Keywords: climate change; travel; greenhouse gases; George Monbiot; airplanes; CO2 emissions; hydrogen airships; bunker oil; Terra Pass; cargo ships; rationing
You’ve seen some of the new studies that show definitively the necessity of taking extreme measures to keep the planet from cooking. The basic fact is that we must do everything humanly possible to keep the global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees — and it has already risen 1.6 degrees. I’m spending a lot of my time figuring out how to assign priorities to the various responses that are possible. Fortunately, there are satisfactory solutions to almost all our problems. We won’t need to suffer much.
Except when it comes to long-distance travel. We have to adopt forms of transportation that emit 90 percent less greenhouse gases than at present. (Greenhouse gases include methane, nitrous oxide, fluorinated and chlorinated gases, ground level ozone, and especially carbon dioxide — CO2.) We can reduce emissions a bit (around 30 percent) by driving a recent model hybrid car; indeed, even newer and better models will be coming out. However, this is far from enough to solve our problem.
George Monbiot’s (see photo) book, Heat, is the best research I’ve found, and I’ll draw heavily from it, though his data are based more on Britain than North America. Nevertheless, the basic ratio holds true everywhere. On page 180, he shows this table:
Carbon dioxide emissions from London to Manchester per passenger (kg).
plane (70 per cent full) 63.9
car (1.56 passengers) 36.6
train (70 percent full) 5.2
coach (40 passengers) 4.3
Monbiot notes that,
“while the mean distance traveled by car in the United Kingdom is 9,200 miles per year, in a plane we can beat that in one day. On a return flight from London to New York, every passenger produces roughly 1.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide, the very quantity we will each be entitled to emit in a year once a 90 percent cut in emissions has been made.”
Worse yet, there are other issues besides carbon dioxide emissions that make air travel harmful. Planes release several different types of gases and particles that, taken together, have a warming effect 2.7 times that of CO2 alone. (One of these effects is the white condensation trail that streaks across the sky behind a high-flying plane. These “contrails” are water vapor that trap heat in the atmosphere.) So we have to multiply the London to Manchester flight — 63.9 kg per person — by 2.7 to estimate the actual impact of each passenger on our planet’s climate. By my calculation, that comes to 172.53 kg. per passenger.
The message is clear: Don’t fly. Take a train or, better yet, a bus. If you drive, fill your car with passengers so as to reduce your emissions per person.
Monbiot writes that
“we must cut flights by over 96 percent. If long-range propeller planes took the place of jets, however, and flew below the level at which condensation trails are formed, we might be able to get away with a smaller reduction.”
For short trips, these changes are not onerous. The problems arise only when it comes to long distance journeys. We of the airplane generation are not used to slow travel. Fast trains could be built, but the faster they are, the more greenhouse gases they emit. They would be okay only if powered by electricity provided from renewable power.
Besides, when we are crossing an ocean, we don’t even have that option. Monbiot favors the development of hydrogen airships, though even they are not swift. A trip from London to New York would take about 43 hours. “But if we really have to cross the Atlantic, and we are to prioritize the reduction of carbon emissions, airships, surprisingly, might be the best kind of transport.”
I need to go to Russia in a few months on a research trip, but I want to do so in an ethical way. Should I travel by ship? Monbiot acknowledges that it is quite hard to find good data about the greenhouse gas emissions of various types of ships. He did find data about the Queen Elizabeth II, which is exceedingly luxurious and far from fuel-efficient. A return trip from London to New York on the QE II uses almost 7.6 times as much carbon as making the same journey by plane.
I hunted around the Internet for numbers myself with no great success. There are web sites for “green travelers,” which mostly promote travel on cargo ships. I’d be willing to sail instead of fly, but it is not certain that I’d be helping to save the environment that way. Freighters use “bunker oil” for fuel — the dirty stuff that’s left after crude oil has been refined. The CO2 emissions may be fairly low (though I have no firm proof even of that) but bunker oil emits other noxious substances such as sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide.
According to Bluewater Network, a single container ship emits more pollution than 2,000 diesel trucks. The on-line green traveler guru apparently has pangs of concern about this, but he finally justifies freighter travel by arguing that the freighters are going to be sailing anyhow, with or without passengers, unlike the case with airplanes. So he’s not adding anything to the emissions that are going to be spewed out anyhow. Well, that’s a pretty thin justification. The point is to improve the emissions of the shipping industry, just as we must improve everything else on this pretty little globe.
Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions are declining — at least according to the official records. However, those records are incomplete, for they only include domestic emissions, not international ones. Thus both international aviation and shipping emissions are omitted from the records, while both forms of travel are increasing sharply rather than decreasing.
How can air travel be reduced? Monbiot says that the government simply has to stop building runways. The more they build, the more people travel. If no runways had been built, we’d not have the problems that exist today.
Others suggest rationing air travel, along with other greenhouse gases. You’d get a card every year with your quota of credits, which would be deducted gradually as you fill your gas tank or buy heating oil or airplane tickets.
Still others say that high prices alone will do the trick. Raise the price of tickets and the travel will drop off. I’m not so sure.
Some people are trying to have their cake and eat it too. One way is by purchasing “offsets” to make their travel “carbon neutral.” There’s nothing exactly wrong with doing that — I just sent a $50 cheque to an outfit called Terra Pass, to assuage my guilt for driving my 1997 Chevrolet Lumina all year. Terra Pass will do something good with the money, such as planting trees to absorb CO2 in Africa. But I don’t kid myself that I’ve really made my driving “carbon neutral.” And no amount of money that I could pay would make it okay to take a pleasure trip by airplane. A working trip, maybe. I’m not sure.
Certain kinds of trips are billed as socially responsible. Some people take their vacations on the Great Barrier Reef, where they snorkel and tag turtles. Others help build housing for orphans in Peru. My niece is going to help poor children in Indonesia. That’s truly generous, but her trip may unknowingly do more harm than good. So too may my trip to Russia, whether by cargo ship or plane. As Mark Ellingham, who has published The Rough Guide to Climate Change, writes,
“I’m not convinced there is such a thing as a ‘responsible’ or ‘ethical’ holiday....Ultimately, we need government action to limit flights. I would like to see a significant carbon tax levied on all flight departures.”
Lots of luck, fella. In my experience, very few people consider their airplane trips to be ethically problematic. They have to become conscious about this before political changes can take place in a democratic society.
As George Monbiot has written the The Guardian,
“What all this means is that if we want to stop the planet from cooking, we will simply have to stop traveling at the kind of speeds that planes permit.
“This is now broadly understood by almost everyone I meet. But it has had no impact whatever on their behavior. When I challenge my friends about their planned weekend in Rome or their holiday in Florida, they respond with a strange, distant smile and avert their eyes. They just want to enjoy themselves. Who am I to spoil their fun? The moral dissonance is deafening.”
Monbiot is a modern prophet, and nobody likes prophets. I wonder whether there were any prophets on Easter Island warning that the society would die if they didn’t stop cutting down their trees. If so, we can guess what response they received — a strange, distant smile, and averted eyes. The moral dissonance was deafening.