From the perspective of our campaign to change the culture of flying in academia, I have to see the agreement as inadequate. The agreement is voluntary, relies too much on offsets in place of actual emission reductions, and gives too little attention to restraining aviation demand. The case against the agreement is summarized in the video below from FERN, an environmental organization, and in the vigorous Guardian column this week from George Monbiot.
While readers may share one view or the other, I feel we should all agree on some principles of honest reporting about this agreement. Nobody should say that the ICAO agreement agrees to “limit aviation emissions to 2020 levels.” That is the misleading but commonly heard shorthand for what the agreement says. The agreement actually relies mostly on carbon offsets from sectors other than aviation, such as planting trees or capturing carbon. This has several implications for honest reporting:
Even if the agreement worked as written, which is doubtful, the aviation sector should get credit for only a small part of the climate improvement that could result (for example, it is fair to give the aviation sector credit for the comparatively small anticipated future improvements due to increased fuel efficiency). Most of the credit goes to the sectors that actually provided the offsets and captured the carbon.
Some major environmental NGOs seek to occupy a middle ground, supporting offsets but only if they are “good offsets” — meaning that care has been taken to avoid problems such as “double-counting” (for example, avoiding counting the same tree plantings in both the aviation agreement and national targets). But honest reporting requires admitting that, even if all available “good offsets” were assigned to aviation — an astonishing proposition in itself — there still would not be quite enough good offsets to meet the requirements of the agreement.
Even the slightly more careful shorthand phrase that the agreement limits “net” emissions to 2020 levels is not sufficiently accurate, unless the context makes clear that the “net” emissions reduction is mostly from offsets. Pretending that lay readers will know what one means by the word “net”, without explaining about the offsets, is little better than crossing one’s fingers while telling a fib.
With honest reporting, even the environmental NGOs that are somewhat inclined to favor the agreement should be endlessly emphasizing that it is merely a first step. Any language describing this agreement as a major solution to aviation emissions serves to undermine public understanding of the need for a major culture change toward reduced demand for aviation.
FlyingLess recently interviewed Mary Christina Wood, the author of the much-acclaimed book, Nature’s Trust: Environmental Law for a New Ecological Age. Mary is the Philip H. Knight Professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she serves as the Faculty Director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center. The transcript below is an edited version of the interview, one conducted by Joseph Nevins of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.
FlyingLess: Why did you become an environmental law scholar?
Mary Christina Wood: I grew up along the Columbia River in Washington State [in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States] in a family with a long line of conservationists. I’m also a 4th generation lawyer, so I grew up appreciating that the law was a tool to solve problems and to hold people responsible for harm.
During my formative years along the Columbia, I saw a place utterly devastated by development, pollution, and deforestation. The fish were declining and, as a result, there were “fish wars” between the Indian tribes and non-Indian fishers. This reflected dramatic changes in the local ecosystem. My father would tell us stories of the incredible abundance he had experienced growing up along the Columbia. As a boy, he would row out on the Columbia River and get fish right from the fishing boats. He would tell me that the canneries just down the road had been stacked to the ceiling with salmon. This set the backdrop for the news stories I would see on TV during the 1970s showing police clubbing and tear gassing Indian fisherman who were fishing at their ancient treaty sites—asserting what a federal court had said were their legal rights, rights that the State of Washington refused to acknowledge, however. That accumulated experience along the river gave me a perspective of what happens when a once-abundant resource crashes.
So, going into college, I was outraged at what was happening — by the salmon collapse, the disappearance of farmland for suburban development, the clear-cutting of the forests, and wetland destruction. I was appalled that the government would allow so much devastation. Because I grew up in a family of lawyers, I tended to ask questions like, “How could this be legal?” I wanted to protect the world we live in, so I went into environmental law.
FlyingLess: A basic premise of your book seems to be that, given that we live in a “new ecological age” (the book’s subtitle), we need new legal tools to deal with the associated environmental challenges. What is wrong with the old legal tools—and how did you come to the conclusion that the old legal tools weren’t working?
Mary Christina Wood: When I began teaching environmental law, I assumed it was functional, because law school had taught me law from the books. Those books reflected environmental law as it should have been, without much regard to what actually happened on the ground. But soon I began to see very deep and problems with the system as a whole.
Every semester, I would have students write papers on environmental issues running the gamut — logging, mining, hazardous waste, pesticides, urban development, water appropriation, you name it. Literally, every paper came out more or less the same: there were laws in place to protect the resources, but the agencies implementing the statutes deviated from the goals intended by their architects. Instead of using statutory authority to prevent damage, the agencies used their discretion to allow the very damage the law was designed to prevent. It wasn’t until I saw so many instances of this behavior that I perceived dysfunction at a deeper level. I often say that it doesn’t matter what the law intends — the agencies will find a way around it. We have plenty of laws that are purposed in the right direction. The problem lies in their implementation.
It was at that point that I decided to do a legal “autopsy” of environmental law to determine where the dysfunction lies. I located a fundamental problem in the way in which environmental law is framed. The current paradigm is one of political discretion. The agencies—such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—have administrative discretion [the right to make judgments in particular cases guided by legal principles] to allow harmful practices. The assumption is that agencies have a right to exercise broad discretion, because they are objective entities with vast expertise that will use their authority to promote the public purposes of the statutes.
