Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Global Warming Villainy: Is There Nothing to be Done About CO2-Spewing Jets?

by Tom Bozzo

After surviving the shock of Extreme Closeup Condi on the cover of this week's Time, I made my way to Bryan Walsh's "Greenhouse Airlines," which recounts some enviro-bashing of Prince Charles's air travel and comes around to offer this "well, duh" line:
On an individual level, a single long-haul flight can emit more carbon per passenger than months of SUV driving.
A single long-haul flight carries a passenger a distance which, on the ground, would require months of driving.

The article cites an estimate that a round-trip flight from New York to Tokyo would lead to emissions of 5,200 pounds of "carbon" [sic, I assume Walsh means carbon dioxide]. But a New York-Tokyo roundtrip is roughly 22,000 km, or 13,600 miles. If you hypothetically drove the distance in an American car of middling fuel economy, you'd emit roughly 200 grams of CO2 per km of driving (*) — or 4400 kilograms (9680 pounds) for the trip. On a per-km-driven basis, the SUV driver isn't off the hook.

Needless to say, if a roundtrip to Tokyo took a couple weeks en route instead of a day, many of the passengers wouldn't make the trip in the first place. Those emissions result, in effect, from an interaction of the relative convenience of transonic air travel — encouraging actual presence in far-flung locations — and the "cheapness" to the air traveler of the greenhouse gas emissions.

Walsh states that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change regards the growth of air travel as a relatively intractable problem lacking a "technofix."
As messy a source of pollution as electricity generation and ground transportation are, technologies do exist that could drastically cut carbon from power plants and cars. Not so for planes: the same aircraft models will almost certainly be flying on the same kerosene fuel for decades.
Walsh continues
Nor is there any replacement for long-haul air travel itself. I can take a train from Boston to Washington, but until we can figure out how to travel via fireplace, Harry Potter--style, the only way I'm getting from Tokyo to New York City is in aircraft [that emits lots of greenhouse gases].
This understates a variety of substitution possibilities. Declining costs of telepresence would tend to put pressure on business travelers to stay put (other things equal). We can go back to the future with more technofixable high-speed electric trains and airships. The main thing with the former is that it requires considerable advance planning and capital investment, since in my part of the carbon dioxide-spewing world, there is no intercity passenger train service of any sort worth mentioning. You see the latter crop up in science fiction here and there (e.g., Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age), but whether or not we end up in solar-electric zeppelins, it bears noting that a lot of our supposedly indispensible airliner fleet could end up parked in the desert southwest along with many of their otherwise airworthy siblings consigned there for reason of fuel-diseconomy and/or excess supply of airliners given a suitable adverse turn of the oil market, a fresh round of security-related lunacy, or whatever.

In fact, my inclination would be to take on the long-haul travel last, since the capital investment/substitution fix is available for lots of short-haul air travel. There's the equivalent of a transoceanic flight or two's air mileage (**) flown daily between Madison, Minneapolis, Detroit and Chicago; thanks to security and air traffic control delays, those trips occur at speeds attainable by modern ground transportation — assuming someone has the foresight to make the intermodal links to long-haul flights at the big U.S. airports a la CDG.


(*) We'd previously found a figure of about 218 g/km for the E46 3-series (EPA mileage ~20 city/30 highway).

(**) There are lots of trips, but with small planes.

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