03 Sep 2019 Story Climate change

Greta ahead of the wave at UN Climate Action Summit

Photo by UN Photo/Manuel Elias

It is the final countdown to the Climate Action Summit in New York on 23 September 2019.

As the impacts of climate change define our time, now is the moment to do something about it. It will require an unprecedented effort from all sectors of society.

One person stepping up to the challenge is 16-year-old Greta Thunberg. When she set sail from Plymouth to New York City in a zero-emissions, solar-powered yacht, she drew both criticism and praise for her actions.

Did her travel option to cross the Atlantic Ocean in this way present a realistic option for most? With no shower, toilet, cooking facilities or proper beds on-board, Thunberg’s decision has drawn attention to our luxury aviation travel by comparison.

We asked Rob de Jong, UN Environment Programme’s Mobility Unit Head, to share his thoughts about her journey.

What do you think of Thunberg’s decision to sail to the United States instead of taking a plane?

Greta became known for her tireless efforts to create more awareness by starting the youth climate protest, also known as Fridays for Future. When she started her climate demonstrations in front of the Swedish parliament in August 2018 she was alone. Today, students around the world have followed her example, with at least 802 strikes across 101 countries taking place. Traveling by sailing yacht is a demonstration of Thunberg’s values, as she aims to live a carbon-neutral life and advocate for action instead of words when it comes to decreasing emissions. The trip is quite dangerous, since it is hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean. It was a brave decision. She made the trip together with her father, filmmaker Nathan Grossman and two crew members of Malizia II. The 18-metre racing yacht is equipped with solar panels on deck and hydro-generators on the stern of the boat. With these installations, enough electricity is generated to run all systems—including navigation instruments.

What messages can we draw from Thunberg’s decision?

What Greta is doing sends a clear signal that aviation is responsible for a huge share of global carbon emissions and action is urgently needed. There are short- and longer-term actions needed now to make aviation low carbon. Before looking at the flying itself we should be looking at the whole system – to improve efficiency and resources from the food, busses, trucks, towing, plastic use, etc. There are many quick wins here. We should replace short-distance flights with other, more sustainable modes of transport like train travel—while improving train infrastructure to reduce emissions. Secondly, we need to speed up research and the application of new technologies such as introducing hybrid and electric airplanes for short-haul flights. Thirdly, intercontinental flights must embrace more sustainable solutions, for example by using carbon-neutral biofuels. While the main struggle with this has been the availability and costs of these fuel, more can and should be done to switch from kerosene to sustainable biofuels. Finally, we must acknowledge the climate footprint of the aviation industry. This needs to be reflected in the price, as is already the case with many other modes of transport, so that the cost of emissions and relevant taxes are included in the cost of flying.

How realistic is low/zero-carbon shipping?

The big carbon emitters on the ocean area mostly oil tankers. They occasionally carry small portions of clean fuels which they use when they get close to coastal cities to reduce pollution in these areas. A large part, about one quarter, of their emissions are related to port operations, including the loading and transport to and from the ports. There are several easy wins to gain here. On the ocean, the vessels burn cheap, polluting fuel. The International Maritime Organization has stressed the importance of using cleaner fuels. This will have huge impact.

Is low/zero carbon shipping a feasible option for commuters in future?

As with aviation, for short trips like ferries and so, hybrid and electric technology could be a solution. This includes inland shipping. For longer trips, clean, carbon-neutral fuels are a sustainable option.