But it turns out that the premise underlying discretion—that agencies are objective—flies in the face of reality. Agencies are very politicized and often make decisions to serve their own political ends. Discretion is golden for industries, profiteers, developers, and corporations – those who want to exploit public resources for their own gain—because it opens the door for them to try to influence regulatory agencies. As much as the U.S. public is aware of corporate lobbying in the legislatures, the public is nearly oblivious to the lobbying that takes place every day behind the scenes within the regulatory agencies. These agencies exert the major power over all natural resources in the United States. Industry knows it can influence these agencies, so it spends a lot of money working them. It’s called government relations. They are constantly pressuring the agencies to do what they want—easing up on regulations or not enforcing them. The result is a warping of statutory law to serve political ends, dictated by the same industries the law was supposed to regulate.
This agency discretion also undermines the check and balances that are crucial to our system of democracy. When an agency action is challenged in court, judges typically assume that the agencies are the objective experts, so they are reluctant to second-guess administrative decisions. And as for Congress, that branch has had almost a hands-off approach to environmental law over the last two decades, relinquishing the supervisory role that it should have over the agencies it has delegated so much power to. Citizens have also backed off, because they assume that there are so many laws and so many agencies that this massive legal structure must be working. And those citizens who do get involved find themselves quickly overwhelmed by a process that is mind-boggling in its complexity and techno-jargon.
So, stepping back, we don’t necessarily need to change most laws. What we need to do is change the whole paradigm through which the law is administered. If we have the right paradigm, then the laws could work. The paradigm I advance is a public trust frame—which has four sides: obligation, obligation, obligation, and obligation. The frame is not based on discretion, but rather on a property concept called a trust. In any trust—a college or retirement account, for example—the ownership is split between two parties: the trustees and the beneficiaries. The wealth in the trust is called the res. The trustee must manage the wealth for the beneficiary. Courts emphasize that the trustee must have complete loyalty to the beneficiary. A trustee can’t engage in self-dealing or make decisions to advance his or her own interests through use of trust assets. So, a trust is different from any other property regime. Private property owners can use their property to benefit their own interests without limitation.
The public trust doctrine applies this trust principle to government’s management of natural resources. U.S. courts have said that government (legislatures and agencies) is the trustee, and that present and future generations of citizens are the beneficiaries of crucial natural resources. When you take this duty of loyalty over to the political realm, you understand that it’s blatantly wrong for a legislator-trustee to take money from an industry that stands to benefit directly from that legislator’s decision on natural resource management in the public trust. Yet that very behavior defines our campaign finance system. It’s all a violation of fundamental trust principles. So in many respects, the reframing I am talking about gets to the heart of government dysfunction that we see today in the United States.
The public trust doctrine is strongly rooted in U.S. law and has been around since the founding of the country. It came from Britain, and before that, had origins in public rights recognized in Roman law. The idea that government manages critical natural resources as a trust for the benefit of present and future generations can be a powerful concept to restrain government and other actors. It has profound implications for how we treat mining, pesticides, fisheries, etc.
The public trust principle has much more power than statutes—laws or regulations passed by legislative bodies. The trust is a constitutional concept—in other words, a fundamental rights-based concept. The public has trust rights that can be asserted in court, regardless of what any particular statute says. So this legal principle has extraordinary potential as a check on government.
All of this comes with a big caveat: the trust is only good if the courts enforce it. For it to have meaning, you need to bring cases to court to force government’s hand.
FlyingLess: In many ways, your book speaks to a U.S. audience. But in a number of places you suggest that the implications of your analysis go far beyond the boundaries of the United States. Would you please expand on this?
Mary Christina Wood: The United States passed many environmental statutes in the 1970s, and each statute designated an agency to pass regulations to implement it. This also happened on the state level. The United States suddenly had thousands of pages of environmental law, and nearly everyone thought they would work. So people fighting the ill effects of industrialization and development elsewhere often looked to the United States and invited U.S. lawyers to help them draw up laws—ones based on the U.S. model.
In most countries, the basic construct of legislation and agencies is similar. The same problems that U.S. citizens face with agency discretion are very similar to what people in other countries experience. While not a panacea, the public trust does seem to be a concept that is transferable to countries around the world— with the exception of dictatorships or tyrannies, which don’t recognize the trust because it is fundamentally a democratic concept.
In a democracy, government receives power from the people and, in granting that power, the people hold back rights for themselves to assure lasting natural commonwealth to support future generations. This principle goes back to Roman times, expressed in the Justinian Code, which provides the foundation for many legal systems throughout the world. In Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, and in British Commonwealth countries, there is a common notion of public rights to natural resources—the oceans, air, shorelines, wildlife—and a public right to support and maintain these natural communities.
The public trust doctrine has been the focus of court cases across the world, for instance, in countries in Africa, in the Philippines, and in India, which has perhaps the most pronounced public trust doctrine in the world. The universal recognition of the trust (or public property rights) demonstrates its great potential as a common platform for environmental protection worldwide. It also helps explain why the approach is taking off in a growing number of countries. The U.S. organization, Our Children’s Trust, which has a global atmospheric trust campaign underway, is working with partners in many other countries, including India and the United Kingdom, to help give the concept of the public trust more attention and legal traction. In countries with civil law systems, however, there are two little bumps that make it harder to implement a public trust approach.
One is that the courts there can only operate within the statutes. They can’t formulate core principles of justice as courts do in the United States (which has common law, or judge-made law). In countries with an English Common Law tradition, by contrast—countries like India, Canada, the Philippines—courts have more room to implement a full public trust doctrine. The second bump is that some countries don’t have a concept of private trust, so the public trust is less familiar.
Lawyers in other countries are dealing with these challenges by figuring out ways to craft legal claims tailored to the laws of the country—one way being to interpret existing statutes as iterations of the public trust. Many national constitutions, for example, say that natural resources are held for present and future generations. They don’t use the word “trust,” but they are essentially saying the same thing. Any time a constitution or statute iterates public rights to access certain resources, that indicates a trust concept.
FlyingLess: One of the things which stands out in your book is your assertion of a right to public property. Would you please speak to how the right to public property relates to the concept of “Nature’s Trust” and why you find it important to couch the right in terms of property?
Mary Christina Wood: Environmental law is statutory law, not property law, yet you often hear private property owners say, “It’s my right to do whatever I want on my land.” The only way to really address the property paradigm of destruction is to invoke a property paradigm of protection. The public trust principle empowers citizens to say, “We also have property rights—to resource protection—and you are harming those.” This is far more powerful that stating “there’s a statute out there that the EPA should enforce and you’re not abiding by it.” The statutes are subject to intense politicization and the discretion frame. Moreover, legislatures can repeal them at any time.
The public trust is so powerful because it is considered to be an antecedent, preexisting property right that is superior to private property rights. The public’s right to protect trust resources needed to sustain society remains embedded as a limitation on private title. It also forms a restraint on government’s ability to privatize crucial resources needed by the public. As the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1892 decision regarding the State of Illinois’s sale of Lake Michigan shoreline demonstrated, the public trust limits what governments can sell or give away. This is why a property-rights approach is distinctively forceful. Statutes come and go, because they can be repealed. Property rights create an enduring framework of responsibility.
It is also important to recognize that the public trust has constitutional force. Without a constitutional check, the legislatures can simply go on exacerbating climate crisis by pursuing fossil fuel policies or by ignoring the problem. Some key periods of U.S. history, such as the civil rights period, are marked by court opinions finding government action unconstitutional. The present atmospheric trust campaign asserts both public trust and individual constitutional liberties to challenge government fossil fuel policies that are driving the country—and indeed, the world—towards climate catastrophe.
A November 2015 decision by a superior court in King County in Washington state declared a public trust constitutional right to a stable climate system. That is a tremendously important decision because it shows that legislative bodies must abide by the trust. In that same state, there is a very interesting case enforcing constitutional rights against the state legislature, in a totally different context dealing with public education. Because the state legislature is not funding education at a level required by the state constitution, the Washington State Supreme Court has actually found the legislature in contempt of court and has since begun imposing fines—$100,000/day—for not complying with its constitutional obligation to fund public education. This kind of remedy – again, developed in a context wholly apart from the public trust—provides a model for judicial enforcement against a legislature when it violates constitutional rights.
FlyingLess: Two months ago (in May), there was what seems to be a very important ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that the state must comply with mandates to achieve dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. How is the decision similar to, or different from, what is taking place in Washington State?
Mary Christina Wood: Both cases are part of a global campaign of atmospheric trust litigation, spearheaded and coordinated by the non-profit organization, Our Children’s Trust (OCT). The campaign is unprecedented in the history of law. On May 4, 2011, the organization filed administrative petitions or lawsuits against every state in the country and the U.S. federal government. All of them were filed on behalf of youth petitioners and asserted the same thing: the atmosphere and climate system are held in trust by the government for the benefit of present and future generations. The state agencies denied every single one of the administrative petitions. As for the court cases, several lower courts denied the claims saying that climate is a matter for the other branches of government. Initial rulings in Texas and New Mexico, however, found an atmospheric trust obligation. After that first wave of litigation, lawyers went back and filed appeals and, in some states, new cases. And now these cases are gaining real momentum, as we see in Washington and Massachusetts.
There is a growing realization that we’re running out of time and that Congress and state legislatures won’t do what is needed to address climate change. The fossil fuel industry has them trapped in a political cage that is walled in by campaign contributions. Judges are now waking up and realizing that these are real threats unfolding in the present, and that they have a crucial role to play in confronting this crisis.
In Massachusetts, the youth petitioned the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to control greenhouse gas emissions pursuant to its public trust obligation and the state’s statutory law. The DEP denied the youth’s petition. The youth appealed to the court, stating that the DEP did not comply with a 2008 state law passed by the Massachusetts legislature requiring at least an 80 percent reduction (based on 1990 levels) in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The youth’s lawyers basically said that the DEP wasn’t doing enough to comply with that statute. The DEP defended its policies partly on the basis of the state’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)—a regional cap and trade scheme. That dispute went to court. The court deferred to the agency, and the youth lost. The youth subsequently appealed to the state’s Supreme Court. On May 17, that court issued a decision asserting that what the state has done thus far has not been adequate. It obligated Massachusetts to set clear limits on the state’s emissions, limits that decline annually.
This is a monumental victory. The actual decision was quite short, saying essentially to the state that there’s a statute and you’re not implementing it. The opinion didn’t contain public trust pronouncements, but the case is very significant as part of the overall litigation effort. The limitation is that it is not transferable to other states, because the court decided to premise its decision on the Massachusetts statute.
