We have been hearing about it in the news almost every day, until it was supplanted by other issues. The run-up to BREXIT, the general election, floods, and now the Coronavirus pandemic have made us all temporarily dump the issue and public attention is now fully occupied with the control of the global pandemic.
The mainstream media have highlighted the drop in climate-change gases – a direct link to a significant reduction in both travel and manufacturing following global lockdown.
From a planetary perspective, the drop is not highly significant and as soon as lockdown finishes, we will probably revert to our old ways very quickly.
Having said that, I am hopeful that state governments will use the opportunity to consolidate some of the steps that have been taken to enable the use of alternative means of transport – making that small reductions permanent.
We have seen cities around the world banning vehicular traffic from city streets, together with enhancing cycle lanes and pedestrian routes, making it easier and cleaner to travel.
This is nowhere near enough, but at least it is showing that people can get around large cities safely without using a car or public transport.
All the media focus revolves primarily around the ever-increasing levels of air pollution that are triggering climate change, rising sea levels and rising temperature.
There is, however, an interesting health issue that lurks in the sidelines.
As a species, we rely on breathing air, from which we extract oxygen, and then exhale CO2, together with other gases such as Nitrogen and Methane, and some organic compounds.
In order for our bodies to function correctly we rely on our lungs to absorb oxygen and exhale the CO2 in the correct ratios.
The composition of the air that we breathe is 78% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, and 1% Argon. There are also traces of CO2, and rare gases such as Xenon, Neon, Helium, Methane.
As we increase the levels of CO2 in the air, our lungs will be unable to exhale the surplus and this will be absorbed into the body, which will have an effect.
According to a recent study conducted by the University of Colorado in Boulder, The Colorado School of Public Health, and the University of Pennsylvania, evidence suggests that future levels of CO2 may severely impair our cognitive ability.
The study based its research on two scenarios; one, a world where human society reduces the amount of CO2 it releases into the atmosphere, and the other where we don’t – “business as usual.”
Alarmingly, even when we do reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that we release into the ecosystem, by the year 2100, individuals would still be exposed to elevated levels (by today’s standards) of CO2 leading to a 25% decrease in cognitive abilities.
The reduction in mental ability is caused by an increase in CO2 in the brain, a condition called Hypercapnia. which leads to a reduction in brain/blood oxygen (Hypoxemia).
The result is a reduction in brain activity, decreased levels of arousal and excitability. On top of this, it induces sleepiness, and anxiety, the result of which is an impact on our cognitive functions such as learning, memory, strategising and crisis management.
This is easily understood. Who hasn’t been in a lecture room, classroom or meeting room, where our concentration wanders, and we get tired and disengaged. The result of excess CO2 released by a lot of individuals. The solution is normally to open a window to let in some fresh air.
But what if the air outside was not really fresh at all?
A report in 2001 (Robertson) argued that even slightly elevated levels of CO2 (720 parts per million) could cause lowered pH in the blood (acidosis) leading to restlessness, mild hypertension and ultimately confusion.
The report concluded that if we continue with “business as usual”, flagrantly releasing megatons of CO2 into the atmosphere, by 2100 we could see our cognitive functions reduced by as much as 50%.
Unless we build on this virally-induced reduction in CO2 and continue to decrease global pollution, we may survive this.
If not, we, as a race, are doomed to become the joint recipients of the last-ever Darwin Awards.
Unless you have been living on the Cook Islands for the last few months, you will have heard of Corona Virus, now known as COVID 19.
The virus is officially a global pandemic, and is now rampaging across every continent, leaving a trail of dead.
Here in the United Kingdom, we are in a state of national emergency, and state-sanctioned lockdown is in effect, with only absolutley essential journeys authorised. All retail shops except those selling essential supplies such as food, maedicines and perhaps bizzarely, alcohol are closed.
The London Underground has shut stations across its network, and passengers figures are plummeting.
Working at home has been the norm for many workers. As a result, the economy is in freefall, with the retail and hospitality sectors being worst hit. Clubs, pubs, cinemas, churches, sports centres, museums and public buildings are now all closed for the immediate future.
The aviation and maritime sectors have been quick to feel the impact of travel restrictions, and many airports are struggling as flights have become virtually non-existent, passenger traffic stagnated, and many airlines now trying to mitigate their losses by flying freight.
Whilst the global shutdown is severely damaging both our manufacturing and financial economies, we are reaping some form of benefit; pollution levels have dropped across the planet, and air quality is improving.
It’s not just transport that contributes to atmospheric pollution – industrial and manufacturing activities have fallen across the UK and Europe as countries shutdown their economies to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
This shows that it is possible to stop climate change, but the societal costs are far too high to make this acceptable.
I do believe that when the virus is contained or burnt out, we will emerge from lockdown and social distancing as a changed society.
So, what may happen?
Many firms that up until recently were resistant to their employees working remotely will have seen that some of their “trust issues” have been proved to be unfounded and that staff have been as productive, if not more productive that when working at the office.
Bearing in mind the cost of office space, many companies may find the savings realised by using smaller premises make remote working desirable.
