For the last year, the pandemic has dominated the news. Understandably so, some of us have had Covid-19, most of us will have relatives, friends and acquaintances who have had it and most of us will know someone who has died. Covid-19 has been and still is a clear and present danger. States have responded by going to war against the virus, and there is widespread, if not unquestioning, support for governments’ actions. The epidemic is a real and present danger of illness, hospitalisation and death. We see and feel the consequences.
Not so climate change. We look up into the sky, and it seems limitless, infinite. We do not see the edge of our atmosphere, nor do we see the CO2 and other greenhouse gases which are accumulating and causing global warming. We have understood the causal link between greenhouse gases and global warming since the century before last. The problem is that we have not seen or felt the consequences. Climate change is still reported mainly as a scientific theory about which there is debate. We see it as a theoretical risk, not as a clear and present danger.
Covid-19 and climate change have things in common. They represent a threat that requires a global response, and travel and tourism is a victim and a cause.
There has been some international cooperation in tackling Covid-19, and the first Covax vaccinations have been given in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. But as I discussed last week, vaccine nationalism is never far below the surface, and new “variants of concern” will result in border closures and forced quarantine for the foreseeable future. International, and as in the UK at the moment, national travel will cease or be severely restricted. Travel has spread the virus. Those countries most connected and with the most open borders have generally been most affected by the epidemic.
Travel and tourism is proud to claim to be 10% of the global economy. Inevitably, this means that it is also responsible for a large proportion of greenhouse gas emissions. Were aviation a country it would be the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. To date, ICAO has failed to address the issue, preferring business as usual with the very limited objective of carbon neutral growth from 2020 onwards. This ignores the contribution of aviation to the store of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere, which will be contributing to global warming until well into the next century. Recent research from David Lee at Manchester Metropolitan University reveals that aviation is responsible for 3.5% of anthropogenic climate change, and that were it a country, it would be the sixth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases falling in the league table beteen Russia and Japan.
COP26, that’s right 26, takes place in November. This year there needs to be some action. The European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service reports that in 2020, temperatures globally were an average of 1.25°C higher than in pre-industrial times, and the last six years were the world’s hottest on record.
Like Covid-19 climate change kills people, although generally not “us”. In January, the UN Secretary-General reported that extreme weather and climate-related hazards had killed more than 410,000 people in the past decade, the vast majority in low and lower-middle-income countries. A paper last month in Science Advances reports that vulnerabilities are seen across human and natural systems, including both wealthy and poor communities, and both terrestrial and marine ecosystems, and a higher probability of extreme weather events many in areas with large human populations, high human vulnerability, and/or high biodiversity.
We must quickly move beyond denial and delay. Climate change too presents a real and present danger to our planet, making it less habitable for us and other species. We need to seriously address climate change now, in this decade.
We hear a bewildering amount about how businesses are reducing their carbon emissions. Confusion is a powerful tool in the hands of those wanting to continue with business as usual. There has been much chatter about greenhouse gas emissions having reduced during COVID-19 lockdowns. The continuous data set collected at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii. They have annual, monthly and daily data. None of it gives cause for comfort. We have not dented the growth in greenhouse gas emissions, for all the talk, their scientists report that the rate of growth is accelerating.