The Washington case is also monumental and actually transferable. The judge in that case has now issued three opinions. Her second one was especially clear about the urgency of the situation. This is the first judge in the country saying that the children cannot wait any longer for a government response. Referencing the best available science of climate change, as well as the Department of Ecology’s own reports, she explicitly recognized that the children’s safety and survival—later in their lifespans—is in jeopardy. She also said that the public trust is grounded in the Washington State Constitution in two places: 1) in the section which speaks of fundamental and inalienable rights retained by the people; and 2) in the part which asserts that the state has sovereign ownership over the beds and shores of all navigable waters. The state can’t protect those waters without protecting the atmosphere, and to separate the two would be “nonsensical,” Judge Hollis said.
A very big case pending now is a federal case, Juliana v. United States, in which 21 youth and climate scientist James Hansen have sued the Obama administration and all of the agencies that are part of the fossil fuel regime. The case is pending in the federal district court in Eugene, Oregon. The youth contend that the federal government, by pursuing policies that endanger the climate system upon which their future survival and welfare depends, is violating both their public trust rights and express rights to life, liberty and property guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. It’s probably no overstatement to say that this is the biggest case on the planet right now in terms of the magnitude of harm at stake and the potential ramifications to people worldwide. The youth plaintiffs are taking on the entire fossil fuel regime of the U.S. government. Every major fossil fuel corporation (through trade associations) has intervened, siding with the Obama Administration to defend continued reliance on the fossil fuels that leading scientists say will take us over the tipping point into a climate catastrophe from which there is no viable recovery.
On April 8, Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin made a set of findings and recommendations concluding that all of the youth’s claims should go forward. This was a huge preliminary victory for the plaintiffs. The case is now in front of U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken, who must review the magistrate’s findings and accept or reject them. Judge Aiken has scheduled a hearing for September 13 so that the plaintiffs and the defendants (the federal government and intervening fossil fuel industry representatives) can make their oral arguments. If Judge Aiken allows the case to proceed (thereby affirming the magistrate), this will be the first time that the federal government’s fossil fuel policy will be on trial. Some people are calling it the trial of the millennium. It will involve expert testimony of world-class climate scientists and will undoubtedly hold the attention of the national and international press.
What will come out in trial may be quite shocking to average people. The plaintiffs are expected to present evidence showing that the government has known for decades of the mounting climate damage from fossil fuel use, but has willfully pursued policies that exacerbate the danger. And because fossil fuel companies (or, more precisely, trade associations that represent them) intervened in this case as defendants, the industry will likely have to make records available to the plaintiffs as part of the discovery process. So we could see a trial with three dramatic stories converging: 1) the growing climate danger over the course of decades as told by scientists; 2) the government’s continued fossil fuel regime in the face of clear warnings of mounting danger; and 3) the fossil fuel industry’s decision to pursue its own profits despite this public danger — and perhaps even its efforts to influence government policy in its favor. If evidence bears these stories out, this case could be the catalyst needed for broad-scale, urgent phase out of fossil fuels. It’s now late in the Eleventh Hour and, speaking in terms of the legal system, there is nothing else teed up to accomplish what this case could. As climate scientist James Hansen said in an amicus brief in one atmospheric trust case, judicial relief “may be the best, the last, and, at this late stage, the only real chance to preserve a habitable planet for young people and future generations.”
FlyingLess: Given the goal of the FlyingLess campaign to bring about marked reductions in academic flying, what can the campaign learn from the atmospheric trust litigation approach?
Mary Christina Wood: Flying is the elephant in the room. People are flying as if there were no climate crisis. The trust approach requires a carbon emissions accounting. That’s the methodical approach for bringing carbon emissions down. A full accounting means that you don’t ignore a big part of the problem—flying. We have to develop global protocols for airports in cities and figure out who is going to be responsible for the flights associated with a particular airport. We basically have to arrive at an annual emissions reduction strategy for the entire air travel sector because it is such a large part of the overall emissions picture.
“Universities will have to re-think their flying practices in a very serious way.”
Though I’m not a fan of national cap and trade legislation because it requires too much regulatory oversight, such a system could work for the airline industry system as a discrete emitting sector. The idea would be that the airline industry as a whole would bring down its emissions by a certain percentage each year, and individual airlines could trade among themselves to accomplish such reduction. Within universities, you could do the same thing. You could have a system whereby you aggregate all of the flight miles of the university and establish a cap and trade system within that university. Everyone would get a yearly allocation (reduced annually) and could trade, with the goal of bringing down the overall amount of flying each year. Of course university athletic departments, which typically have the highest emissions, would have to participate as well. At the University of Oregon where I work, the football team, with its huge entourage of support people, flies all around the country with no policy for dealing with its carbon dioxide emissions.
Universities will have to re-think their flying practices in a very serious way. There are promising new fuel innovations for airplanes, and potential offsets for emissions, but so far no one has forced the issue of responsibility for the emissions of academic institutions, programs and departments. This is an area where business and science programs at top research institutions could partner to develop a protocol. If we are lucky enough to have any window of opportunity remaining before irrevocable climate tipping points, we know this much: there is no time to lose.
This month we have been contributing to a remarkable and nearly carbon-free conference, organized by #flyingless supporter Ken Hiltner and colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The title is Climate Change: Views from the Humanities.
Until May 31, all of the talks will be available at the conference website. Then, there will be closing events by videoconference on May 31. You may sign up for free to participate in the online question and answer threads.
