Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Carbon Reality and Flying

*I recently started blogging at Verdens Skove (World Forests), the Danish equivalent of Rainforest Action Network. Although rainforests have never been my particular area of expertise, my goal is to tie them into the mélange of nature, humans, and climate change, which is the great crossroads of our time. I shall blog there in Danish, but will be translating my posts and re-posting them here if the subject matter is relevant for English speakers. My first post, from a few weeks ago, was written specifically for a Danish audience My post from yesterday however, was relevant for a climate worrier of any language. I hope you'll come back and check the "Verdens Skove" tag on this blog and follow my progress there. Also, I truly hope this will help me update this blog more often as well!*
We are well on our way toward a new era where we will have to re-think a whole lot of things. It's really quite odd to be here, right on the crossroads of actually having the theoretical and practical know-how to tackle our environmental problems, yet at the same time, doing nothing, and being literally on the verge of planetary collapse. Quite a number of harmful processes created by anthropogenic global warming have already started - the ecological descent has begun. And we act as though nothing's amiss. We continue, under the cloak of "business as usual". 
At some point, we will have to refrain from some of the things we take for granted. We cannot eat industrially produced meat, every day. We will have to cut back on material consumption. Things we consider everyday items will have to become a little special, rare, maybe even luxurious. At least until we implement A Better Way of Doing Things. 
One of the things I've done myself, for which there is no sustainable alternative, is to stop flying. It's not an easy decision, considering my American background (living in Denmark). And it's neither easy nor cheap to get around, while travelling. It is nonetheless the fastest way to halve (or more!) one's annual emissions. And it's also part of sending an important signal, that what we usually take for granted needs to be the exception to the rule, if not an act of ecocide. 
350 is an important number. 350 ppm (parts per million) is the saturation of carbon in our atmosphere that is safe, compatible with life on this planet as we know it. It's also a number we've already passed (pre-industrial ppm number was 280). And not long ago, we passed 397 ppm.
We've already acculmulated a dangerous amount of carbon in the atmosphere, too much to keep the planetary balance that keeps us, and everything else, alive. The amount of carbon in the atmosphere right now, and the number keeps getting higher btw, means that the average temperature on the planet will rise, and eventually undermine all life on it. 
If we do not turn this around, if our emissions do not peak before 2020, in just 7 years, our world will become 2 degrees warmer. Science tells us that this must be avoided at all costs. If we do not peak before 2030, it will become 4 degrees warmer. To put it bluntly - a 4 degree temperature rise means we can't live here anymore. It's not just a question of the seas rising, it's a question of complete systemic collapse. 
The Carbon Bill of Flying
Our lifestyle already costs too much for our carbon budget. Even everyday things - warm baths, laundry, cooking, electricity for our time's most important mode of communication (the one I'm typing on right now)... it all adds to the atmospheric carbon soup which is no longer being absorbed by the seas and dwindling natural world at the same rate - they've already reached saturation.  
Air travel is, unfortunately, one of the giants of individual carbon consupmtion. Flights can't be calculated as carbon emissions on land, as with cars, busses, trains (though that's often how it is calculated nonetheless, and don't think it helps to buy offsets). The plane's actual fossil fuel usage is made even worse by the physical trail of condensation released into the troposphere, which creates contrails that end up containing yet more heat in the atmosphere.  
A roundtrip flight actually doubles annual carbon emissions. There are several calculations floating out there, but even the most conservative estimate puts one plane trip as the equivalent of 10 whole months of annual emissions, including all the daily emissions we take for granted. One of the larger calculations puts the same plane trip at a whopping 3 and a half years (smaller, propeller driven planes flying at lower altitudes are exempt from these calculations)! And take note - these are calculated per person. Get a calculator and have at it.
So - even if you stick to the most optimistic formula, air travel is an irresponsibly large consumption of an individual's annual emissions, and something most people use frivolously at that. There is no good excuse for doubling, or possibly trippling, emissions - for a vacation. 
Misguided Charity
Now, I don't want people to believe that I think we should stop having any fun, and go back to living under Middle Age standards. We have a right to be here. We have a right to food, clean water, hygiene, freedom of movement. But it is imperative that we do it as gently as possible. Air travel is not gentle. Far from it. We must remember what is more important. The opportunity to live well, love our friends and family, eat well and varied, have a well-functioning daily life. Or one vacation (alone) on another continent? Unfortunately, from a carbon budget's perspective, it's either or - not both. 
Air travel has done wonderful things for humanity, let's not forget that. But our cultural view of flying as something that is solely for good must be tweaked. The reality being that flying is more harmful for our climate that so many other things. Being privy to that information makes it positively irresponsible to continue flying. Misanthropic even. 
Not long ago, Verdens Skove posted a picture on their facebook page, citing that large areas of rainforest are cleared to grow bio-fuel crops (link: We need fuel for just about everything - for the agriculture that grows crops for our food, the transportation of those crops, electricity to prepare meals, keeping us warm, or cool. Is it then reasonable that we keep creating a demand for decidedly unnecessary things? 
On Verdens Skove's website, just above the links to bloggers' posts is a disclaimer: "Verdens Skove does not necessarily agree with our bloggers' posts, and we do not necessarily agree with their opinions". Well - the feeling's mutual. Verdens Skove does a lot of great work toward conserving something the planet desperately needs to stay healthy. The rainforests are the planet's lungs (the oceans are as well, but I get how trees are better poster boys for the climate than, say, plankton), and must be saved, no matter what. 
The current contest on Verdens Skove's web-site (if you've ever bought a rainforest certificate, you're in the running for a trip to Costa Rica) is part and parcel of the very contradiction I started this post with - knowing the physical carbon reality of our planet, and not heeding it, despite that. Advertising for a charity is fine, by all means, the message needs to be put out there. But actually creating the demand for more fuel that will spur more deforestation to produce the same? Well.
I am privileged to be blogging for Verdens Skove, and I think this is one of the better NGOs out there, up there with Greenpeace and Amnesty. But no amount of goodwill or charity can ever outweigh air travel. And that is why I am not participating in the current contest, despite the fact that I've bought several acres worth of certificates through the years, and despite that I'd love to see the rainforest with my own eyes one day. I hope that other climate worriers join me in publicly denouncing the concept. New times with a new carbon reality requires new thinking. Think, don't fly.
- The current ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere 
- In depth article by George Monbiot on flying - recommended!:
Revisiting the Climate Academic on a Plane Argument. Blog post by climate scientist Kevin Anderson:
Kicking the Habit: Air Travel in a Time of Climate Change
- If You Fly by Jet You Kill? Tough post about air travel by social scientist and environmental acitivst:
Can We Afford to Fly? The Impact of Air Travel
Toward Sustainable Travel – Breaking the Flying Addiction. Blog post on Yale's climate site, recommended!:
Should Fear of Climate Change Make Us Stop Flying?: