Q: To begin, could you briefly describe your motivations behind entering climate science?
A: I was a keen star gazer as a child, and enjoyed maths, so ended up studying physics with astrophysics. I always also had a great passion for the outdoors. So, when thinking about future careers, I was keen to apply my skills to focus on this planet, rather than the ones I would star gaze as a child. I chose to do a PhD in climate modelling, which linked up my two interests, as the study was about the sun’s natural variability – how the solar cycles influenced the composition and circulation of the atmosphere.
Q: Starting at home, what do you believe are the day-to-day changes people can make to help combat the climate crisis?
A: Firstly, having a think about the kinds of things you typically do. We are all different. Some people will spend more time travelling either at home or abroad than others. Some may find they like their home to be a very warm environment, others cooler. Others may be fans of shopping, always wanting the latest gizmo. Different people’s lives will have different amounts of greenhouse gases associated with them – so using one of the available online carbon calculators to firstly understand which elements of your life might be making the biggest contribution, is a useful start. It is also the case that on average, the more disposable income you have, the higher your emissions will be. For example, most people don’t fly much, but some fly a lot. Flying is the most carbon intensive thing most of us do as individuals, so if this is you, then the quickest way to make a big dint in your emissions is to reduce the number of times you fly, and/or the distance you travel.
“Flying is the most carbon intensive thing most of us do as individuals, so… the quickest way to make a big dint in your emissions is to reduce the number of times you fly.”
But it isn’t all about individual action. We all live and work in communities and wider society. We influence each other’s choices and decisions. This might be through inviting someone to a hen party overseas, or simply having a chat about how you travel to work. It might also be that you have influence in your job – so teachers can influence pupils, I can influence students and staff etc. If you are in a position that has influence within an organisation, you may also be able to develop or support policies that cut emissions. This can be very powerful – not just thinking of ourselves as individuals is key to radically cutting emissions on a large scale.
Q: Do you feel enough is being done to combat the damaging effects that flying has on the climate? Is the industry evolving – or is it the responsibility of the consumer?
A: No, not enough is being done. We are practically still in the position we were in when I started researching this in 2003. Technologies to cut CO2 in aviation are few and far between, and with aircraft lasting 20-30 years, progress and change will always be slow. Consumer pressure is very important. Not just in relation to reducing our own flying activities, but also influencing policymakers to make difficult decisions, such as stopping the expansion of our airports, or bringing in prices such that the pollution that is produced by aircraft is taxed more fairly. At the moment there are exemptions on fuel used for international flights.
“Consumer pressure is very important. Not just in relation to reducing our own flying activities, but also influencing policymakers to make difficult decisions, such as stopping the expansion of our airports.”
Writing to your local MP shouldn’t be underestimated. Matters that voters contact MPs about do have traction, and it doesn’t take many letters on the same topic to prompt further discussion in parliament.
Q: What are some of the more shocking statistics that you think people should be aware of in terms of the damaging effect that flying has on the environment?
A: Travelling on a long-haul first-class flight can be over 130 times worse in terms of CO2 emissions than travelling by international rail. Most people compare sources of emissions in terms of CO2, but aircraft cause more warming than other modes due to other emissions released at altitude. Estimates vary on how much more damaging this is, but estimates are that 3 times more warming has been caused by aircraft than would have happened if the only emission was CO2.
Q: The damage flying has on the climate is widely publicised – whereas the effects of shipping perhaps less so. How do the two industries differ in relation to negative impact on the environment, and which industry is making greater progress in terms of safeguarding our future?
A: This is a difficult question – I could write a long essay here!
They both have quite a similar impact globally in terms of CO2. But one is principally used for leisure and by a small proportion of the population. Whereas the other is principally used for freight, and serves people all over the world with food, energy, manufactured goods and raw materials. In terms of options to cut emissions, shipping has many more options available, including slowing down – which may sound odd, but actually with just modest speed reductions, CO2 emissions drop significantly. Shipping now has a target to cut CO2 by 50% by 2050. This isn’t sufficient to align the sector with the Paris Climate Agreement but is more ambitious that the aviation sector, which continues to rely on offsetting schemes and action by industry but without a sector-wide agreed target.
Q: What are you currently researching and working on? Are there any exciting projects you’d like to alert us to?
I’m current focused on shipping more than aviation. We are quantifying some of the impacts of fuel changes on ship patterns, as well as further work on how to decarbonise ships using wind propulsion with route optimisation. Another project I’m involved with is trying to see what role ammonia or hydrogen might have as a shipping fuel, and whether or not connections between fuel supply chains for aviation and shipping might influence each other. I’d like to be working on more projects but unfortunately, most of my job is focused on more managerial tasks as the moment – as Head of the Engineering School. As such, I rely heavily on a great team of researchers in the Tyndall Centre in Manchester to keep me up to date.
Thank you to Alice for taking the time to answer our questions.