The keynote talks include noted ethicist Peter Singer, literature professor E. Ann Kaplan, bestselling science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, and English professor Ashley Dawson. Singer’s thesis is fierce: “What the rich nations are doing is indefensible.”
Sir David MacKay, a brilliant scientist, innovator, and Cambridge University professor, has died at age 48, from cancer, according to a report in Cambridge News this week:
An expert in sustainable energy, his book Sustainable Energy – without the hot air was praised for its straight-talking approach to ending human dependence on fossil fuels, and was praised by Bill Gates as “one of the best books on energy that has ever been written.”
As news of his death broke online tributes came pouring in.
Amber Rudd, secretary of state for energy and climate change, said: “David was the model of a scientist in government; challenging, insightful and with the ability to explain the most complex subjects in a clear way.
“His legacy, including the 2050 calculator now emulated across the world and his brilliant book on sustainable energy, was deservedly recognised by a knighthood earlier this year.
“His ideas and arguments will continue to influence how we deal with climate change.”
Ed Miliband, former energy minister and Labour leader tweeted: “RIP David Mackay, former DECC Chief Scientific Adviser. He was passionate, original, brave. A truly good man. Deep condolences to his family.
Sir MacKay was one of the earliest prominent supporters of this #flyingless petition and campaign. In the book Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air, MacKay concisely explained how to count aviation’s greenhouse gas contribution and skeptically summarized the potential for future technology improvements to improve this impact.
The Paris Agreement & the Fight Against Climate Change
An interview with Kevin Anderson
In early February, FlyingLess interviewed Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change in the School of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Civil Engineering at the University of Manchester (United Kingdom). Kevin is also Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. The transcript below is an edited version of the interview, one conducted by Joseph Nevins of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.
FlyingLess: In a piece that you wrote and that was published in Nature, you assert that the Paris climate agreement constitutes “a genuine triumph of international diplomacy,” while at the same time arguing that it “risks being total fantasy.” Why do you say this?
Kevin Anderson: The triumph of Paris lies in the international diplomacy that brought together all the leaders of the world’s countries. These leaders sang from the same hymn sheet for the first time and said that climate change is important, and, in doing so, pulled the rug from underneath the climate change skeptics. Ultimately, and despite their huge resource base, the skeptics have been unable to delegitimize the basic science of climate change. We have to look at this objectively and acknowledge that, in this respect at least, the Paris Agreement is a huge triumph and a real credit to how the French managed the whole process.
Another triumph is that we have gone further than just targets—I don’t like the target framing anyway, as it suggests something that we merely aim for and that we may well miss; instead we now have obligations. These obligations are to stay well below a 2 degrees Celsius temperature increase over pre-industrial levels and to strive for 1.5 degrees. With these clear obligations we have something tangible against which we can and should hold governments, businesses, and wider civil society, accountable.
The remainder of the 32-page document has no meaningful substance in delivering on the temperature obligations—and it is in this sense that the agreement is a fantasy. Imagine an agreement on climate change that says nothing about de-carbonization, and doesn’t even mention fossil fuels! The agreement doesn’t take effect until 2020; by which time, the world will have emitted another 200 billion tons of carbon dioxide, leaving us little room in an already tight global carbon budget for 2 degrees Celsius and all but eliminating any chance to stay within 1.5 degrees of warming. Furthermore, the “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs)—the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that each country has pledged to deliver—will lead us to an annual level of 55 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The Paris document calls for these pledges to be tightened to deliver nearer 40 billion tons in 2030, but even this is far above what is compatible with a global average temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius.
So, when you do the maths, you see that the Agreement implies a carbon budget far in excess of what is safe. Thus, the only way to reconcile the global emissions implied by the Agreement and the emission levels that are demanded by the science for “well below 2°C” is by sucking an incredible amount of carbon out of the atmosphere, through the ‘successful’ roll out of highly speculative negative emissions technologies—technologies that do not yet, and may never, exist.
FlyingLess: If one were to ask high-level political leaders involved in the Paris negotiations what they think of your interpretation, what do you think they would say and why?
Kevin Anderson: Away from a microphone, virtually all of those with a quantitative grasp of the issues would agree. The Paris Agreement explicitly avoids direct reference to its reliance on negative emissions technologies (NETs), yet the only way the sheer scale of the void between its temperature obligations and pathetic mitigation pathway can be reconciled is through heroic assumptions about some future reliance on NETs.
Obviously, it’s a challenge to sell technologies that do not yet exist as the solution to a problem that is framed as needing to be resolved within a few decades, by 2050 at the latest. But there is a long history in the negotiations, and even Working Group III of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], of using politically palatable prescriptions as a way of pretending to resolve hugely challenging issues—carbon offsetting, the clean development mechanism, joint implementation and emissions trading are all ruses to maintain the status quo whilst giving the impression of action. But empirical evidence gives lie to these facades—emissions in 2016 will be over 60% higher than those in 1990, the year the first IPCC report was published. A quarter of a century of kicking the can down the road.
But there is a big caveat to what I’ve said here. Whilst the procrastination built in to the Paris Agreement satisfies the inaction desired by fossil fuel companies, luddite politicians and timid academics, the 2 degree Celsius obligation and the requirement for mitigation to be informed by the “best science” gives civil society a real opportunity to hold our governments to account. It is to support any such call for coherence and consistency in policies that the scientific community must speak out, with transparent assumptions, robust maths, and without concern for political sensibilities or the wrath of co-opted funders.
FlyingLess: As you’ve made clear, you were in Paris. Why did you feel it was important for you to be there?
Kevin Anderson: I usually don’t go to such events as I decided some time back to curtail my flying, but it was easy to get to Paris—there are good train links across the Channel. I also have chosen not to attend the COPS [Conferences of the Parties, annual conferences held within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change] because they are much more political than science events. But there are “side events” for scientists and I was aware that NETs wouldn’t be talked about a lot, and that scientists needed to be there to raise concerns about their implicit inclusion in so much of the advice informing governments and negotiators. Colleagues and I also wanted to raise concerns about aviation and shipping emissions—always a Cinderella issue at COPS.
In many of the side events where (integrated assessment) modellers were outlining their ‘optimised’ emission scenarios, NETs were simply taken as granted—a viable technology that could be applied at scale, accurately costed and used to avoid challenging mitigation rates today—but seldom, if ever, were NETs directly referred to. However, whilst this particular band of modellers appears to have almost no reservations about their heroic assumptions—there is considerable and increasing unease within the scientific community about the assumptions underlying NETs.
Five scientific colleagues and I were asked to contribute to a major press conference on the final day of the COP—to voice our concerns about the penultimate Paris text. The event was crammed with journalists hearing the same message from us all. The agreement, we said, lacked the teeth required to force governments to respond to climate change in a timely manner. We also argued that the INDC review process was too slow and would lock in levels of emissions far in excess of those required to hold below 2°C, and most of us said that the reliance on NETs was misguided. Finally, we emphasised our grave concern that the document had dropped any reference to the importance of policies being informed by the best science.
We also raised our concerns about the omission of aviation and shipping from what proved to be the final text of the Convention. (As I recall, an early draft in Paris specifically mentioned aviation and shipping, but this was dropped from a subsequent version.)
Despite our efforts to make our concerns heard, the political leaders did not tighten the final text—other than the important inclusion of clear reference to being informed by the “best science.”
In the frenetic organisation of the press conference, there was considerable pressure put on those organising it and some of those being asked to contribute to it not to rock the boat, to silence scientists from being scientists—to ensure that scientists did not do anything to undermine the possibility of an agreement.
Certainly it is, in part, the job of the diplomats to compromise and forge agreement, but to attempt to silence legitimate scientific debate is surely no more appropriate now than when the Catholic Church wielded its powers in the seventeenth century.
FlyingLess: Why is it important that the Agreement ultimately did not mention aviation and shipping? What makes these sectors distinct from, say, transport by trucks or trains, neither of which were mentioned in the agreement as well?
Kevin Anderson: Why aviation and shipping are important is that the CO2 emissions of the two sectors are roughly equivalent to the total emissions of Germany and the United Kingdom combined—and, worse still, they’re anticipated to grow at far greater rates than the emissions of these two countries.
Moreover, ever since the Kyoto Protocol was adopted (in 1997), these sectors have been separated from the responsibilities of nation-states. What Kyoto did was to assign aviation to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and shipping to the International Maritime Organization (IMO). These specialized agencies of the United Nations are, in theory, responsible for the two sectors as if they were independent sovereign nations. For real nations, responsibility relates only to what are called territorial emissions. So, if there is a flight, for example, from London to Manchester, the emissions belong to the United Kingdom. But if there is a flight from London to New York City, the emissions do not belong to a particular country and thus no one—given the ICAO’s inaction—is responsible for them.
FlyingLess: You yourself have not flown for 11 years. How did you come to that decision? Has it been difficult for you to adapt?
Kevin Anderson: My professional background is in the oil industry. I came to the university because I wanted to work on matters related to climate change as I thought it was an important issue. We—some colleagues and I at the Tyndall Centre—started working on the UK’s aviation emissions in 2002. And what we quickly realised was that the sector’s emissions were substantial, rapidly growing and set to continue. Today, aviation emissions are about seven percent of the United Kingdom’s total carbon emissions. So, for any chance of holding below 2 degrees Celsius, we concluded that there needs to be far-reaching cuts in flying.
Now, if you work on a subject and your own research points clearly to your own behavior exemplifying the problem – well that presents a huge moral dilemma. What do you do? It seems to me that you have no choice but to work to put your personal behavior broadly in line with what your analysis demonstrates is necessary—at least if you think, for example, climate change is an important global issue.
It hasn’t been too difficult for me to adapt. I don’t have a no-fly policy, but rather a fly-less one. It’s just that I’ve been able to avoid flying for many years because what I do is not sufficiently important to justify the emissions, which, in my view, is the case for almost all academics. If we’re going to fly, it should be for truly extraordinary and important reasons. Otherwise, we shouldn’t go or should take a slower form of travel and arrange for a longer visit; thinking through pros and cons of flying engenders a very different attitude towards travel, time, emissions and moral responsibility.
FlyingLess: You’ve referred to climate scientists and others who work on battling climate change, but also fly, as “hypocrites in the air”? Why are you so critical of academic flying?
Kevin Anderson: Flying is emblematic of our high-emissions lifestyles and the internationalisation agenda of our universities—from conferences to students. Most of us who work in the area of climate change can see the dilemma but weakly justify our flying by asserting that what we do is more important than the emissions that we produce, a position trotted out by many business people, politicians and even some NGOs.
