Europe’s airports risk a watery grave, as the ‘cost of inaction’ debate heats up
In a report for Euractive News, Sam Morgan reports on the danger from rising sea levels to some European airports
The future lies with quieter, cleaner aircraft like the Boeing 787 (Qantas)
More than 20 of Europe’s airports could be underwater by the end of the century if current climate trends continue. The prospect of economic and even security chaos is starting to drive home the message that the cost of doing nothing will outweigh the price of climate action. Business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions mean that a global sea-level rise of one metre is possible, according to the UN’s expert panel on climate change. Even sticking to the Paris Agreement’s lower-tier two degrees celsius temperature target risks a half-metre rise. Coastal communities, animal habitats and even entire countries, like the Marshall Islands and Kiribati, could be wiped off the map as melting glaciers and sea ice increase the likelihood of flooding. Infrastructure like ports, roads and rail would be affected, as well as airports, many of which are located near large bodies of waters away from built-up areas. The need to build on large, flat, open-spaces also makes them particularly vulnerable to changes in sea level.
According to data crunched by the World Resources Institute (WRI), 80 airports worldwide could be underwater if current trends continue. Forty-four might face the same fate even if global warming is curbed at two degrees. In Europe, Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport and Newcastle are among 23 hubs that could be underwater in a one-metre-rise scenario. Glasgow and Rotterdam’s airports are also at risk. The WRI used maps from Climate Central to compile its findings but it should be pointed out that the charts do not take into account flood defence systems, like those deployed extensively, and at great cost, by the Dutch government.
Airports around the world have already fallen foul of powerful weather events linked to climate change. In 2012, some of the busiest hubs on the US east coast were inundated by Hurricane Sandy, leading to an estimated $200 million in losses. In 2018, Japan’s Kansai Airport near Osaka, which is built on an artificial island, was almost completely flooded because of a typhoon. Flights were cancelled for two days and planes were damaged by seawater. But the issue of how to include climate damages or even the cost of inaction in policy making is still a tricky one to solve. For national or regional lawmakers, the fact that the climate and weather do not respect boundaries plays a significant role in attributing responsibility.
Climate modellers also struggle to put an accurate figure on the true cost of floods, heatwaves, droughts, air pollution and many more known and unknown factors. Last year, the European Environmental Agency estimated a €13 billion annual bill in Europe alone. At a Brussels climate event on 6 February, EU climate chief Frans Timmermans’ top adviser, Diederik Samsom, told EURACTIV that the new Commission wanted to put a price tag on inaction but “it wasn’t there and had to be dug out of an attic, and even then it was an old figure that was wrong”. In December, Ursula von der Leyen’s new administration published its Green Deal, a flagship set of green-leaning policies that aim to cut emissions but keep the EU economy competitive.
Samsom also acknowledged that “we don’t have the real estimate but it would be very helpful if we did. It will always be a very difficult exercise because it’s about a future that hasn’t happened yet.”
Experts at the EU executive’s climate directorate, DG CLIMA, are hard at work modelling the costs and impact of updating the bloc’s overall 2030 emissions reduction target. The Commission’s new Green Deal suggests a rise from 40% to 50-55%. EURACTIV understands that climate damage estimates provided by the EU’s Joint Research Centre will be included in this round of modelling, although it is unclear how prominently they will feature in the exercise.
At the 6 February event, Eva Gladek, CEO of sustainability consultancy Metabolic, said that “more and more studies are coming out on the cost of inaction, although they are on a global level, not just Europe. They show costs that far outweigh investment costs.”
She also pointed out one of the difficulties in putting a hard figure on cost of inaction, namely, the loss of natural capital: “how do you put a figure on the loss of a species or loss of a million species? What is the value of the existence of tigers?”
The Commission is due to unveil its Climate Law on 4 March, so its proposal for a 2030 target increase might reveal what price it has indeed used.
Europe’s airports target carbon-neutrality by 2050, planes not included
More than 500 European airports pledged last year to drastically slash their greenhouse gas output by 2050. However, the target only includes airport infrastructure and not aircraft. Airport Council International Europe (ACI), which represents many of Europe’s airports, said the carbon-neutral strategy aligns the sector with the Paris Agreement by putting climate change at the heart of business decisions. Outgoing President Michael Kerkloh said that “it’s an absolute must” for all industries and confirmed that 194 of his organisation’s members have undersigned the net-zero emissions goal. Swedish airport group Swedavia runs three airports that have already achieved the target and seven are due to hit the goal next year.
The number of airports pledging cuts by 2050 increases from the 100 that made a similar promise in 2017, although the deadline for carbon-neutrality then was 2030 and under the current pledge offsetting will be precluded. But the goals do not include the main emission-creating culprits in the aviation sector: the aircraft themselves. Emissions from airports only make up around 5% of the sector’s total footprint. Airports will attempt to reduce their carbon footprint by improving the energy efficiency of buildings and using electric vehicles that can run on renewable energy. Stockholm’s express trainlink runs on clean energy, for example. Kerkloh added that imposing taxes on aviation “would do nothing” to reduce aircraft emissions and instead urged manufacturers to work towards cleaner planes through technological solutions.
Aviation’s footprint is a growing problem and is responsible for 3% of the EU’s total emissions. With the number of flights is predicted to skyrocket over the next two decades, policymakers have been scrambling to find a solution. At a conference on carbon taxation in The Hague on 21 June, representatives from the Dutch, French and Swedish governments confirmed that they will move forward with aviation taxes and called on the EU to make the issue a priority.
“The Commission should present an aviation package proposal, to include social and environmental issues, and include it in its work programme,” MEP Karima Delli suggested. The Netherlands has already confirmed that it plans to impose a €7 ticket tax but a more ambitious solution would be to tax fuel, which would be more in keeping with the ‘polluter pays’ model. The Dutch government is looking into the feasibility of it.
Jet fuel taxes are currently prohibited by an international agreement dating back to the 1940s, although a recent Commission study suggested that there is nothing to stop countries from taxing kerosene prior to departure. A pan-EU levy could generate revenues of €27 billion, according to the EU executive, although chances are slim that member states would unanimously agree to the measure. Taxation is still a jealously-guarded domain of national governments. There is nothing to stop countries signing up to bilateral or multilateral agreements though and EU tax chief Pierre Moscovici told The Hague conference that the Commission is ready to help countries organise such pacts.
KJM Today Opinion
Nobody in their right mind can doubt that humanity's persistence in emitting noxious substances into the atmosphere is a bad thing; indeed it has been going on for so long now the only surprise is that nobody noticed, or stirred themselves to do something about it before the present mania for 'going green' took hold.
Governments however, are notorious for taking the easiest path to solving any problem and the usual route is once again being proposed - that of tax.
In general, the tax-anything-that-moves policy is (like spewing harmful gases into the air) a bad thing. History has shown that increases taxes never provides the solution to anything. All higher taxes have ever done is increase costs, including higher wages and salaries so ordinary people can pay the increased tax.
Governments also have a habit of pandering to those who shout the loudest, and who invariably seem to have the most money to amplify their particular viewpoint. Crossing the Atlantic by boat instead of by air is a stunt that gains publicity but ignores the fact that, whatever we do, we will emit something. We will always leave a sign that we have been somewhere and those signs are usually toxic in one way or another (this is why toilets were invented).
Aviation is one of the easiest targets for cool, trendy governments and an equally easy one for climate protestors. But the world will not be a better place if the ability to travel between countries and the ability to move goods via air freight is curtailed. Some protestors have called for aviation to be shut down completely – what will this solve? Nothing, as whatever slower means of getting around replaces will have its own emissions, including boats crossing the vast expanses of the world’s oceans and seas.The answer lies in greater efforts put towards cleaner means of propulsion, just as it does towards lessening emissions in every other area of life. That includes of course, computers and smart phones, which protestors use all day, every day to shout their message.
And it includes accepting that it will take time, it cannot be done by an arbitrary date, set because it makes it look as though ‘something is being done’.