Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Air freight: the Impacts

Last week I took the train to Southend where Airport Watch launched the report I wrote, Air Freight: the Impacts. UK freight volumes, along with passenger numbers, have declined since the recession, but capacity expansion is still planned and underway all over the UK. This will either undermine greenhouse gas emission (GHG) reduction targets if the capacity becomes operational, or leave us with a load of white elephants with empty warehouse space, or add yet more generic business premises to the UK’s logistics landscape of windowless grey sheds proliferating around major road junctions.

The negative environmental impacts of air freight are well known, in particular the GHG emissions are many multitudes of transporting freight by other modes, by road, rail and ship. The report also questions the supposed economic benefits, highlighting a £20 billion air freight trade deficit with more goods flown into the UK than are exported. Air freight expansion also has a poor track record of job creation, and any economic benefits need to be weighed against considerable funding and policy support from many government agencies. The longer term trend has been the UK’s air freight volumes flatlining for the past decade, concurrent with economic growth until last autumn, so the evidence for the argument that air freight expansion is vital for economic growth appears to be weaker than the case for expansion for more passenger flights.

Airport Watch launched the report at London Southend Airport. SAEN is running an amazingly comprehensive campaign against the expansion of the airport and a planning objection has been submitted. This highlights the noise nightmare with the runway expansion meaning the flightpath would go right over several schools and a church would become a noisy place for worship, an erroneous assessment of the noise impacts of more, larger, noisier planes flying lower over the area, exaggerated job creation claims, a pro-airport bias by councils and unrealistic passenger number projections. Freight magnate Stobart, operators of the airport, have been inconsistent in their statements on freight growth plans at the airport. We had a look at the exhibition about the expansion plans in the foyer, which managed the typical spin of how it will ‘enhance’ features like a bit of woodland that will not be covered in asphalt with the extended runway.

SAEN anticipates that if the expansion goes ahead and passenger numbers increase, most of them will head into London, for example for the 2012 Olympics, and we saw the main site taking shape from the train on the way to Southend. Southend Airport also goes by the Name of London Southend Airport. It one of several airports which is are not actually in London, it is out on England’s south east coast, like Manston in Kent which is referred to as London Manston Airport, and Oxford Airport where there was objection to renaming it London Oxford Airport as London is 60 miles away. The naming of these regional airports shows how the expansion is about enabling development that is of questionable benefits to local residents and will funnel passengers into the tourist attractions and business centres in the big cities.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

IATA talks up technofixes

James Lamont reports in the Times that IATA (the International Air Transport Association) continues its opposition to aviation’s inclusion in the European Union European Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS), which imposes carbon emission quotas but allows businesses to trade carbon permits as an alternative to reducing emissions. The aviation industry is scheduled to be finally hauled into the ETS in 2012, whilst other industry sectors have been included since 2005, but Giovanni Bisignani, chief executive of IATA, is arguing for continued favourable treatment from governments, with exemption from the responsibilities of other industries.

Bisignani claims that instead of incentivising aviation to reduce emissions, including aviation in the ETS will hinder the industry’s progress in adopting greener technology, in particular investment in more fuel efficient aircraft. IATA claims that each generation of aircraft increases fuel efficiency by 15 per cent. Stephan Gosling and Paul Upham, writing in the book Aviation and Climate Change, make a more realistic and scientifically based assessment of annual fuel efficiency improvements of between just 1 and 1.5 per cent per year. The argument that aviation can maintain its growth trends whilst reducing GHG emissions relies on theoretical technofixes. IATA has pledged to cut carbon emissions by half by 2050, from 2005 levels. With a realistic projection of technological advancement, it is not possible to reduce aviation’s GHG emissions whilst maintaining its position as one of the world’s fastest growing industries. The aviation industry looks to Boeing’s forecasts for future growth, and in June 2009 Boeing made a still-robust forecast of passenger traffic growth of 4.9 per cent per year, a minimal reduction of the 5 per cent growth rate average over the last 30 years.

Even with the economic downturn beginning in autumn 2008, and some airlines reporting major losses, the big picture is that airlines are still ordering plenty of old style planes (as opposed to the dramatically more fuel efficient planes which have not been invented yet) from the Boeing / Airbus duopoly supplying the vast majority of the world’s aircraft. In 2008, Airbus delivered a record 482 aircraft, and received orders for 900, its third highest annual total. Boeing ended 2008 with 662 commercial plane orders. The skies will be crowded with models which have been flying around for ages, like Boeing 747s, 767s 737s and 777s, and Airbus 320s, 330s and 340s, albeit newer models with marginal fuel efficiency improvements. Both aircraft manufacturers have a considerable order backlog which is helping them through the recession. Earlier this year Boeing announced that it had a backlog of more than 3,700 planes, with Airbus reporting a record order backlog of 3,715 planes. Boeing’s 787, or Dreamliner, also called the Greenliner as Boeing claims it will be 20 per cent more fuel efficient than similar sized planes, was supposed to take to the skies in autumn 2007, but its manufacture has been so plagued with delays it is sometimes referred to as the ‘7 late 7’.

