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A take on the IPCC Report. Looking at it in isolation leads to the wrong conclusions
I’m currently watching the new Apple TV Series Extrapolations. Set on a warming planet, it starts in 2037 at COP42 and then moves forward in time. Apparently, by the end of the series we get to 2070.
It provides some food for thought about what climate change will actually mean.
For example, we are introduced to concepts like “summer heart” (kids unable to go outside in the heat because of heart and respiratory conditions), a biotech company which clones animals about to go extinct, and a special Florida State Commission that in 2047 decides which buildings and areas will be protected from rising sea levels.
At the current trajectory, none of these (still) fictional ideas seem particularly outlandish. But they would all present a big change to our lives and make climate change very real and immediate.
I’m saying this as I was asked to write a piece about what the implications of the latest IPCC Report are for aviation. And so here we go:
Taken in isolation, the IPCC report actually doesn’t mean very much. It’s the latest in a long series of projections, and it’s unclear to what extent consumers will internalise the stats. But it’s not the statistics that matter; it’s what those statistics actually mean.
The IPCC Report and the media reaction
First of all, onto the report itself. Among other things, the IPCC report says that we are likely to breach 1.5 degrees by the middle of the next decade.
People in the sustainability community have been rightly alarmed. LinkedIn and Twitter for example were full of posts on the subject (for a good take on the report, see Katharine Hayhoe’s summary).
But for the average consumer? My suspicion is that when turning on the TV for many it will have sounded like another report by another organisation: Global warming….something something celsius…what’s for dinner tonight?
After all, while the IPCC Report should have been the top story everywhere, it certainly wasn’t. To take one example of a Western country, let’s look at the UK.
According to Leo Hickman of Carbon Brief, the report made the bottom of page 19 of the (mass market) right-wing tabloid Daily Mail, which for good measure then published an op-ed criticising “climate hysteria.” The centre-right broadsheet The Times did better, running it as the bottom story on page one. Meanwhile, the left-leaning Guardian featured it on the front page, on all of page two and devoted an editorial to it.
So the IPCC report got some prominent coverage. But in all the places you’d expect.
I sometimes wonder if that leads to a sense of false complacency by some within the industry. “Only the laptop class cares about this stuff” (an actual comment I’ve had), or - “aviation only accounts for 2%” (something you still hear quite a bit).
In fact, once we take a step back, the implications for aviation are quite far-reaching. And there are three reasons for that.
The ongoing drip-drip effect. Over time, the sum of stories and reports is changing attitudes.
Climate change is getting real. Last Summer, much of the Global North saw record temperatures and wildfires. Then there were the deadly floods in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Seeing the effects of climate change first-hand works much better than a survey or study. There’s research to support this point.
For many people, air travel is a nice-to-have and not a must-have. Not so long ago, much of the industry was grounded due to the pandemic. One lesson from COVID is that when the public was presented with a series of choices, not flying was something many people said they could give up.
1 - The changing narrative
Last year around Earth Day, IPSOS-MORI released a global study around attitudes to climate change.
The topic proved to be a concern globally, but it still ranked below other bread-and-butter issues like crime, the economy and education.
However, when asked about climate change being a regular concern, people in Colombia (71%), Chile (69%) and India (63%) were likely to think about it a lot (Italy also ranked highly as a Western country at 69%).
We’ll come back to the point about how people feel when presented with the effects of climate change.
Turning specifically to aviation, 77% of respondents globally felt that the airline industry has a “higher responsibility” to cut emissions and so combat climate change.
Again, that sentiment isn’t only shared by respondents in the Global North.
For example, 85% in South Africa, 79% in Mexico and 76% in Brazil agree that airlines have a responsibility to reduce their carbon emissions.
We’ve been tracking attitudes to climate change for over three years, and awareness of aviation’s contributions to global warming is one area that’s been consistently increasing. There are two reasons for that.
1 - There is now a steady stream of stories in the mainstream media about the negative effects of climate change. And so, while that one IPCC report won’t make much difference on its own, the ongoing narrative that things are going badly wrong is being established. It has resulted in a so-called drip effect.
2 - On the back of that, starting with the flight shaming movement, climate change activists have been steadily trying to erode aviation’s social licence and put airlines in the same reputational bracket as oil companies.
2 - The reality of climate change
Last month Robin Hicks wrote an article in Eco-Business about an experiment carried out in Hong Kong.
