interweb hijinks at Grauniad

Oh, the joys of webvertising. You're engrosed in an article about the threat posed to the ice caps by global warming, and are just learning that scientists think that it may be too late to save them (regardless of how many MPs jet off to see them - stand up Mr. D. Cameron).

Now someone in the Guardian's marketing team clearly thought the public needed an advert to break up the tedium of an article about - eugh - science, so they've reminded us that Guardian Unlimited Travelshop lets us "Compare flight prices and hotels from over 120 providers". Great! Now to book my trip to the Maldives - after all, they won't be around for long once those icecaps melt...

Turns out the ad is on rotation - you can also get ads by Lloyds TSB, and a video of a man in a room full of snakes. Here's a screengrap.

This just highlights the fundamental contradiction in having ads for products interspersed with news - particularly when this means car and flight ads juxtaposed with articles on climate change. But the Grauniad / Observer's editors seem not to have grasped this yet. Here's the Observer's reader editor lamenting the abuse they got from their ridiculous article on the top 10 places to see before climate change destroys them. And here is the juxtaposed advert making a mockery of their non-apology.

And finally...

It's goodbye to loudspoken Ryanair idiot Michael O'Leary, who will be stepping down to "spend more time with his family".

Doesn't that usually mean he's been sacked?

More Government cold air

The government have just launched a scheme to "reduce emissions of CO2 by 14.4 Mega tonnes (sic)" from air traffic! Amazing, I hear you ask, and how do they intend to achieve this? By putting quotas on landing slots, auctioned according to demand? By quintupling air passenger duty? No, no, no. These are politically unpleasant and don't feed into Britain's "low carbon economy". How about a techno-fix? Yessir - that'll do.

Apparently we'll achieve this magnificent result by improving the efficiency of air conditioning and therefore reducing fuel use by 10%. 10%? That sounds a bit high for air-conditioning, isn't it?

Yes it is, as we discover just 50 words later in the Government's press release. The Science Minister Malcolm Wicks is quoted as saying that air conditioning in aircraft is actually responsible for an "estimated 4% of total fuel burnt". Only 4% then!

Ok, so assuming (perhaps unwisely) that the remainder of the government's original calculation is accurate, it's actually only going to "reduce" 5.76 MtCO2. It's all looking a little less rosy. Divide that by the 25 year age of the fleet (over which the savings will be made) and we are talking about a paltry 230 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

And, of course, all this is contingent on the technology working at all or producing the level of efficiency savings which the benefitting company's press team have helpfully suggested. Do we have much hope that this will be the case?

Yet, as the press release says "Air traffic is forecast to double over the next 15 to 20 years, so this project is of vital importance." Right - vitally important. But perhaps it is more important that aircraft manufacturers such as Airbus, who are part of the project, be seen to be doing this sort of thing?

Finally we move on to the crux of this little parable - the fact that the technology will be transferred to buildings and planes. Great! Transferable technology, everything doing it's bit, etc etc, what's the problem? We can all agree that aeroplanes do require air-conditioning - the minus 50 degree stratosphere into which vomit their emissions does need to be warmed slightly before it reaches the impoverished British tourist on their 8th short haul flight to Amsterdam that year. But when it comes to air conditioning for buildings I foresee a slight problem with claims that 'energy efficiency' result in 'emissions reductions'.

And here we meet our old friend the business as usual emissions scenario. Follow me closely while I wave a wand over this crystal ball - let us look into the future where we see the 10% (or is it 4%?) efficiency that we are promised through this nascent technology will result in a massive carbon saving in buildings over the next 40 years. Yes, because as the prevalence of air-conditioning increases thanks to climate change, the potential savings also correspondingly increase! Remember, if, like the aviation industry, you can show as big a growth as possible, therein lie greater opportunities for making emissions 'reductions'!

As usual, we see that instead of developing policy levers to curb consumption and travel, the government is mixing a new tin of green paint and paying for it to be smeared over one of two of the more pointless and damaging things in our society - aviation and air conditioning.

Don't mention the science

Some politicians and commentators have been trying to paint the fight against unsustainable aviation as an attack on working people.

Last week it was Tony Blair and Labour party chair, Hazel Blears. Not everyone would consider these standard bearers for New Labour to be the authentic voice of the oppressed working class. However, their credibility rocketed since they were joined by the shadow chancellor, George Osborne. He told the Guardian:

"For British people who are for the first time able to afford a foreign holiday, I don't think telling them not to fly is the answer."

The argument is so weak it reminded me of when well-spoken Countryside Alliance supporters said that their opposition to the hunting ban stemmed from their overriding concern for the village ratting industry.

You might think from their previous dramatic statements on climate change that our political leaders would be paying heed to the reccomendations of our top climatologists - although if you really are that naive then there's a very cheap carbon offset scheme I'd like to discuss with you. No, the truth is still inconvenient, and so is dismissed as some sort of bizarre snobbery from the people who hate freedom.

Dr. Brenda Boardman of Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute, for instance. She said:

"The government has to confront the contradictions in its policies. Unless the rate in flights is curbed, the UK cannot fulfil its commitments on climate change. If government wants to be confident about achieving its targets, it has to undertake demand management."

So is she saying this because it represents a scientific truth? Or is it a cunning ploy to ensure she doesnt have to sit next to a 'chav' on her next flight to Barcelona? Then there's Dr. Kevin Anderson from the University of Manchester's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research who has also warned, "If the UK does not curb aviation growth, all other sectors of the economy will be forced to become carbon neutral." Presumably another one sick of the sight of Burberry.

