An Agenda Item for Paris

Had you heard of Vanuatu before Cyclone Pam recently brought the tiny archipelago nation to the world’s attention? Most people would say no. But I would say yes. Not because I’m a bit of a geography buff, although I am, but because it was mentioned in something I read about small island nations and their concerns about the impact of climate change and their susceptibility to sea level rise and natural disasters and the commitment they want to make in reducing carbon emissions.

In the same imaginary file in my brain are the commitments of city mayors around the world to reduce emissions. These commitments are often far more ambitious than those of the nations in which these cities reside. There is plenty of city-to-city networking going on too, again independent of national governments.

But then the major impacts on the cities, like the impacts on small islands happen at the ‘small’ level. Small in terms of land area, ratio of coastline to area, local identities. Not necessarily small in terms of population or cost.

Remember Hurricane Sandy?

I wrote a seminar paper for a professor studying the impacts of climate change on urban infrastructure that predicted the flooding of the subway tunnels. That was in the last millennium. The concerns about the compound effects of sea level rise and the increasing numbers of violent storms are not new.

There is a somewhat new urgency about negotiations, however, leading up to the Paris summit. It’s as if we are running out of time to make those serious commitments at a national level. We must look to Vanuatu and other frontrunners like Costa Rica for inspiration on how to change our ways or at least the amount of our carbon emissions. And fast.

Did you know that Costa Rica has generated all of its electricity from renewable sources for the first 75 days of 2015 so far?

But that was electricity, not energy. Which brings us to what this blog has to do with transport. Campaigning, as the Guardian currently is to eliminate dependence on dirty power plants is all very well and good, but that only includes energy used as electricity. What about transport? Or heating?

Ignoring the latter as outside my field of expertise, let’s focus on transport. I know that electric cars have come a long way, electric trains are spreading across the UK and there are a number of low emission and no emission bus fleets out there. There are also many good reasons for people to travel sustainably even if they don’t believe in climate change; it was the subject of one of my first blog posts: Yet how far can technology and changing travel behaviours take us? They don’t remove the fact that people want to move around, that not just lifestyles, but livelihoods demand it and that can use a lot of energy.

Especially if they want to move long distances. And there is the elephant in the room. The airplane. I’m a big user myself, as I describe in my blog post about how my entire family lives three thousand miles away on the other side of the Atlantic. So I’m thrilled that the first solar-powered airplane is up and flying. But I’m still not convinced that technology or personal choices will make enough impact with enough speed.

This is an international issue. From Vanuatu to Costa Rica, or New York to New Delhi. Perhaps not only London and the southeast of England need an Airports Commission, but the world as a whole. Carbon taxes added to ticket prices by individual countries or paired countries could make the situation worse, making it cheaper, for example for people to purchase indirect flights that take them hundreds of miles and tanks of fuel in the wrong direction only to fly back on themselves.

So if we want to keep flying, the only way to improve efficiencies and manage demand is to review it at the highest level possible. I hope the issue of international air travel is on the agenda for Paris anyway. If not, well, then, may I suggest it?

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