Bisignani claims that the adoption of biofuels could reduce aviation’s carbon emissions by as much as 80 per cent. This wildly optimistic claim counters a recent report commissioned by the US FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) and undertaken by Rand, Near-Term Feasibility of Alternative Jet Fuels. This report concluded that many of the alternative aviation fuels which are being developed are likely to have higher GHGs than conventional jet fuel when produced on a commercial scale. The fossil fuel based alternatives, derived from coal and oil shale, have a worse energy balance (energy outputs compared to the energy used to produce the fuel) than conventional jet fuel as the material is more difficult to extract and requires more processing. Regarding biofuels, the GHG emissions from land use changes for biofuel crops is highlighted, which increases the emissions dramatically. Previous claims for lower levels of GHG emissions from biofuels have excluded both the direct land-use change of growing biofuels, such as deforestation and uprooting grasslands to plant biofuel crops, and indirect land use changes when land used for food crops is used for biofuel crops, leading to land somewhere else being converted to agriculture to replace the displaced food crops.

Finally, Mr Bisignani criticises the UK’s increase in Air Passenger Duty, claiming it helps bail out the banks rather than helping the environment. This conveniently overlooks aviation industry stimulus packages (i.e. bailouts) from governments all over the world. In the UK, Business Secretary Lord Mandelson announced a £340m loan to support the manufacturing of Airbus A350 wings in Bristol in August 2009. Bailout packages have been approved, or are imminent, for several flag carriers including Air India, Japan Airlines and for several Chinese airlines, and Boeing highlights the Chinese government’s stimulus package in its high growth predictions for the country. Singapore introduced a relief package for the Changi Airfreight Centre. In the US, $1.1 billion has been doled out by the FAA, approved by the Obama administration, to several airports, about $100 million of which did not meet the grant criteria.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Securing Saudi Arabia's food supply - migrations, farms overseas & irrigation

From 25th to 29th November about 2.5 million Muslims from all over the world made the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. The event triggered a man-made animal migration to feed the pilgrims. For the first time in nine years, some of the livestock was supplied by Somalia, as Saudi Arabia lifted its long term ban on imports of Somali livestock, which it had imposed due to concerns over health screening of the animals. The lifting of the ban meant that Somalia’s monthly livestock exports could double to 1 million animals, with 60,000 ready to be exported within a few days, for the Hajj. This is indicative of the scale of food imports to the Middle East for the burgeoning population and tourism, and the dependence on food exports for some poor African countries. Livestock exports make up 40 per cent of Somalia’s GDP, whilst Saudi Arabia spends $6 billion per year on food imports.

View Larger MapSomalia’s Bossaso Port will be upgraded to enable it to cope with the increased livestock exports. But other African countries are vying to increase their exports of livestock to Saudi Arabia and the supply chain could extend further into Africa. In 2008, a farmer in Nigeria’s Zamfara state said that he lost out on the opportunity of a contract to supply Saudi Arabia with 150,000 slaughtered rams per month to the Saudi Arabia government because of a lack of storage facilities at Nigeria’s airports. It was reported that state approval for the requisite cargo airport for exporting fruit, vegetable and meat to the Middle East and Europe was fast tracked, taking just 3 months.

Along with sourcing more food from abroad, Saudi Arabia has long standing ambitious programmes attempting to increase its own food production, up against the ecological constraint of desert conditions unsuitable for agriculture and depending on gargantuan irrigation schemes. This article by Kelly McEvers is about the environmental cost of producing milk in the desert, in temperatures of up to nearly 50°C in the summer. The Afu-Safi diary farm in Saudi Arabia originated in the 1970’s. It was modelled on a dairy farm in California, but is twice the size holding 38,000 cows. Each cow requires over 100 litres of water per day and oil drilling technology was used to reach aquifers beneath the desert and. The aquifer is running dry and the dairy has been given permission to drill deeper underground to another aquifer 1.6 kilometres underground.

But the wheat growing which was also dependent on this source of water is being phased out. Saudi Arabia’s Hail Agricultural Development Company (Hadco) stopped producing wheat in 2008 and is purchasing land abroad. Hadco has already purchased 9,239 hectares of land in Sudan, and is considering purchasing another 32,755 hectares in Sudan within the next five years to grow wheat, corn and other crops to be used for feeding livestock. In January 2009 Saudi Arabia received the first batch of rice produced abroad.

Saudi Arabia has shifted the emphasis from attempts at increasing food self-sufficiency to extending the supply chain to source more food from other countries. Middle East countries including Saudi Arabia, and Asian states, have purchased a total of over 20,230,000 hectares of land suitable for arable crops in Africa in the past two years, about ten per cent of the farmed land in Africa. This would secure food supply and stable prices for the wealthy importing countries. The likely outcomes for exporting countries like Sudan, which are unable to feed their own people, appear less favourable with widespread reports of aggressive land grabbing, lack of transparency over land deals and smallholders losing their land. There are reports, for example from the International Land Coalition, that Saudi Arabia is the most aggressive purchaser, establishing a chain of overseas farms at the scale of nearly 100,000 hectares. Saudi Arabia is also considering purchasing land in Ethiopia and in other regions outside Africa in Egypt, Turkey, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

Attempts to irrigate the dry Gulf states for agriculture persist though. In 2008 it was reported that UAE is conducting a study into the feasibility of building at least 70 dams in the northern emirates in an attempt to channel water supplies for food production in the region.

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