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Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

It’s always hard to imagine a world fundamentally different to the one we encounter everyday. Even when the balance shifts deeply between established political forces, it feels like there might be a new DJ playing different songs but that you’re still at the same party. The days press in on us with familiar routines, demands and a storm force gale of unchanging multimedia information.

Unless, that is, something happens to really break the routine. Wait long enough and something always will. It wasn’t a gaffe, or a TV debate, but a blast that allowed us all to imagine a truly different world during this election campaign, one in which we are reconnnected to the environment.

In the early hours of Wednesday 14 April 2010, a dormant volcano, covered in ice, with a hard-to-pronounce name (Eyjafjallajökull) exploded. Nobody heard it across northern Europe because the volcano was far away in Iceland, but the skies above them fell silent.

Within hours, airports all over Europe were closing as if giant master switch for the aviation industry had been flicked to off. Why? Fine dust from the vast billowing cloud thrown up by the volcano was lethal to modern jet engines. Planes that had flown through similar clouds in the past had suffered terrifying, nearly disastrous losses of power. For days Europe was grounded. “Five miles up the hush and shush of ash/ Yet the sky is as clean as a white slate,” wrote the poet Carol Ann Duffy.

One of the main arteries of the modern world – cheap, ubiquitous air travel – was suddenly cut. What happened next was revelatory, and possibly a glimpse of a future world in which both climate change and strictly limited oil supplies have clipped the industry’s wings.

Philosophers, poets and stranded travellers filled the airwaves with reflections. Yes, it was inconvenient, they said, of course it was. No one was prepared for it. But suddenly the skies were peaceful. People found other ways to get from one place to another. They took trains, buses, taxis and shared cars. They talked to each other and, travelling at a slower pace, found themselves enjoying the scenery and being more aware of the world they were passing through. Most strikingly, as flying was something we thought we couldn’t live without, the world did not come to a standstill.

The sky didn’t fall, it just looked more peaceful. We heard more clearly, as Duffy wrote, “the birds sing in the Spring”. Almost everything simply carried on. The airlines suffered economically, but it revealed how few of the things we depend on for day-to-day life really relied on the airlines. Life would be different without them (or far fewer of them) but life would go on, as it had done for thousands of years.

Kew Gardens in south London is famous for two things. One is its stunning botanical collection, the other is that it lies on the approach to Heathrow airport. Normally, visitors have their appreciation of nature interrupted by low-flying aircraft every few seconds. If you had visited Kew during the brief ceasefire in the skies in April, you would have seen crowds of people staring in quiet wonderment at what was missing from the air above their heads. Like many others, behind the bluster of the threatened airline industry, I suspect they had the creeping sensation, that thanks to a random geological event on a faraway island, we had all stumbled upon a different and better world.

Of course, this is not what our political masters had planned. Quite the contrary. Typical of rich countries, the British government is planning for the number of air passengers using its airports to treble from around 200 million to 500 million by 2030. And, if aviation is allowed to grow, by 2050 it will account for between half and all of the UK’s acceptable carbon emissions, even if the growth slows down. Yet, those few days in April revealed that even in the most dramatic circumstances, of the complete, sudden, unexpected closure of airspace over northern Europe, we could adapt.

Scandalously, the environment, our underlying physical life support system, has been considered worth barely a mention during the election campaign. But, interestingly, both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties have said they oppose a new runway at Heathrow. With that, and holding recent memories, as the poet put it, of the clear skies’ “silent summons”, perhaps we’ll remember that change is not only possible, it actually happens. Whoever gets elected, they will have about 79 months and counting, to make a real difference on climate change.

Bookmark and ShareHelen Kersley is a researcher on nef’s Valuing What Matters team.

In the aftermath of the suspension of air travel as a result of volcanic ash, the economic implications are likely to be considered for some time after everyone is safely home.  Clearly, an abrupt, chaotic and unexpected disruption to life and work on this scale is highly costly to the economy and to society.  But as we weigh up the costs of this event, we should take the opportunity for an open, broad-minded look at the true social value of large-scale air travel, and the trade-offs including risks, that we cannot avoid.

Too often, we are presented with the purely economic costs and benefits of an activity.  These may tell us that it is cheaper to import our apples than grow them in Kent, or to spend the weekend in Turkey rather than Devon.  But too little are the economic factors balanced alongside the social and environmental impacts, or ‘spill-over’ effects, which may be much harder to measure but are often just as important to our lives and to society.  The biggest environmental cost of air travel is the intensity of its greenhouse gas emissions.  We are just beginning to acknowledge that no longer can air travel emit these gases for free.  If we have to pay for them, then higher fares will dampen demand and reduce the scale of the problem.

Wrapped up with air travel are important and complex issues around food security and support for overseas development.  On the former, just taking the case of apples, for example, the current prospect of shortages in the shops highlights the loss of our own capacity to grow them as a result of purely commercial pressures.  This is not about nostalgia.  It’s about jobs, skills, well-being and the environment in the UK but also abroad.  It may be that if we weigh the economic, environmental and social impacts of importing apples, it still makes sense to do so.  The point is that unless we try to capture and weigh-up all the factors we cannot be sure if we are creating value for society or destroying it.

The same process of transparency needs to apply to sourcing produce from low-income countries, such as cut-flowers from Kenya.  A comparison of the emissions costs of growing flowers in hothouses in Europe versus flying them in from Africa is one consideration.  But there are complex development issues too, around the potential for securing higher incomes for farmers and other workers, at the same time as ensuring security of affordable food for local populations. A holistic analysis of material outcomes can help ensure that environmental and developmental objectives are heeded.

Quite topically, our latest report is the result of our 9-month independent study of the costs and benefits of adding a third runway to Heathrow airport.   Contrary to the Department for Transport’s cost-benefit analysis a year ago, we found that if you include the key community impacts, such as extra noise, air pollution and traffic congestion, at a level that is commensurate with people’s lived experience of these disturbances, then a third runway will cost the UK far more than it will return to it in economic benefits.

Four years ago, Lord Stern cautioned government against locking into new carbon-intensive infrastructure like additional runways.  We may learn from latest events that locking ourselves further into air dependency carries too high a risk economically as well as environmentally.


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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.