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Opinion: Planes and taps and climate priorities

Opinion: Planes and taps and climate priorities

By Jeremy Williams

If I step outside my front door and look down the street, I can see planes coming into land in one direction, and a water tower across the street in the other. The airport is a major source of climate pollution, and aviation is a growing concern for climate campaigners as it continues to grow unchecked. So far there is far less attention from the climate movement in the other direction – that of the water tower.

If you look at the carbon emissions from each of these – water and aviation – they are unexpectedly pretty similar. Pre-pandemic, flying accounted for around 7% of Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions. Water is 6%.

Though they are similar statistically, they are of course very different in importance. Flying is a luxury. Nobody needs to fly, and only the world’s richest people do it. Most people in the world have never been on a plane. (If it doesn’t always feel like that, it may be because British citizens fly more than anyone else on the planet.) Half of all aviation emissions are from the busiest 1% of passengers who take multiple flights a year, and climate action should start there.

Water, on the other hand, is the most basic of human needs. Everyone needs it, everyone deserves it. It’s a matter of life and death, and climate change threatens its supply.

That figure of 6% of emissions is the UK figure, and it can be higher or lower depending on where you live. Many places have gravity-based water systems, and emissions will be lower than they are in the UK, where a lot of energy goes into pumping water to London.

Drier places use more energy on water. In California 10% of emissions are from water, and the state uses a fifth of all its electricity on cleaning it and pumping it to where it’s needed. At the furthest end of the spectrum is Saudi Arabia, which burns its cheap oil and gas to desalinate sea water. This takes up 17% of the desert nation’s emissions. That’s a carbon footprint of global significance – there are 160 countries with smaller carbon footprints than Saudi Arabia’s for desalination alone. Again, climate action should start with the richest.

Another important difference between these two sources of emissions is that one of them is also affected by climate change and the other isn’t. Aviation carries on regardless, minus the occasional blip such as Luton’s runway melting a little bit in a heatwave last summer. Water supply is very vulnerable to a changing climate, with both floods and droughts affecting our capacity to provide clean water.

Unpredictability alone is a threat to agriculture, as I’m experiencing in micro form in my own garden, where we’ve had about a minute’s rain in three weeks. At the macro scale, the frequency and intensity of droughts has increased by a third since 2000, according to the UN. Wealthy countries in Europe and the Americas have not been immune to drought, though an estimated 44% of the damage in that time has been in Africa.

When water is scarce, we need to use more energy to get it, which in turn pushes up emissions. There’s a vicious cycle in play.

With these differences in mind, it’s obvious why climate protestors should direct their attention to the airport, and not turn up with placards outside the water tower. Emissions from luxuries such as aviation drive climate change, which makes water more scarce, which pushes up the emissions required to keep the taps running. Water matters too, and Saudi Arabia plans to have a zero carbon water system by 2060. But climate action needs to start with the luxuries.

First published in The Earthbound Report.

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