A group of Hong Kongers exposed to a 3D simulation of a super typhoon hitting the city after 2050, were not inclined to then change their behaviour. If anything, they were less likely to take climate change seriously.
It could well be that the simulation was treated as a form of disaster porn by participants – something so over the top, like in a video game that you know is not real.
But here is what makes people stop and think: experiencing the actual effects of climate change.
That was established in research over ten years ago, when an AP survey found that direct exposure to extreme weather events was more persuasive for Americans, especially climate change sceptics, than the predictions of climate scientists.
And thanks to global warming, we’ve unfortunately got plenty ahead.
Let’s take last Summer’s heat waves as an example. NASA tells us that “extreme levels of heat stress have more than doubled over the past 40 years” and that climate change will make some places “too hot to live.”
We don’t need to wait until 2050 for that to happen. In 2030 many current airline CEOs will either still be in their posts or heading up another airline. By then, almost every country in the world will experience “extremely hot” weather, like the wildfires we saw in places like Western Canada and California, every other year.
Already, airline passengers are experiencing increased turbulence on flights, something that is being put down to climate change. All of these developments, that people will experience for themselves, will start to concentrate minds.
3 - The lessons of COVID: For many people air travel is important, but not essential
There’s a scene in Extrapolations where one of the characters complains about an empty hotel swimming pool, which was drained in case climate activists accused the hotel of wasteful excess.
The swimming pool example is actually quite appropriate, given what happened over the Winter.
In the 2022/2023 energy crisis as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many European pools were no longer heated, or in some cases even maintained.
For the people who use them, they are important. But among the general population, heating pools is a luxury when compared to heating libraries or schools.
There’s a parallel to air travel here.
If you are a business traveller with clients abroad or an academic who goes to conferences, or an expat who goes home regularly to see the family, flying matters a lot to your daily life. But that’s not the reality for most of the population.
Source: Stay Grounded
That’s because most people don’t fly much at all. Climate groups are fond of the following statistic: 1% of the world’s population is responsible for 50% of commercial aviation emissions.
Is there a scenario where, faced with climate change, people start stopping the things less essential in their daily lives, like frequent air travel? It’s not a hypothetical question. We were there just over a year ago during the pandemic.
And at the time we learnt that stopping foreign travel was a measure that consistently had broad public support.
Sure, there was the (still debated) idea that you could seal your borders and stop a virus. But compared to other measures like not being able to send your kids to school, or even being able to visit your local cafe, the inconvenience level for many people of not being able to fly for the annual vacation just wasn’t as high.
And so a 2021 study found that 14% in a global survey already said that they ‘fly less’ due to climate change concerns, including 27% in Sweden but also 11% in the USA.
I wonder if that 14% is really doing that, or if some people are imagining flights that they probably would not have taken in the first place.
The point is though, that like our hotel swimming pool example, if consumers are given a list of choices and asked what they cut, they will get rid of whatever matters the least to their day-to-day lives.
For many, that’s air travel. That is the lesson of COVID we shouldn’t forget.
In conclusion, it’s a mistake for anyone in the industry to look at the newspapers and dismiss the IPCC report as news this week, forgotten next week.
As we said earlier in this piece, flyers are even now encountering more turbulence blamed on climate change, and by 2030 extreme heat will almost be the norm.
So, people are starting to experience climate change for themselves, while a steady stream of media articles is helping them make sense of what they are seeing and feeling. Then climate change activists are making sure that the spotlight remains on airlines.
And so, the pressure on fossil fuel-dependent industries (like aviation) will only increase.
As Rome Airports boss Marco Troncone put it, within the next five years we’ll see zero tolerance of perceived polluting industries. A business-as-usual attitude just won’t work anymore.
That’s why Shashank Nigam said in a post, that we need net zero 2050 action. But we also need visible progress right now through measures such as allowing more corporates to buy SAF for business travel.
Fortunately, while some still dismiss the problem as ‘only 2%’ (see our article on this), other industry leaders are well aware of the scale of the problem and the need to take action.
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby is one example of an airline boss who is personally very engaged with the topic. The same is true of Lauren Riley, the airline’s Chief Sustainability officer who spoke at SXSW last week.
As time moves on, perceptions start to change even more, and the impact of climate change is increasingly felt; companies like this need to be the norm, and not the exception.
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