Alternatively, academics may deliberately avoid thinking about the issue—an easy first line of defense—self-inflicted ignorance—implicitly placing the dilemma in the too-uncomfortable-to-handle box. But ultimately it is both arrogant and ineffective to point to the need for others to deliver major change if we are not willing to demonstrate how such changes can be viable within our own community. Leading by example may add not to the veracity of our research—but from experience it certainly adds to the credibility.
Having said all this, we have to be careful not to pick on aviation. The issue is not flying in and of itself, but the fact that flying is such a carbon-fuel-intensive and emissions-spewing activity. There may come a day when we can substitute high-carbon kerosene for a zero or very low carbon alternative, at which point, from a purely climate change perspective, we can resume flying. So I’m not saying we have to eliminate flying forever, but to hugely curtail it until we develop a truly zero carbon aviation sector. But we’re very far from that point. Until that day arrives—if it ever does—we have no choice but to radically cut how much we fly.
FlyingLess: Given how important flying is for many universities and academics—especially in the relatively wealthy parts of the world—why can’t we focus our cuts on other sectors so that those of us who do, and need to, fly can still do so?
Kevin Anderson: The first thing I’d say is, do the maths. With the Paris Agreement, we have committed to keep the temperature increase over pre-industrial levels to well below 2 degrees Celsius. The second is that we’ve also committed to deliver the necessary mitigation in line with principles of equity. This leaves the wealthy parts of the world—those of us responsible for the lion’s share of historical emissions—needing to have zero emissions from our energy system by 2035, with poorer, ‘developing’ nations following suite a few years later—by 2050. If we take seriously the goal of 1.5 degrees, we have even less time. Alternatively we can fudge the issue, keep on flying, celebrate efficiency—whilst conveniently ignoring growth—and finally rely on Dr Strangelove technologies to suck the CO2 out of the air many decades from now.
Sticking with the IPCC’s carbon budgets, the enormity of the cuts we need to make across the board leaves no room for privileging a sector (aviation) at the expense of other sectors. All sectors are going to struggle to meet the reduction goals. There will be no spare capacity for aviation—that is unless, perhaps, we agree to close down energy-intensive industries and give up completely driving and heating our homes. Maybe then we can have an occasional flight during the coming decade—but probably without luggage!
As for equity, given a set budget for global carbon emissions, every ton I use flying is a ton someone else can’t use. In other words, flying, or any other high-carbon activity, imposes constraints on others—typically the poor. If I put a foot on a plane, I’m effectively telling a poor person elsewhere that they have to cut their already meagre emissions. The only way around this is to make spurious and trite arguments that the emissions of us wealthy ‘elite’ are more important than those of others. This is the argument often recanted by academics and business people — typically senior and very high-emitting ones—an argument one hears much less from those with much lower emissions.
Furthermore, raising the welfare of those in poverty today requires improved access to energy, which, in the short- to medium-term, means their emissions will increase. To compensate for their rising emissions, we high emitters will have to deliver still more challenging rates of mitigation. Whilst for the poor increasing energy consumption goes hand in hand with improved welfare, beyond a certain point no further benefits are accrued—and us high-emitters are already far beyond this threshold.
So the wealthy of the world have to make very significant short- to medium-term sacrifices—at least in terms of energy consumption. There’s no win-win solution in the near-term. The sooner we accept this, the sooner we can begin the social and technical innovations needed to provide a good and sustainable standard of living for all of us, not just the fortunate few.
FlyingLess: What do you say to people who argue that you put too heavy an emphasis on the individual and that we need to focus on structures and institutions?
Kevin Anderson: It is a mistake to see it in this way, to assume only a top-down approach will work. What I am not advocating are individualized, atomized actions, but ‘individual’ actions that may catalyse wider meaningful mitigation, that help to change structures and systems.
Climate change is not only a very complicated problem, it is also a complex one—I’m using the word complex here in the way that a physicist may use it. Complex systems are not open to simple reductionist analyses. In this case unpredictable emergent properties may arise from the myriad of often tacit interactions between seven billion citizens. Most changes will not gain momentum, but occasionally some will—and even when new ideas fail, they may still catalyse further change elsewhere.
Within such an interpretation of society fumbling its way through the complexities of responding to climate change, individuals are what we first see manifesting potential systemic change. To succeed examples of change need to gain momentum, to be taken up by others, and finally scaled up—perhaps through top-down nurturing and the development of specific policies.
I do not see the individual, or governments, international companies, etc., as wholly responsible for climate change or as the sole provider of a new model of a decarbonised society. It is a messy partnership without obvious boundaries—but within this we all have an opportunity to be potential agents of change. We cannot know from where or from who change will come—or, within reason, what may succeed and what may not. But if we choose simply to be content with the status quo and not endeavour to drive change, then little new will be catalysed and we’ll continue to rely on very top-down polices masquerading as meaningful change.
Let me give an example. During the fight against Apartheid in South Africa, Mary Manning, a 21-year-old cashier at Dunnes Stores, a supermarket in Dublin, Ireland, refused to ring up a grapefruit from South Africa at her register. Her boss suspended her as a result, but ten of her fellow workers joined her in a strike, one that lasted more than two and a half years! The strike led to the government of Ireland banning South African goods in 1987.
