Monday, 31 October 2011

Climate and Aviation - The Flying Post

I got myself into a Twitter discussion about flying's impact on the environment last week. Twitter has a 140 character limit, which isn't exactly conducive to a good debate about this. I could've just copy/pasted some links, but it's just not enough. So, now I find myself writing a whole post about it. This blog is intended to be about the emotional side of AGW, but for this rare occasion, I'll be dealing with figures.

First off, I have to get a few things out of the way. I conscientiously do not fly, and I haven't flown for 4 years for several reasons.

1) Not flying is one of the single easiest things to do to lower your emissions (going vegetarian and cutting consumption right behind it).

2) Flying uses mind boggling amounts of fuel, fuel which preferably should be used on food production instead of vacations, since, according to the IEA, oil production already peaked, back in 2006. If you haven't thought about what that means for the world, you, or your children, run along and google "peak oil", freak out a bit, then come back.

3) I am not interested in checking out of society to curb my emissions, so I find alternatives. In the past 4 years, my family and I have been to Morocco twice, Finland, Sweden, Southern France and Spain, all without flying. People colonized the globe before air travel, c'mon, it's not the only way to get around.

4) In a few years, my kids will learn about climate change in school. When they ask me what I did, knowing the existential ground below our feet was disappearing, I will not look them in the eyes and tell them that I just pretended everything was going to be okay, and kept doing everything as per usual.

5) Science tells us that we should aim to bring carbon levels down to 350 ppm to avoid catastrophe. We're already way beyond that, at 391 (look at the bar of stats at the top). I don't feel a need to make that number a lot worse just so I can have a vacation.

Now that I got that off my chest, some sources.

My main go-to person on the issue of flying and carbon emissions is environmental journalist, George Monbiot. Anyone can go to any number of websites and have their carbon emissions figured out for certain activities. But as Monbiot points out, in the case of flying, this method isn't applicable. One must take the resulting number and multiply it with IPCC figure of 2.7, to get the true impact (the Tyndall Centre of Climate Change uses a more conservative estimate of 1.9, still more that your usual carbon footptint equation), owing to atmospheric impact. Here's an article of his, where I have highlighted the important details on this. So remember, when calculating flights on an internet service such as this, the results are unfortunately only applicable for a plane flying at ground level, usually not the case.

Here's another sobering Monbiot article about flying with a moral twist, if you're up for it.

There are many variables to calculating the effects of air travel, distance, plane model, etc. For sure though, a long haul flight easily doubles the average person's annual emissions in one go (indeed, I've seen higher estimates still), as illustrated in this extensive paper, on page 7. We already need to eat, use electricity, and travel locally on our carbon budgets - would we rather eat or go on vacation, given a certain amount of carbon to use annually?

Biofuels were cited during my Twitter debate as being a viable fuel alternative, ergo my non-flying stance was "hogwash". For one, biofuel technology is out there, great, but it's not in aviation use (oh, apart from that one time Richard Branson powered one short Virgin flight with 20% nut oil. Can you imagine how many people those nuts could have fed instead?). Even then, biofuels have a lot against them still (see pages 5-7).

I've opted for train travel instead of flying. Certainly, it takes longer. As it happens, one of our favorite destinations at my house is Morocco. in theory, we could board a plane in Copenhagen and arrive in Morocco 5-6 hours later. If it weren't for environmental impact and fuel use, awesome. Especially if it's for a shorter trip. As it were, it takes 3 days in all from Copenhagen to Tangier, with stops in Paris and Madrid. We've had time to visit friends, drink wine, eat tapas and be merry en route. Point being, the extended travel time has been a joy, not a chore. And while train travel isn't pristine emissions-wise, it certainly figures more climate friendly than flying.

I do also have family in the States I haven't visited for a while, and it doesn't look like I'll visit them any time soon. Does that bother me? Yes and no. My mother flies here to visit us (1 person's emissions to visit 4 people is still better than 4 people's emissions to visit 1 person), so my children know their grandmother, and we Skype, which is like being in the same room. The thing that does hurt most, for both of us, is the fact that I won't fly over to take care of her estate when she goes. The thought does sadden me, but it's been arranged that someone stateside will take care of that, and my mother is donating her body to science. But to be honest, my mother has many years left in her, I'm pretty sure that peak oil will prevent most air travel before her time is up, at any rate. But not seeing family in the flesh bothers me a lot less than knowingly contributing to ruining my children's future. Sounds pretty heavy, I know - it is!

To sum up - I appreciate the cultural impact that aviation has had on the world- We're closer, more connected, and as a result more peaceful and able to cooperate. I live where I do today because of air travel. That said, flying is a bad habit that we have to stop. The fact that technology for alternatives to conventional aviation is out there and not in use? A travesty. And that's exactly why I will not aid and abet the aviation industry's detrimental effect on the climate, nor should anyone else who is truly concerned about it (there, I said it!).

What flying did to encourage positive socio-anthropological changes in the past 100 years, the internet does now. We're still connected, more so even. We've come a long way, now let's take another road that's not as destructive. Internet use isn't a climate saint, but I'll save that for another post. Now, go no-fly!