The Guardian online has a very interesting article summarising the state of play with airline emissions and chances for reductions in the future from a UK perspective. Main takeaways are:
- “US commercial airlines alone burn about 50 million gallons of kerosene (the main aviation fuel) every day.”
- “A fuel tax on domestic [UK] flights that increased the price of air travel by 50% could cut carbon emissions by one million tonnes a year.”
- “The Sustainable Aviation Fuel Group, an industry consortium, wants planes to use 600 million gallons of biofuel a year by 2015.”
How will it achieve that?
- “An algal pond the size of Belgium could meet all aviation’s current fuel needs” so it is favoured over “”a field the size of the EU” to grow that much from plant-based biofuels.”
There’s still a big climate problem even if you use algal biofuel instead of kerosene to cut the CO2, he says. The ‘radiative forcing’ effect from emissions such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) and water vapour (contrails) at high altitudes causes at least half a plane’s climate change impact, and would remain largely unaffected by a move to biofuels. Even if these succeeded in cutting aviation’s climate impact by as much as 30%, as their proponents hope, he adds, “a return to aviation growth could negate that in just five years. Biofuels do not change the game”, he concludes. “The industry will have to make many more fundamental changes if it is to grow sustainably.”
The article then looks at airships, flying wings, solar planes, more efficient air traffic management, even nuclear planes, all with either low efficiencies and/or large lead in times.
The article concludes that its hard to see how our current levels of flying can be sustained if carbon emissions are to be reduced.
Although the article doesnt deal in any depth with what a world might look like with much less air travel, it contains an interesting link to an article which discusses a study of how flying might look in 2023. Entitled “Tourism 2023. Four scenarios, a vision and a strategy for UK outbound travel and tourism” the full study is a fascinating read, and includes examples of holidays that might be taken under each scenario. For instance, under the scenario which contemplates a spike in oil prices as well as climate change:
The solo traveller
The invitation for the wedding arrived 16 months early. Anna was excited, and absolutely desperate to go to her brother’s big day. But the only problem is that he moved to Australia ten years ago. She definitely won’t be able to afford an airfare so she’s arranged with her employer to roll two years holiday into one and take a three-month break to make the journey overland. Anna’s booked through one of the many online integrated travel portals, and paid her supermarket in advance for the entire trip. Most of her accommodation along the way will be on the exciting sleeper trains, coaches and ships that provide surprisingly decent accommodation while on the move. She’s arranged accommodation in advance in the places she’ll be stopping on the way – all offered for free through a popular social networking site. Important cost savings for that wedding present!
Importantly, the study is supported by major UK aviation stakeholders including British Airways and Thomas Cook.
This article contains this summary which I like:
By 2023, the Easyjet weekend may well be a thing of the past. An increasingly plausible scenario is that of the long vacation – a couple of months at least, but only every couple of years. More people want extended trips like these to be part of life’s rhythm, and companies are beginning to find that supporting staff to do so improves motivation and makes them more likely to stick around. Missing out on a few mini breaks in order to justify that longer haul makes sense in carbon budget terms, too.
And the destinations love it. Hoteliers and resort managers find it easier to secure bookings for weeks at a stretch; less turnover is less work.
So, you have breakfast in bed, load the latest Booker shortlist or sci-fi trilogy onto your iRead, and board the ‘comfycarriage’ of the high speed train to Tirana. Your ticket lets you stop off at any point on the way for as long as you please, so you’re hoping to have a few days with old friends in Munich en route. Or, with all that time on your hands, you decide to go further afield. You pack your laptop and camera and drift over the Atlantic on a sleek, silent airship. You spend hours gazing at the 360° views, catch up with friends in the virtual chat booth, dine well, sleep well, and use up just 20% of your carbon budget for the year.
I hope my kids get to enjoy this. For their sake, we need to reduce unnecessary jet travel asap, or there is a good chance we dont get there at all.
There are many and varied theories about what went wrong at Copenhagen and what needs to happen now. It is interesting to note that the problems that states might have in dealing with climate change were anticipated 35 years ago by the Australian philosopher John Passmore.
In his 1974 book on environmental ethics, “Man’s Responsibility for Nature”, Passmore examined intergenerational equity, ie what sacrifices present generations should make for future ones, and why. He took climate change as his test case:
We know at least this much, however. Men will need the biosphere. And it is sometimes suggested that our present level of industrial activity is so heating up the atmosphere that large parts of the earth’s surface will – as a result of the melting of polar ice – eventually be rendered uninhabitable. So, it is concluded, we ought at once, for the sake of posterity, to reduce the level of that activity. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution concluded that ‘such eventualities are not only remote: they are conjectural’. But this case serves as a sort of touchstone, an extreme example both in its uncertainty and in the disastrousness of the consequences it envisages, were they to eventuate.
Passmore quoted the economist Pigou to the effect that everyone accepts that the state ought to protect future interests ‘in some degree’ against the ‘irrational discounting’ and preference of present generations over future ones.
But the state itself can undertake irrational actions. It is subject to lobbying, and can find it just as hard as individuals to properly protect future generations. Passmore considered whether the nation-state could act in time when faced with a conservation crisis:
There is also the question of time. The degree of urgency, on the view of some scientists, is very great; political action is generally speaking slow, and in this case is subjected to an enormous range of special interests. In these circumstances there is a strong temptation to fall back on the ideal of the strong man, who would conserve by the direct exercise of coercion. I have refused to accept this as a ‘solution’ to the conservation problem, partly because I do not think there is an good reason for believing that any ‘strong man’ who is likely to emerge after the collapse of democracy would be primarily concerned with conservation and partly because I do not believe this to be the kind of cost we ought to be prepared to meet, for posterity’s sake as well as our own. Much the same is true of the suggestion that what we should work for is the collapse, as rapidly as possible, of our entire civilization, as the only way of conserving resources. The cost would be enormous; the benefit more than dubious.