Each individual is the interpreter of the millions of interactions that make us what we are—in that sense we all have the potential to offer a unique set of insights that may drive change. Small, ostensibly individual acts can attract support and translate into larger and potentially system-level change.
A twin concern in responding to climate change—or other huge challenges—is that we don’t yet have systems-level paradigms or tools. And here universities are part of the problem. It is challenging because our structures appeal to us as individuals—worse still as consumers, and seldom ever as citizens. But just as the world can’t be reduced to individuals or consumers, the world can’t be reduced to academic disciplines. Reductionism has proved phenomenally successful—driving much of the industrial revolution—but it is simply inadequate for the scale and dynamism of the system challenges we now face; the whole is much more than the sum of the parts.
FlyingLess: On an institutional level, in terms of universities in the United Kingdom, do you see any initiatives, in relation to flying, for example, that provide grounds for hope?
Kevin Anderson: Yes, there are fledgling initiatives. In the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research, there have been some interesting developments—driven very significantly by Corinne Le Quéré, the Tyndall director. She’s not foresworn flying, but endeavours to carefully justify any flights she takes – and as such has significantly reduced how often she flies. Building on her individual action, Corinne has instigated an important study within the Tyndall Centre on low-carbon research, and has also developed a “code of conduct” to promote low-carbon research within the Centre. More recently, the Centre has produced an app to help academics track their travel emissions on a yearly basis. The Travel Tracker requires researchers to explicitly justify their travel, while allowing them to compare their travel-related footprints with other researchers as well as with emissions targets.
Beyond the Tyndall Centre, there are discussions within research councils throughout the United Kingdom about carbon emissions related to travel and how to reduce them. And at the University of Leeds, I’m aware of discussions regarding long-distance research and how this can be achieved without flying, or at least by reducing the frequency of flights
These are all seeds, early signs of something bigger that might emerge. Now if we could get the James Hansens and the 350.orgs of the world to follow suit, then that would certainly be a major catalyst for change—perhaps sufficient to begin to tip the status quo towards a new equilibrium.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Canada: Alejandro Frid (University of Victoria), (1)(604)358-2031; Sweden: David Jansson (Uppsala University), (46) 73 084 1967; United Kingdom: Rupert Read (East Anglia University), (44)(1603) 592079; United States: Parke Wilde (Tufts University), (1)(339)368-2975/ firstname.lastname@example.org; Tim Waring (University of Maine), (1)(207) 581-3157.
October 19, 2015
Academics Champion Far-reaching Reductions in Flying Group of 56 scholars launches petition calling upon universities and academic professional associations to greatly reduce flying-related footprint as part of effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions
A group of 56 scholars from more than a dozen countries launched a petition today calling upon universities and academic professional organizations to greatly reduce their flying-related footprints as part of the effort to limit the destabilization of the climate system. The signatories represent a diverse set of academic disciplines—from psychology and medicine to sociology and philosophy—in addition to fields (e.g. environmental studies, geography, and earth science) normally associated with climate and other ecological concerns. One is also a former flight instructor and licensed commercial pilot, turned scholar of climate policy and ethics, who no longer flies for conferences and vacations.
Launched less than two months before the international climate negotiations open in Paris, the petition’s release comes on the heels of increased attention to climate change during the U.S. visit of Pope Francis in September. It also comes one week after a study published on October 12 in Nature Geoscience that foresees a doubling of surface melting of Antarctic ice shelves by 2050, and a significant risk, if high amounts of greenhouse gas emissions continue, of their collapse by century’s end, a development with potential implications for rising sea levels.
Such signs, and the fact that emissions are cumulative, are why signatories and climate scholars Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin at the University of Manchester (U.K.) say that “radical and immediate emission reductions” are needed to avoid extremely dangerous levels of climate change. Professor John Wiseman, another signatory and Deputy Director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne (Australia) highlights the important leadership role which institutions of higher education can take in reducing emissions from aviation. “Universities and academic professional associations often embrace sustainability,” he notes, “but they also tend to have very large carbon footprints—to a significant degree due to frequent flying by members of their academic communities.”
Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist and Professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern University (U.S.A.) as well as the former president of the American Academy of Religion (2014), contends that the changes demanded by the petition are matters of environmental justice. “They may seem trivial,” she says, but “they are cumulative, part of a world so clean and easy for people with wealth, so hard and dirty for the poor. It is a world in which the wealthiest have garnered the vast majority of wealth, burning the vast majority of carbon at the expense of the lives and the health of the poor.”
With moderate sacrifice, university-based faculty, administrators, and students can make large reductions in their total greenhouse gas emissions and, in the process, help bring about a more just and sustainable world. The petition makes some concrete suggestions on how to reduce flying as part of an effort to bring about a broad-ranging discussion within academic communities.
Background: Flying contributes significantly to global climate change. It is responsible for 2-3% of annual global CO2 emissions–about the same percentage that Germany and the city of Beijing, for example, contribute each year. Flying’s share of global emissions is growing steadily as the growth in total flying miles outstrips improvements in fuel and engine efficiency. Because flying releases various pollutants at high altitude, its detrimental impact is far greater than that caused by CO2 emissions alone. One round-trip flight from New York City to London or San Francisco incurs a warming effect equivalent of more than two metric tons of carbon emissions per economy passenger–about 20 percent of the total annual emissions of a typical person in Finland, and more than 100 percent of those generated by an average person in India.