Tag: Environment

Don’t panic, and carry a towel: sustainable aviation

  • October 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Don’t panic, and carry a towel: sustainable aviation

Source: Pixabay

We don’t have to turn the clock back on flying – we have to move forward on innovation

In recent months, Greta Thunberg and schoolchildren across the world have led a striking – in both senses of the word – campaign to raise awareness and spark action on climate change. Her 14-day journey across the sea from England to New York to attend a UN climate summit was particularly impressive. Although she stated that it was not something everyone should do, it was hard not to be reminded of pre-aviation days where it took several days to cross the Atlantic and you could only go if you were wealthy.

What we have today are far shorter journey times and far more access to travel for less wealthy people. I got an email from Vueling yesterday offering me an €45 round trip from Bilbao to Seville, and I’m on their mailing lists because I was able to fly with them from Bilbao to Malaga back when I was earning €700 a month as an English Language Assistant. More recently, my friend and I once went from Paris Orly to Porto for €56 return: that was within our reach even as poor students. Beyond European internal flights, passenger numbers are also growing rapidly in Asia-Pacific, Africa, and the Middle East. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) figures also show that restrictive measures would slow, but not stop such growth in passenger numbers.

Having provided people with these opportunities, it would be unfair and unworkable to try to close them off again. Clearly, however, the climate impacts of business as usual are also unsustainable. What, then, can be done? A September event in Brussels set out to discuss a ‘Sustainable Pathway to Future Aviation.’ One of the keynote speakers, Professor Max Hirsh, set out the options for advancing sustainable aviation.

Part of his argument can be found on his personal website, but to summarise:

  • EU-wide aviation taxes would damage national carriers the most, displace traffic outside of the EU and enable populist parties to accuse the EU of taking summer holidays away from the poor.
  • We need to change how we design aircraft and how we design fuel, but the demand and the technology are not yet in place.
  • Airports need to be seamlessly connected to high speed rail so people can easily combine the two.
  • Airport terminals must be redesigned, possibly including complete refurbishment. Many of them were built with poor insulation and low quality materials, before energy efficiency was a priority. They also often rely on car parks to make money and need alternative revenue sources. He cited the example of Singapore Changi’s ‘Jewel’ which replaced its central car park with improved check-in services alongside additional retail and entertainment space.
  • How people get to airports is a huge contributor to emissions, and innovative urban planning and transport solutions can help fix that.
  • We need to have an honest public conversation about what practical changes can realistically be made, to convince airports and airlines to prioritise sustainability, and to make upfront public investments in projects that need coordinating across sectors.

From Brussels to Brussels – A Case Study

What particularly resonated with me was the issue of onward connections. Right now, in Europe, there are certain journeys where the economic incentive is to fly because the green option is eye-wateringly expensive. I recently booked my travel from Brussels back to the UK for Christmas. On my return, I’m planning to stop off and see my dad. There are two ways to do this: fly from Aberdeen to Birmingham and have someone collect me at the airport or get the train from Aberdeen to Peterborough and have someone collect me at the station.
The cost of the flight – plus the cost of a train to London and the Eurostar back to Brusselswas less than the cost of that one train from the north-east of Scotland to the south of England. Is it any wonder people continue to take internal flights?

According to Professor Hirsh, there are technological ways to keep flying, but these are just beginning to develop and face barriers such as insufficient demand, technical hurdles, and sunk investments in current aircraft.  Governments can assist by putting public funds into research on these fledgling technologies. The EU has recently released a proposal for a European Partnership for Clean Aviation, designed to create a pact between the EU institutions and all other public and private stakeholders. The reasoning is that at the EU level, far more resources are available for truly revolutionary investment in new green technologies than a single company or country could provide. Although it’s the weird and wonderful designs that go viral, the EU proposal mentions the kind of electric ‘air taxis’ that have been a staple of sci-fi for decades and are now finally on the verge of becoming reality.

That is the problem in a nutshell: passenger growth is an unavoidable reality, but as yet, technological improvements might not keep up. IATA figures show that fuel burn can only be reduced by around 30-35% on current aircraft models without becoming difficult, and that 2035-40 would be an optimistic time scale for fully electric passenger aircraft carrying 100-150 people.

Overall, therefore, it is optimistic to place our hopes on technology’s transformative power – but equally (if not more) optimistic to hope that taxation could place aviation back in its box. It is not enough simply to declare climate emergencies and rail against the current state of affairs. There are realistic ways to make the system work – the EU, as a huge market power, can make transformative investments and incentivise green behaviours. We cannot and should not go back to a time before aviation. However, we can and should move forward to a new kind of aviation.

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With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

  • August 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: the EU and Trade Conditionality

The Amazon case reflects both the potential of the EU’s market power and how inconsistently it is exercised

Source: Pixabay

Most people online have probably seen the photos of the Amazon burning, as they spread rapidly across social media and developed into a hashtag. As with any online movement, it has suffered from its fair share of misleading content but has also pushed world leaders to act. The EU is no exception to this: its painstakingly negotiated trade deal with Mercosur (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) hangs in the political balance.


Emmanuel Macron spotted an opportunity. In threatening to block the deal, he was able to challenge Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who allowed people to set fires without having to worry about being punished. France, alone, would not have the economic weight to enforce environmental norms, but the sheer weight of the EU market gives it a potentially high level of impact. Chad Damro, an academic, described this phenomenon as Market Power Europe. In other words, the vastness of the single market means that access controls, EU regulations, and interest contestation within it naturally have a knock-on effect on other countries and foreign firms. As such, the EU can and does use its market in carrot and stick measures,  and deploys it to encourage its partners to adopt EU policies and norms.


The reality follows the theory to an extent, concerning EU action in Latin America. It shapes the environmental agenda through dialogues, development aid, Association Agreements and environmental programmes. Its Association Agreements and Free Trade Agreements with Latin American countries are conditional on upholding certain environmental positions. However, the EU’s influence levels in Latin America are weaker than in its neighbourhood. It is also hard to detach the impact of a specific EU contribution from similar measures by other countries and international organisations. Using its single market as an incentive is often a substitute for deploying sanctions. As described in Ian Manners’ concept of a Normative Power Europe, it is the EU’s different identity (derived from its history and governance) that leads it to seek consensus and convince rather than impose.


Shaming and pressure only work if domestic leaders are receptive to such input. The EU has similar mechanisms relating to human rights and trade, including a ‘human rights clause’ as an essential part of trade deals which can result in the suspension of the whole agreement. Such clauses have not yet been invoked, although the EU also has a Generalised System of Preferences+ (GSP+) scheme which provides additional trade benefits on developing countries and is conditional on ratification and implementation of particular international agreements. So far, the EU has inconsistently used withdrawal threats with varying degrees of success: it succeeded in convincing El Salvador to change its constitution to ratify an International Labour Organisation convention, but could not sufficiently pressure Sri Lanka to address rights violations.


In Cambodia, which has duty-free access to EU markets under the Everything But Arms scheme, preferential tariffs aimed at increasing land investment inadvertently also incentivised the state to seize land and evict people against their will to facilitate sales to agro-industrial developers. This led the EU to begin to consider preference removal, which is a long process and has no coercive impact in the meantime if the Cambodian government is not receptive. This is relevant to the current situation, as Bolsonaro has made repeated remarks about developing on indigenous land and integrating the people there (who wish to maintain their current system and culture) into mainstream Brazilian society.

Indeed, the European Parliamentary Research Service notes that some suggest the EU has the most power at the stage of negotiations it has currently reached with Mercosur: “when it can still withdraw the conclusion of the agreement unless the other party improves its commitment to human and labour rights.” It, sensibly, reminds us that the Commission has to weigh up all the potential impacts of a trade agreement as to the increased openness, dialogue, and contacts between the parties that come with economic liberalisation have the potential to lead to additional progress. Indeed, civil society can also benefit from the accompanying environmental and human rights dialogues in EU agreements and obtain more opportunities to mobilise for reform at home. Free trade should not be restricted at all: as part of an effective development package, it is a vital tool for reducing poverty, and the slowing growth in global trade puts that at risk.


Member States know that, and value domestic economic growth highly on their priority lists. It is worth looking at the experience of the EU-Canada agreement (CETA). The European Parliament fought tooth and nail for human rights conditionality in CETA, against Canada’s wishes. Despite Canada’s traditionally strong human rights record, the European Parliament insisted on the inclusion of a human rights clause in the deal, which the Canadians initially saw as unnecessary. It has not always pushed as strongly for such clauses but chose to operate tactically as a result of growing civil society and public focus on trade deals. Macron has arguably done the same. He spotted an opportunity to fight with a populist leader on an issue which had erupted into the public consciousness, while tactically avoiding confrontation with French farmers (much to the chagrin of other Member States.)


Overall, this situation is a microcosm of wider EU trade policy issues. Market Power Europe could have an exceptional amount of leverage with its partners and with global markets. If it was willing to overcome its squeamishness about hard power, it could successfully push other actors to fall in line with its human rights and environmental policy priorities while maintaining its ever-more-vital role as a defender of global free trade and economic openness. It could consistently and successfully spread European economic and human rights norms to its partners, in a beneficial manner for Europeans and the planet as a whole, but instead only uses this vast potential when the stars align to make it politically convenient for a leader or institution to do so.




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What goes around

  • April 2019
  • Otto Ilveskero

What goes around


Circular economy takes the centre stage in European climate action


Source: Pixabay


Two weeks ago, a washed-up carcass of a whale was found on the coast Sardinia, Italy with 22 kilograms of plastic waste in its stomach. The gruesome discovery was yet another indicator for why tackling plastic waste has taken the centre stage of the EU’s environmental action, with the new single-use plastic legislation coming into force soon. The plastic plan is one of the central elements of the Commission’s wider circular economy strategy, which can – if successfully completed – decrease the EU’s carbon emissions by more than a half.


‘The Council urges that the main policy foundations for a sustainable future include a decisive transition towards a circular economy.’ Conclusions of the General Affairs Council meeting on 9 April push for the EU to become a “trailblazer” for sustainable development by striving for climate neutrality and promoting safe low carbon energy. The Council recognises sustainability of innovation and health of citizens as the enablers of globally competitive economy and calls for the European Commission to use the relevant funding tools to support the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In addition, the conclusions highlight the need for a strong involvement of civil society organisations and the private sector stakeholders in achieving climate action goals.


Circular economy proposals have featured particularly heavily in the current legislative cycle with of many of the measures still needing to be implemented under the supervision of the next Commission configuration. Launch with an action plan in 2015, the EU’s circular economy strategy plays a crucial role in the bloc’s efforts to achieve the UN sustainable development goals and has so far resulted in 54 actions being either completed or under implementation in the member states. Over the 2016-2020 period the EU has pledged over €10 billion to support managed transition to a circular economy with a priority status given to the transition within the EU development and cohesion funds in the new 2021-2027 multiannual financial framework proposal. In March, negotiators between EU institutions reached an agreement to ringfence 35% of the proposed €100 billion research budget in 2021-2027 for climate-friendly technologies.


The most visible of these measures has been the highly popular proposal to ban and phase out single-use plastic within the EU. With the Council expected to grant its final approval to the legislation soon, the member states will have two years to fully implement the new targets of 90% collection target for bottles and new labels to help consumers to correctly dispose products. The measures also include the banning of certain plastic cutlery and cotton buds with plastic. Supported by the “Blue Planet effect”, the single-plastic use legislation has moved from the drafting stage to being in force within a year – a miracle in the EU, where the decision-making process is often measured in dog years.


The EU has set a 50% plastic recycling target by 2025, while some member states, such as the Netherlands and France, have more ambitious national plans in place. The Dutch plan, for example, aims to ensure that 70% of all single-use plastic packaging is recycled by 2025. Currently around 30% of the 26 million tonnes of annual plastic waste in the EU is collected for recycling, of which only about a third is actually converted into reusable material. As a result, producers converting plastics do not at the moment have a stable enough supply of suitable waste. One reason for this is the low local collection rates of plastic. Another is the lack of investment to technology that is capable of converting composites into consistent quality secondary materials. Improving these rates to the target level will require enhanced cooperation between public and private sector stakeholders in the member states supported by the EU.


Alongside plastic, a 2018 study by Material Economics, showed that by strengthening the sustainable circulation of also steel, aluminium, and cement, the EU could reduce its carbon footprint by a whopping 56% – or around 300 megatons of CO2 per annum. Globally, the UN has called for greater reuse of materials and recently published a study showing that extraction and primary processing of metals account for 26% of all carbon emissions.


Curbing the negative environmental impact of extraction with recycled content would significantly help the common European effort to reach the net-zero emissions target by 2050. Thankfully, significant progress has been made in many sectors. For example, around 83% of the almost 3 million tonnes of stainless steel produced annually by Outokumpu, Europe’s largest steel manufacturer, is made from recycled materials (the current European average stands at around 60%). Ovako, a Swedish engineered steel manufacturer specialising in effective scrap management, currently recycles around 800,000 metric tons of scrap metal each year. Both are signatories to Worldsteel’s Sustainable Development Charter, committing the industry to meet the UN 2030 sustainable development goals.


Cement, on the other hand, is in need of concrete alternatives. Since 1970, the global extraction of sand and gravel for concrete production has increased from 9 billion tonnes to 44 billion tonnes – a number that has only continued to soar as concrete has grown to become the second most consumed product in the world after water. Currently the second most polluting European industry after steelmaking, cement manufacturing contains high process emissions, is highly localised, and lacks obvious replacement materials. Nonetheless, alternative fuels and improved energy efficiency of manufacturing plants are readily available options for the industry to improve its environmental impact.


As things currently stand, available solutions can help Europe reach 75% of the cuts required to become climate neutral, according to the European Climate Foundation’s ‘Net Zero by 2050: From Whether to How’ report. Innovative technologies and approaches are needed, however, in order to reach the remaining 25%, which will require improved cooperation and increased investment from both the public and private sectors. It is essential for the next European legislative cycle to both encourage the widespread implementation of the 75% and support the research into the remaining 25%.

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No Planet B

  • November 2018
  • Otto Ilveskero

No Planet B

The Commission launches its climate vision ahead of COP24


Source: Garry Knight | Flickr


There is nothing we can do to avoid the costs of climate change, but there is a lot we can do alleviate its impact. Setting a vision for the next 32 years, this Wednesday (28 November) saw the European Commission publish its A Clean Planet for all strategic long-term vision for a ‘climate neutral economy by 2050’.


Required by the 2016 Paris Agreement, the Commission’s mid-century plan lays down eight potential pathways for the EU to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% or even 100% (net-zero) compared to 2010 levels using the already agreed 2030 energy and climate policies as the baseline. While claiming that its purpose is ‘not to set targets, but to create a vision and sense of direction’, it places decarbonisation of power generation at the core of each scenario and calls for 80% of all electricity to be generated from renewable sources by 2050. A majority of the remaining 20% would be covered by nuclear energy according to the plan. Alongside cleaner energy production, building insulation and energy efficiency are also of particular importance, as buildings currently represent the largest share (40%) of the EU’s total energy consumption.