One possibility Passmore considered was a society in which environmental issues were dealt with by regulation issued by a ‘benevolently-despotic scientific research institute’ subject to lobbying, but only from scientific pressure groups.
He wondered if that was too autocratic, because he considered that the great strength of a democracy is the process it provides by which scientific findings and measures to respond to them, can be tested and kept under review.
Nevertheless, applying Passmore’s thinking on this issue from 36 years ago, perhaps the brightest hope is strong central regulation based on science. Which means that actions such as the US EPA’s regulatory approach, including its recent endangerment finding on CO2, may be the best way forward, rather than cap and trade and carbon tax schemes which are more open to political lobbying.
Johann Hari is a London based journalist writing for the Independent. He provides this simple metaphor on Copenhagen choices:
Imagine you are about to get on a plane with your family. A huge group of qualified airline mechanics approach you on the tarmac and explain they’ve studied the engine for many years and they’re sure it will crash if you get on board. They show you their previous predictions of plane crashes, which have overwhelmingly been proven right. Then a group of vets, journalists, and plumbers tell they have looked at the diagrams and it’s perfectly obvious to them the plane is safe and that airplane mechanics – all of them, everywhere – are scamming you. Would you get on the plane? That is our choice at Copenhagen.
Johann recently visited the Arctic and concludes:
The last days of the Arctic as we know it appear to have begun. Since the year I was born, 1979, nearly 40% of the Arctic’s summer sea ice has melted into the oceans, and the rate is accelerating. One day–some scientists predict around 2015, others say 2030, and a few hope for 2070–there will be nothing in summer but a silent stretch of water at the top of the world. The North Pole will be a point in the open ocean, accessible by boat. Perhaps somebody will found Sir John Franklin Shipping, in memory of the man who died in an unrecognisable landscape trying to reach this spot. The Arctic as it has existed for all of human history will be over.
In this paper, Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University, and Martin Hoffert of New York University calculate that:
over time, the burning of carbon heats the Earth about 100,000 times more through the trapping of outgoing longwave radiation than it does by direct heating through the release of chemical energy. In other words, when we burn carbon and release CO2 to the atmosphere, only 0.001 % of the total warming comes directly from the release of chemical energy during burning. The remaining 99.999 % of the warming is associated with the trapping of outgoing longwave radiation by that CO2 in the atmosphere.
Over at Climate Progress, Joseph Romm quotes a former lead engineer at Princeton Plasma Physics Lab who puts those numbers in perspective:
running a handheld electric hairdryer on US grid electricity delivers a planet-warming punch comparable to [the heat given off by] two Boeing 747s operating at full takeoff power for the same time period. The warming is delivered over time, not promptly, but that don’t matter; the planetary heating is accrued, the accountants would say, the moment you hit the switch.
So, as you fly across the globe in a 747 its worth having this image in your mind, that you are helping deliver warming to the planet equivalent to 100,000 other 747s flying at the same time.
Not a great gift for the grandkids.
The calls for limits and rationing of flying are mounting in the UK.
In September 2009:
The Committee on Climate Change, set up to advise the UK Government on how to meet target to cut greenhouse gases by 34 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050, wrote to the Secretaries of State for Climate Change and Transport, that global aviation emissions need to be capped at 2005 levels by 2050. It cautioned that air travel may have to be rationed to achieve that goal.
Earlier, the Institute for Public Policy Research called for personal carbon rationing that “limits the amount they can spend on luxuries like air travel.”
The Tyndall Centre for Climate Research called for a managed recession to meet UK targets, including “a moratorium on airport expansion”.
In November 2009
The head of the British Environment Agency announced that, in order to reduce personal emissions from 9 tonnes to only 2 tonnes by 2050 the UK will probably need to adopt individual carbon allowances. These would:
involve people being issued with a unique number which they would hand over when purchasing products that contribute to their carbon footprint, such as fuel, airline tickets and electricity.
The Institution of Mechanical Engineers says that Britain will find it “almost impossible” to meet its target to cut greenhouse emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 without “drastic action.”
As part of that drastic action the country has to be placed on a war time footing. This means:
Individuals would also be expected to “do their bit” by reducing the amount of energy used in the home, flying less and switching to public transport rather than driving cars, the report said. Personal carbon allowances that limit the amount of energy used on transport, heating and flying could also have to be introduced.
people in countries like Britain may have to accept a level of “discomfort” by reducing energy and even a “loss of liberty” by travelling less but these changes in lifestyle will prevent worse suffering in the developing world due to climate change as well as the costs to our own society in the future.
Watch the amazing TV advert on this page. Now playing on UK TV in prime time.
Also here on youtube.
Two things to note:
1. The directness of the message and the lack of subtlety. No careful effort not to upset the audience. Or to try to coax people towards better habits. No time for that. Its all hands to the pump and do whatever is required.
2. Its gets pretty hard to justify a long haul flight for fun after seeing this.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change has said:
“The ad is directed at adults, but we know that the proposition to ‘protect the next generation’ is a motivating one.
“Climate change is not just a problem for generations of people far in the future; it’s happening now; it affects us and our children, and we owe it to them to take action now to prevent its worst effects.”