PORT VILA — The small boat slices through the turquoise water that separates Efate from Pele — two of the 80-some islands that make up Vanuatu, a Melanesian archipelago in the southwest Pacific.
Kaltuk Kalomor, Vanuatu's Minister of Agriculture, is standing onboard, pointing out the receding coastline, a consequence of the rising sea level and erosion. “People didn’t believe it at first, but now they see that some people are going to have to move their homes,” he says.
The other two passengers on the boat are from Kiribati, and came along to learn from Vanuatu’s experience adapting to climate change. Located 2,000 kilometers away from Vanuatu, smack in the middle of the Pacific, Kiribati has an altitude of less than three meters above sea level. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report predicts a 90-centimeter increase in the sea levels by 2100. The President of Kiribati is seriously envisioning a mass population exodus from his country.
Location of Vanuatu on the globe — Source: TUBS
But defeatism is not in the air. The small delegation from Kiribati is planning a visit to an experimental pig farm in one of the four villages on Pele. Even though the rise in sea levels is one of the most spectacular effects of global warming — including, in Vanuatu, the sinking of some islands — climate change also means extreme variances in climate between drought and flood, as well as an increase in the intensity of storms.
Agriculture, on the front line
These changes present the biggest challenge to agriculture, and two-thirds of the households in Vanuatu grow food and raise pigs. According to studies cited by Christopher Bartlett, the scientific advisor for the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) — the organization that is spearheading the project — pigs have a tendency to eat less and be less fertile during hot periods. Heat also makes them more susceptible to disease and increases losses due to hurricanes.
Caged pigs in Vanuatu — Photo: Philip Capper
“Our pigs don’t fatten up as much as they used to,” says the local project leader in Pele. At this pilot project, a new breed of pig was created by crossing imported white pigs — a very large breed — with the wild and domestic pigs native to the islands. Instead of letting the pigs wander around and feed exclusively on coconuts, they are kept protected in covered pens, surrounded by a garden fertilized by their manure.
The garden provides them with food: bananas, yucca, sweet potatoes and coconut, as well as tilapia raised in trays of stagnant water. The method, which is both self-sustaining and requires limited space, is going to be expanded to the neighboring village, whose small houses with undulating roofs and pandanus leaves, bordered by vegetable gardens, stretch from the beach to the forest.
Mangrove, tuna and banana trees
Initiatives like this are starting to appear all around Vanuatu, aimed at involving local communities. In some places, they plant mangrove and vetiver to protect against coastal erosion. In other, people are returning to traditional construction methods, which are more flexible and resist storms better. In other places yet, they have installed deep nets which allow the village inhabitants to fish tuna, which are not threatened by the accelerated decline of the coral reefs.
On Epi, in the north, students have created a map of the island, which allows residents to identify the safest places to relocate roads and coastal infrastructure that have been damaged by floods and erosion.
Another example: On the island of Efate, where the capital Port Vila is also located, an experimental farm tests different varieties of plants to find the ones that are best adapted to the new climate conditions. In a clearing cut in the thick forest in the island’s interior, several rows of taro and sweet potato grow. The sweet potatoes are native to the Pacific islands — Vanuatu has around 200 different varieties.
Man cooking bananas over a fire, near Montmartre, Efate — Photo: Graham Crumb
The plants grow without any fertilizer or irrigation in the black and grainy earth on this volcanic island. They will be selected for quality and resistance to drought. Nearby, between watermelon plants and sandalwood, Isso Nihmei, the project’s leader, is experimenting with a Samoan technique for cloning banana trees, conserving the smallest plants, which better resist storms.
“Leadership” in the Pacific
Vanuatu needs both the right vegetable varieties and the right techniques. “No need to look very far,” says Christopher Bartlett. “Vanuatu has hundreds of traditional techniques that will allow people to face weather challenges.” It’s just about identifying and spreading the information, the scientist says.
That’s the role of the National Advisory Board (called NAB), an office that opened in 2012 to coordinate all of the adaption projects on a national level. It’s a part of the Ministry of Climate Change Adaptation, which was created this summer.
Storm in Port Vila — Photo: Philip Capper
Florence Iautu, from the NAB, says he's proud to see his country take the lead in climate change adaptation in the Pacific. "We are at the vanguard in comparison to the rest of the world because in Vanuatu, global warming is not measured in potential economic losses, it is a direct danger to our population of 240,000 people.”
Vanuatu — which joined the list of the least-developed countries after its independence from France and Great Britain in 1980 — is in fact one of the most vulnerable countries when it comes to natural disasters. The archipelago, located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, has learned over the course of centuries to face not only the storms that batter it every year but also earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.
Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.
It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.
More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.
But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:
Cleaner aviation fuel
The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.
While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.
Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.
In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.
Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.
High-flying ambitions for the sector
Hydrogen and electrification
Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.
One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.
Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.
New aircraft designs
Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.
International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.
The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.
Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airportcommons.wikimedia.org
Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.
The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.
Data privacy issues
However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.
Auckland Airport, New Zealand
The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?
At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.
Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.
40% of Swedes intend to travel less
According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.
At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.
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