Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is lead researcher on climate and energy at nef.

I can’t recall the last time I’ve seen a pure blue sky without the tapestry of contrails that sketch out the invisible highways of the global aviation network.

The reality of the closed airspace due to the volcanic plume from an eruption near the Icelandic glacier Eyjafjallajoekull (pronounced aya-feeyapla-yurkul) hit me whilst strolling back along the Southbank on a warm spring Sunday afternoon. As I walked along the river, the world seemed strangely calm. The overhead roar of jet engines from aircraft as they march with military precession along the flight path to Heathrow, were conspicuous by their absence.

Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull Volcano, Iceland, 17th of April, 2010 (NASA, MODIS Satellite)

But, such events also reveal that we are hugely dependent on what often seems like hidden infrastructure, woven together to create an intricate web of interdependence across the globe.

Eyjafjallajoekull, located at the southeastern corner of Iceland began erupting shortly after midnight on the 21st of March shooting lava to heights of over a hundred metres. Icelandic airspace was subsequently shut, flights diverted and roads closed. But it was only three weeks later that Eyjafjallajoekull entered a new phase of its eruption and began spewing large clouds of ash into atmosphere. The plume spread thickly from there all the way across the Atlantic.

While not reaching into the stratosphere, where the climate effects could have been long-lasting, the plume has reached heights that coincide with altitude that jet aircraft fly. The majority of European airspace has been shut down since 15th of April, leaving hundreds of thousands of passengers stranded, bringing the industry to its knees.

The ever increasing complexity of infrastructure, leaves us extremely vulnerable to often unpredictable events, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, extreme weather events or even civil disobedience, industrial action, civil war and terrorism. The eruption of Eyjafjallajoekull is the latest example of how, one exogenous shock, can throw society into a tailspin.

Cabinet Office Briefing Room A (cobra), in Whitehall

As one part of the web fails, like dominoes, failure begins to ricochet through other interdependent networks. So much so, the UK Government’s emergency  Civil Contingency Committee (COBRA) with a remit: ‘to coordinate the preparation of plans for ensuring in an emergency the supplies and services essential to the life of the community; to keep these plans under regular review; to supervise their prompt and effective implementation in specific emergencies.’ –  has met several times. The Royal Navy has been commandeered to bring stranded travellers back to the UK and The Guardian reported supermarkets could be facing a shortage of perishable goods that are often transported in the hold of aircraft.

So whilst the aviation industry morns losses in revenue of over £130 million each day, and discussions emerge about the potential government bailout for an already struggling industry, many are beginning to feel that this is yet again a symptom of a system on the brink of collapse.

Last week, leading science journal Nature published a paper (subscription required) which highlighted the vulnerability of highly interdependent infrastructure, and argued that we need to consider more ‘mutually dependent’ network properties if we are to design resilient systems. But not only should these systems be resilient, they also need to be low carbon and ensure that societal adaptive capacity is enhanced – so as a species, we are better equipped to deal with the next 50 years of climate change we already committed to.

Our ability to predict the future is limited by a number of factors. Models are limited representations of reality, constrained by our understanding of a complex system and computational power. And, while they may provide information on possible future outcomes, they are not a crystal ball. Second, against the background of larger-scale and long-term trends are ‘surprises’, such as extreme events, tipping points and unknown unknowns. This means that for optimum adaptation to an uncertain future, we need to recognise that while some impacts can be planned for, the best option is to increase system resilience and reduce vulnerability.

'Models...may provide information on possible future outcomes, but they are not a crystal ball'

Climate impact assessments for the next fifty years show that the major factor that will determine the vulnerability of communities to a changing climate is related to their current pathway of development and levels of inequality, as well as changes to climatic variables such as temperature and rainfall. This is awkwardly juxtaposed with the imminent threat of peak oil. This means that we urgently need to begin exploring alternative models of development – models that reduce rather than increase inequalities (unlike the current system), are sustainable from a climate (and environmental) perspective and reduce reliance on increasingly volatile fossil fuel resources.

No one questions that the Great Transition to a low-carbon, high-wellbeing future needs to be managed. The social impacts of a sudden shock are significant. For example, after the Al Qaeda attacks on Mombassa in 2002 the UK, US and Canadian governments advised against non-essential travel to Kenya. For a nation that is heavily dependent on tourism and the export of luxury horticulture, this had a dramatic effect on arrivals, tourism receipts and the Kenyan economy. A sudden cessation of, for example, aviation could be devastating.

But, large-scale cuts in aviation are now inevitable. If global average temperature change over the past 150 years is to remain below 2 °C – the politically defined threshold for dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system – the aviation industry simply cannot grow, and will in many cases will in fact need to contract. Especially if we are to avoid severe constraints on other more vital parts of the economy.

Runway 3 will leave society £5 billion worse off

Furthermore,  Grounded , a report published yesterday by the Valuing What Matters team at nef, showed that expansion of Heathrow will also leave society £5 billion, worse off  when researchers accounted for social and environmental costs in their economic appraisal of Runway 3. This will  deliver a blow to all those who argue that building a third runway will be good for the economy.

In Plane Truths , a report published by nef and the World Development Movement, the Climate Change and Energy team at nef explored the development implications of halting growth in the aviation industry.

Our analysis found that halting the growth in UK aviation would have limited impact on those developing nations that receive a relatively large number of UK tourists. Instead of expanding aviation to increase the benefits of tourism in developing nations, it would be more beneficial to explore policies that ensure more tourism revenues in developing nations  – currently a large proportion of income leaks out of the nation back into the coffers of foreign interests and investors. Second, in the longer-term, if or when emissions and air travel are reduced, the impact of this must be managed in a way that enables a transition to a more sustainable model of development for nations that have pursued models of development based on tourism.

2000 Fuel Protests, almost left the UK '9 meals from anarchy'

The good news is that there are a number of historical examples of “coercive situations” that demonstrate, when required, the public and policy-makers can rapidly adapt. At the same time, these events often catalyse longer-term change. Examples exist in the context of the the 1970s oil shocks, the 2000 UK Fuel Protests; the 2000 Californian Electricity Crisis, and damage or coercive disruptions to transport infrastructure (e.g. in the aftermath of an earthquake).

For example, crises such as these appear to support technological change through increased diffusion of new technology that assists adaptation to a crisis. There is evidence that following the 1980s postal disputes, there was rapid widespread use of fax machines. In the context of the 2000 fuel crisis, evidence suggests that the fuel crisis may have produced a decisive shift towards the use of telecommunications and the internet for working and shopping and the use of more fuel efficient vehicles. This is also supported by evidence from the 1970s oil crises that saw a shift to more fuel efficient vehicles.

Perhaps, if there is one thing we can thank Iceland for, it’s for revealing the harsh reality that our infrastructure is particularly vulnerable to external shocks that we have no control over.  And that, come to think of it, videoconferencing isn’t so bad…