After a major pandemic such as this one, people may be far more cautious about personal hygeine, and become much more concerned to see that public areas are properly sanitised. This could have an effect on the practice of hot desking at work.
The travelling public will probably also need to see evidence that public transport is cleaned and sanitised far more regulalrly and effectively than currently.
The lack of public trust in the health security of public transport could trigger more car use, as people seek to protect themselves with more regularised self isolating. Even car sharing could become less popular as people choose not ot sit in close proximity with another individual on their commute.
Who can really say?
If thousands more people take up remote working, there may well be more economic pain ahead for public transport operators.
Railway and air journeys that used to be undertaken for business meetings may well now be conducted using video conferencing using internet platforms such as Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams.
Will our current level of communications network provision be sufficient to accommodate this?
Individuals that were reluctant to order shopping on-line, or use home delivery services prior to COVID 19 have now been using them out of necessity, and many of these people will now be sold on the advantages, leading to further decline of England’s high streets.
Individuals that were previously regular patrons of theatre and cinema will have become adept at streaming movies and watching “live” performances from the comfort of their own homes, using YouTube, Netflix or Amazon Prime.
The question is – will they return to the cinemas and thatres with quite the same degree of regularity as they did before?
It seems that the mainstream media have been focusing on the leisure and retail industries and whilst they do report on the struggle for our manufacturing industries, they do not highlight the underlying problems.
In the UK there is evidence that our contingency planning for a “Hard Brexit” triggered our government to closely examine our logisitcal supply chains with the involvement of the retail and distirbution industries, and this has surely helped ensure that truly essential items remained on the supermarket shelves, despite the media-induced panic buying.
The other aspect to this is the lack of resilience that our manufacturers have against supply chain failures.
Whilst numerous products are proudly made here in the UK, few are totally built here. Huge numbers of manufacturers import sub-assemblies, parts and components from overseas which are used to build their product.
The world’s biggest exporter, China, is, to all intents and purposes, the birthplace of COVID19, and also its primary exporter. The subsequent lockdown of the Chinese economy led to an abundance of British manufacturers struggling to obtain the raw materials, parts, components and sub-components needed to build and sell their own products..
This may result in a baseline realignment of our logisitical networks, and maybe re-initiate inward investment.
Who knows, we may see a slow transformation back into a manufacturing economy again.
This is a bit of a mixed bag then; at more localised levels the possible resulting drop in bus and train usage could lead to more cars on the road, each contributing to climate change. On the other hand, more people at home reduces traffic of any kind on the roads.
There are so many possible futures that could result from the aftermath of CV19, which only action at government level can establish.
This could be a great opportunity for each state to re-evaluate its’s strategies for handling pandemics, and may trigger new systems to increase the robustness of manufacturing bases.
Who knows, it may even give us the required impetus to design an improved model for society that will offer progress on controlling our nemesis of irreversible climate change.
Many of us believe that we are intelligent, caring beings, and as such, we make decisions to consciously avoid damaging our environment. Many of us have tried to change our lifestyles, and now frequently walk or cycle around our local district. We try to buy organic Fairtrade products, and attempt to live in a sustainable manner.
It’s not always that simple though, is it? Despite a seismic shift in our thinking we are still guilty of inadvertently creating damage to our home.
It’s easy to bandy about statements about our carbon footprint and boast about our hybrid cars, and our quest for low airmiles vegetables and fruit, but is that enough?
We all look forward to taking a vacation. A two-week respite from our daily labours. An annual opportunity to travel to some exotic and idyllic destination to unwind, decompress and relax.
Significant adverse publicity has demonised road transport and air travel, to the point that those of us that are sensitive to our ecological impact are reluctant to use our cars or air transport for anything other than necessity travel.
So, what of our alternatives?
Many of us are now fortunate and wealthy enough to be able to book a cruise and float around azure blue waters for a fortnight of self-indulgent luxury.
But how many of us think about the environmental impact of cruise ships? It’s a natural tendency to assume that due to the high passenger occupancy of cruise ships they are eco-friendly.
Sadly, that’s not the case.
Let’s look at a few facts about the cruise ship industry.
The world’s largest cruise company is the Anglo-American company The Carnival Corporation and Public Limited Company.
This monolithic organisation is the largest global cruise company, in terms of annual passenger carrying, revenue and the overall size of its fleet.
Started in 1975 with one ship, (The Mardi Gras) it now owns 10 cruise lines, operating over a hundred vessels and has a 49.2% share of the global cruise market.
In 1996, they launched the world’s largest ship, the 101,000 tonne Carnival Destiny.
Ever increasing demand led to the commissioning of the Carnival Dream in 2009 with a gross tonnage of 128,000 tonnes.
By 2012 the Carnival Vista launched at 133,500 tonnes.
If you thought that was large – then think again. Currently, the world’s largest cruise ship is now the Symphony of the Seas, Royal Caribbean’s flagship. This monster weighs in at 228,000 tonnes, and at maximum occupancy can accommodate 8,800 people. (6,880 passengers, 2,200 crew).