The Commission estimates that a successful transition to a net-zero emissions system by 2050 would provide the EU with economic benefits up to 2% of the GDP (€400 billion under current estimates), while also reducing environment-related public health costs by €200 billion. On top of this, limiting the warming of global average temperatures would reduce climate damage such as droughts and flooding, which according to the European Environmental Agency (EEA) cost over €400 billion between 1980 and 2016 without taking the costs associated with the loss of human life, cultural heritage and ecosystem services into account. From a security perspective, the reduced dependency on fossil fuels would also make the EU less vulnerable to energy crises. As an added bonus, tackling climate change would also leave the future generations with an inhabitable planet to live in.


The ambitious plan was released just days before the opening of COP24 – the 24th annual Conference of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNCCC) – taking place in the Polish coal mining city of Katowice this December. The conference is particularly significant because of its aim to adopt a programme on implementation of commitments between the 184 parties of the Paris Agreement. It may also result in new UN recommendations on fighting climate change, although binding states to their commitments and enforcing sanctions on states failing to meet their targets will in all likelihood remain a challenge for the future.


During the conference, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will present its landmark report to the world leaders in attendance. The 700-page report, which was released in early October, covers data from over 6,000 publications as well as 133 expert contributions and was reviewed by more than 1,000 scientists. It was commissioned by the UN in part to map out the differences in consequences between the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 2C and its less-binding ambition of limiting warming to 1.5C. As it turns out, this 0.5C extra would, for example, put around 10 million more people at risk due to rising sea-levels, bring an estimated €13 trillion euros of additional economic costs, increase water scarcity in the world’s poorest regions by 50%, and double the decline of marine fisheries. The report also states that we have just 12 years to sort ourselves out before the momentum of our current inaction sets us on a course of no return.


Yet, as Jim Skea, an IPCC working group co-chair, said about the report: “One thing the report did not aspire to do is answer the question of feasibility.” In other words, the laws of physics and chemistry may still be on our side for a narrow period of time, but the laws of politics are often less forgiving. Although the solutions proposed in the report are largely based on already existing technologies, what remains to be accomplished is convincing decision-makers to spend billions on a long-term plan in a global system run on short-term gains and limited trust. This has also been recognised by the UN, which has previously singled out the importance of agreeing on worldwide financing of climate action commitments during COP24. To this end, as is often the case with rules-based multilateral action, the EU has the potential to set an example for others to follow, which it must now boldly embrace.


Indeed, as sustainability will not last without affordability, significant public investments on climate action are required over the next 12 years. According to the Commission, the EU is already spending over €206 billion (about 20% of the overall budget) on climate change-related action from its 2014-2020 multiannual financial framework (MFF), while the Commission’s proposal for the 2021-2027 MFF would raise the share of these activities to 25% of the budget. Crucially, the EU needs to focus on emissions from sources which are currently not covered by the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS, the world’s largest carbon market covering 45% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions). Although the EU has already managed reduce its emissions by one-fifths since 1990, a ceiling for further reductions is fast approaching if it does not place a significant emphasis on practicing the integrated approaches envisioned in the long-term strategic plan to achieve deep emission cuts on buildings and transport in particular.


Nonetheless, the Commission’s long-term vision is not in the clear yet. It will face its first test the week following COP24, when the member states’ energy and environment ministers convene separately in the Council on 19 and 20 December. The discussions will most likely emphasise the costs involved in the plan and the division of labour between member states. Furthermore, given the all-encompassing scope of climate action, we can also expect the agriculture, economy, and transport ministers to scrutinise the plan in the near future. Further along the line, the European Council’s upcoming “Future of Europe” summit in Sibiu, Romania on 9 May will also indicate climate action’s ranking in the EU leaders’ political pecking order just weeks before the 2019 European Elections. And without the support of national leaders, of course, the next Commission cannot set the agenda for an actual long-term EU policy on climate change.


But acting coherently and according to a common strategic vision, the EU and its member states can provide much needed leadership in global action to tackle climate change before it is too late.

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