The reality of course is that the rapid and climate-wrecking growth in flying has very little to do with the least well off and everything to do with the priviliged protecting their luxuries. The statistics from the Civil Aviation Authority show that around 51% of the population don't set foot on a plane each year anyway, and according to the the IPPR 75% of flights each year are taken by the most well off in social groups A, B and C.

But perhaps the most ironic part of Mr Osborne's position is the fact that he should have made such a claim whilst visiting Uganda - one of the countries that will be hardest hit by what the World Development Movement and Christian Aid predict will become a "climatic genocide" and where virtually none of the population will ever experience the opportunity to fly.

Afraid of giving up their own breaks in Tuscany, our politicians are ignoring their most prestigious scientists. Fortunately the public hold themselves to a higher standard. A recent MORI poll showed that 70% of us would support higher taxes on aviation if the money went to improve the environment. Another poll of Sun readers showed 63% said they'd be willing to give up a foreign holiday to help save the planet.

It's hardly surprising that Britons are choosing to trust our scientific experts and nor our scientifically illiterate politicians and provides yet more proof that it's up to us to lead our leaders, and take action ourselves.

Plane Speaking: A response to Brendan O'Neill


The donkey jackets have been quietly retired and the Lenin busts wrapped in newspaper and stored in the bottom draw, while that once unshakable belief in the Hegelian dialectic is nothing more than an embarrassing dinner party anecdote. Now it's all sharp suits and bursting media contacts books.

Welcome to the curious world of Spiked Online, the internet home of the Revolutionary Communist Party, where members of that 80s Marxist sect now espouse free-market ideology while stuffing their Gap jackets with corporate booty.

I have had cause this week to take a closer look at this network of commentators after Spiked editor Brendan O'Neill described me, on Comment is Free, as "deeply conservative and censorious, wishing to hold society back, shut down debate and keep the uppity oiks in their place". The Spiked gang once thought society was held back by bourgeois tendencies. Now, it seems, the fault lies with environmental protesters - particularly those under thirty years of age who think tackling climate change might be, you know, a reasonably good idea.

I wandered into the crosshairs of Spiked's AK-47 after founding a direct action group to tackle the dangerous growth in aviation. Just to put it on the record, I and my friends did not do this because we were convulsed by a desire to force people to live in Hobbit-style grass huts, wear hair shirts, howl at the moon or listen to "One Way" by The Levellers on repeat. (We'll leave the cultural reprogramming to the Revolutionary Communist Party, eh Brendan?) No, we founded the group called Plane Stupid because the world's scientists are warning that the current growth in aviation threatens to destroy what hope we have of averting catastrophic climate change. Indeed, in recent months both Oxford University and the internationally respected Tyndall Centre have warned that if aviation expands as expected, even if Britain decarbonised the rest of its economy by 2050, we still won't even meet the prime minister's most conservative emissions target of a 60% cut. Reports in The Guardian this week make it abundantly clear that Tony Blair has no intention of paying heed to these warnings, only underlining the importance of groups like my own.

The growing and diverse movement calling for radical action to halt climate-changing carbon emissions won't be silenced by corporate-funded misinformation from recently converted, free-market, anti-green disciples like Brendan. This near cultish worship of the market, espoused by Spiked and those who fund them in the boardrooms, has blocked action on the most serious of problems for too long.

Brendan chides me personally, and the exciting grassroots movement of which I am part, as "anti-progress". Is his idea of progress a world in which there are180 million deaths from climate change this century in Sub Saharan African alone (as Christian Aid predicts)? Is his idea of progress a world in which sea levels swamp major urban conurbations? Is his idea of progress one in which hundreds of millions of people struggle to find fresh water? Because for me and my friends who campaign against the growth in aviation, progress has a very different hue.

It's time to put to rest some of the tired arguments that industry stooges like Brendan have taken to trotting out. It's important to make it clear that the battle against the unsustainable growth in aviation is not a reactionary middle-class attempt to get the hoi-palloi off "our" flights. Cheap flights haven't made it easier for poorer people to travel for the first time; they've just made it easier for the wealthy to travel more often. The Civil Aviation Authority's own data shows that the average person flying in or out of Stansted, a budget airport, earns in excess of £50k, whilst people in the bottom 20% of incomes never even set foot on a plane. Meanwhile, analysis by the industry reveals that second-home owners in Spain now take five or six flights a year. There's been an enormous growth in binge-flying with the proliferation of stag and hen nights to Eastern European destinations chosen not for their architecture or culture but because people can fly there for 99p and get loaded for a tenner. All good fun, but I can't help thinking of those 180 million Africans.

And woe betide anyone working in the UK's tourism industry. Thanks to the short-break phenomenon, Britain now has a £17 billion tourism deficit. That's thousands of smaller bed-and-breakfasts, seaside restaurants and cottage industries in Britain going under because the industry keeps telling us that flying to Barcelona is glamorous. Meanwhile government currently subsidies an Irish airline to buy American planes to enable British people to spend their pounds in Spain.

Plane Stupid has become used to scathing criticisms from people with vested interests. Debate is the lifeblood of our democracy and we're keen to engage with all the arguments but if Brendan wants to be taken seriously, he might at least try to base his case on empirical evidence. As it is, his rhetoric and statistics have all the credibility of those tractor production quotas he and his fellow travellers used to get so excited about.