However, by 2012, the reputation of the cruise industry was already being tarnished. At the same time as the Vista was being launched, the UK Guardian Newspaper reported that an investigation had revealed that P and O (A subsidiary of Carnival) paid their ship-borne staff a basic salary of just 75p per hour when the UK National Average wage was £15.25 per hour!
According to its own website, the organisation now employs 37,400 staff with 33,500 of those being ship based.
Whilst the cruise industry has a sparkling shop window, its underbelly reveals some profoundly ecologically damaging practices. In 2017, Princess Cruise lines were fined $40M US for illegally dumping oil into the oceans, and the intentionally covering it up.
It’s easy to assume that the economy of scale makes cruising environmentally friendly.
However, cruise ships are very poor advocates of low impact travel.
To put this into perspective, The Oasis of the Seas, weighing 225,282 tonnes, will burn just over 11,000 gallons of low quality high-sulphur fuel oil at its cruising speed of 22.6 knots. This is an eye watering gallon for every twelve feet travelled!
A smaller ship (138,000 tonnes) using the same type of diesel engines that only operate at about 30% efficiency, (rated at 75,600Kw) will burn about 6,640 gallons of low-grade oil per hour.
Maritime low-grade heavy oil fuels are incredibly damaging, with a very high sulphur content – far higher than the amount of sulphur and particulates found in car exhausts.
Bearing in mind that cruise liners take passengers to many world heritage sites, the inadvertent collateral damage could be huge, with many implications for the historic cities visited.
Cruise line marketing often focuses on the beautiful destination to which passengers may be taken – unspoilt beaches, remote island chains and ancient port cities. with fresh sea breezes and clean air.
The reality is somewhat different, with the cruise industry complacently burning the dirtiest fuel in some of the world’s most fragile environments such as the arctic.
Shipping currently accounts for almost three percent of global CO2 emissions.
It has been one of the slowest transport sectors to accept that it has a problem, and it was only in April 2018 that its first sector-specific emissions reduction target was set – to reduce emissions from 3.5% to 0.5% by 2020.
To place this into context, shipping has been linked to 400,000 premature deaths attributed to cardio-vascular disease and lung cancer each year. The shipping industry is also a regular contributor to marine pollution, and that’s not just limited to oil and debris discharged at sea.
The industry also sends many of its old ships to be broken for scrap – many to under-developed Asian nations such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and India
The ship breaking yard at Alang (located in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat off the Gulf of Cambay) was set up in 1983 on a small scale along a 10-km (6 miles) stretch of sandy beach. The tidal, geographical, and climatic features make Alang an ideal ship breaking location.
These types of location, whilst excellent for the convenience of breaking up old hulls, are highly inappropriate sites for the delicate marine eco-systems, bringing the risks of routinely leaking hazardous and toxic materials into the sea during the process of breaking.
Furthermore, according to data from the Gujarat Maritime Board, there have been over two hundred deaths over the years caused by fires and other accidents.
A research paper written by Dr. Maruf Hossain and Mohammad Islam of the Institute of Marine Sciences, University of Chittagong details the extent to which highly dangerous materials are leaked into coastal waters, and the impact it has on marine life, and on human health via the food chain.
It makes for sombre reading.
According to the Friends of the Earth, during 2014, cruise ships dumped more than a billion gallons of human sewage into the seas.
The US EPA stated at the time, that an average cruise ship with 3,000 passengers and crew produces about 21,000 gallons of sewage a day — enough to fill 10 domestic swimming pools in a week. That adds up to more than 1 billion gallons a year for the industry — a conservative estimate, since some new ships carry as many as 8,000 passengers and crew. In addition, each ship generates and dumps about eight times that much “greywater” from sinks, showers and baths, which can contain many of the same pollutants as sewage and significantly affects water quality.
That’s a bit of an eye opener isn’t it?
Now consider on top of that, every cruise ship passenger generates 3.5 kg of rubbish every day, some of which will find its way into the azure blue waters that you went there to see in the first place.
Since then the industry has made some progress, and new cruise ships of the future may well be powered by Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), which offers much lower sulphur emissions, and is therefore an improvement in this respect to the heavy oil currently used.
However, LNG isn’t the panacea to the problems of emissions. A recent report by Transport and Environment (T and E) states that LNG-powered cruise ships will not deliver sustainable tourism, as its potential widespread use will lock the industry into using fossil-based fuels for decades.
Recently, the port city of Barcelona announced that it would encourage the handling of cruise ships powered by LNG. The first LNG ship arrived in Barcelona earlier this year and was refuelled with LNG from a special barge. Barcelona hailed this as a big step forward in sustainable tourism.
This is not the case according to research conducted by T and E, which demonstrates that LNG used in shipping may generate 9% more greenhouse gases than the use of Heavy Fuel Oil.
So, even if all cruise ships were to be powered by LNG, the ecological implications are still serious.
So, maybe it’s about time that we re-considered our holidays.
Maybe it’s time to holiday locally, without creating a massive carbon footprint by flying and cruising?