Is travel ‘exempt’ from climate change?

The first part of this series of IPCC reports focused on the climate science and warming scenarios (see Kit Brennan’s take on the report here) and the third part will be published in April and focus on mitigation. The IPCC’s reports act as a ‘single source of truth’ for climate change, informing policy makers as well as international negotiations such as the annual COP meeting.

Tan Strehler-Weston is head of policy and operations at Thrust Carbon. Prior to this he spent seven years working for the UK Government on net zero and international relations policy.

Another IPCC report? Yes, it sure is, although the latest publication from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is actually the second part of its sixth assessment report and focuses on ‘impacts, adaptation and vulnerability’. This latest publication weighs in at 3,676 pages, so we’ve boiled that down to some of its key themes and take a look at how much it all applies to travel.

So, what does this IPCC report actually say? In short, things are looking even worse than we thought they were, and we need to take action – fast.

Firstly, it is now looking more likely than ever that global warming will exceed 1.5C above pre-industrial levels (we’re already at 1.1C), even in best-case scenarios. Current global policies remain far from locking in 1.5C and in fact currently put us on track for warming of somewhere between 2C and 3C.

Secondly, many of the impacts of climate change are already being felt and some are now ‘irreversible’. The IPCC estimates that 3.3 to 3.6 billion people already “live in contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change”. This doesn’t just apply to the developing world. In Venice, for example, flood events have increased from once per decade on average before 1950, to 40 times per decade now.

Thirdly, the impacts of climate change will get disproportionately worse as temperatures rise. For example, at warming of 1.5C, up to 14 per cent of all land species could go extinct. At 2C it is 18 per cent and at 3C, up to 29 per cent are seriously threatened.

Global temperatures have already risen 1.1C above pre-industrial levels.  To curb further rises, emissions need to be halved by 2030, with net zero by 2050.
Global temperatures have already risen 1.1C above pre-industrial levels. To curb further rises, emissions need to be halved by 2030, with net zero by 2050. “Travel can and should be part of rising to this challenge,” says Strehler-Weston. Credit: The different warming scenarios. How can travel help secure a lower curve? IPCC, AR6 Climate Change 2022 (Summary for Policymakers), Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, p16.

Professor Mark Pelling from King’s College London who was a lead author of the report – and who happened to be this author’s university lecturer 10 years ago – said: “For the first time in an IPCC Assessment Report the impacts of climate change have been observed in all regions, in all sectors, with some places now being uninhabitable and some species having been made extinct because of climate change – this should be very motivating for rapid and deep mitigation as well as adaptation.”

How will travel be impacted?
It can be tempting to think that travel won’t really be affected by all this, but the IPCC wouldn’t agree: “Costs for maintenance and reconstruction of urban infrastructure, including building, transportation, and energy will increase with global warming level, ” it says.

The report notes for example that even if warming is limited to 2C above pre-industrial temperatures, the number of airports at risk of storm surge flooding could rise by 25 per cent. And crucially, these airports tend to be larger and busier than average, accounting for as much as 20 per cent of the world’s passenger routes. Think places like Amsterdam’s Schiphol which lie near the coast, at or even below sea level.

The IPCC describes how rail and road infrastructure could come under strain too. Changes in rainfall and temperature patterns will increase stresses on earthworks and embankments around railways, for example. And when it comes to roads, thermal expansion and melting of asphalt could lead to a 50 per cent increase in maintenance requirements in the USA. All this increases difficulty and costs for road and rail users and, by definition, travelers.

But isn’t the report all about adaptation? Travel can adapt too!
Absolutely, adaptation is going to be vital, and is already happening. Sea walls (or, even better, nature-based solutions such as mangrove forests and saltmarshes) can hold back rising tides to an extent.

On the railways, organizations such as Network Rail in the UK and Deutsche Bahn in Germany are painting some rails white so that they reflect rather than absorb heat, buying a vital extra few degrees before they begin to warp and bend.

But there comes a point where interventions become prohibitively expensive or simply stop working. Eventually, metal rails will buckle from intense heat, and sea walls will be breached.

So is travel exempt? What should our industry do?
It’s clear that our industry is not exempt from the impacts of climate change. We are all stakeholders in our regions and communities, wherever we might live in the world, and I’ve certainly met many colleagues within the industry who care deeply about the planet and environment.

In terms of travel itself, we know that many elements of our infrastructure are going to become more expensive and difficult to maintain. At the same time, we are also a source of emissions – the ‘transport and storage’ sector accounted for 27 per cent of UK fossil fuel use in 2019, and globally aviation alone accounts for over 3 per cent of emissions – a proportion that could rise to 22 per cent by 2050 as other sectors decarbonise. If aviation were a country, it would be the most polluting in Europe.

It’s not all doom and gloom – we can take positive action
But one of the great things about not being exempt from climate change is that we can also be part of the solution.

“One of the things that I think is really, really clear in the report is that yes, things are bad, but actually, the future depends on us, not the climate,” said another lead author on the report, Dr Helen Adams.

The IPCC is emphatic that the worst effects of climate change can still be averted if we make rapid progress to decarbonise, and in travel there is so much to be optimistic and excited about.

In many countries EV sales are orders of magnitude higher than they were just two or three years ago (how about EV-only policies for business travelers?!), while in air travel there is huge potential for SAF to begin making a serious dent in emissions, as long as producers and airlines continue to innovate and corporates and travelers continue to press for it.

Rail travel represents another vital weapon in our armoury, with long distance trains undergoing something of a renaissance, especially in mainland Europe. Businesses should encourage progressive choices – and tech providers need to make it easier for travelers to seamlessly compare viable high-speed rail options when searching for flights.

So while things can feel difficult or beyond our control, our industry should embrace its ability to drive positive change. By taking a little time to make greener and smarter decisions, empowering travelers and setting carbon budgets, far from being exempt, we can and should be a part of the solution.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.