Plane flights and emissions

united airlines plane

The 1997 Kyoto protocol would limit carbon emissions to 11,000 pounds per person. According to one carbon calculator, a single round-trip plane trip across the country uses half this “allowance.”

Something to think about as we consider lifestyle changes to reduce our emissions.

Yikes. Sue and I have made numerous transcontinental plane trips this past 12 months, and others travel much more than we do. We’ve also flown to Hawaii on vacation. If plane flights become restricted or nonexistent because of the fuel costs or emissions caps, then the world as we know it will be very different. Hawaii will cease to exist as a tourist destination and if tourism goes so does much of their economy. Then there’s the question of shipping goods to Hawaii (as most everything they need gets shipped by boat.) If the cost of shipping soars because of peak oil, then those goods may not get shipped. Within a few years you’d probably see a mass exodus from Hawaii as their collapsed economy could no longer support that many people.

Hey, I want to go back to Maui. It’s a wonderful place. So, in a coming world presumably concerned with peak oil and carbon emissions, is tourism dead? How do we keep the good parts of our world and deal with these problems too?

  • Dave Riley

    Tourism dead? Yes I think it could be in the way it is managed at the moment.But if someone wants to get me across the Pacific in an airship or a solar and sail driven boat — I’d book in no sweat. Here in Australia the overseas trip was, up until about 1956 — begun down at the docks. Then as jets came in and cheaper flights that habit changed and the tour OS became a right of passage. It is major aim of young people to travel overseas before they’re 30.

    The recent Heathrow Climate Camp made a telling point I thought. And I live next door to the Brisbane Airport and thats’ set to expand traffic at the rate of 12% per annum while the city in its shadow gets angsty over going ‘carbon neutral’… by DIY means.

    The other options in each country are very fast trains — and airships! — although the Greyhound Bus still stacks up pretty well against a flight across the continent.

    The present tourist assumption is premissed on the notion that the buzz is all about going somewhere else. I think the new focused has to be the pleasure of the way you actually get there. Thats’ the 19th century narrative so much I think– the journey or going back further– the Odyssey even.

    Now with the internet and VOIP and video conferencing and such the need to actually travel to do business type things isn’t so pressing. Today you can hold conferences that way with some speakers a continent away.(As the recent Zero Emissions conference here in July with James Hansen “attending” and speaking while in Sweden.)

    The related issue is the whole notion of ‘holidays’ and vacations are essentially a capitalist construct anyway — you go somewhere and spend up big at things you don’t spend on the rest of your life. You could do the same locally if you indulged yourself in the same way that people come to your locale as tourists.

    While you’re talking about Hawaii –what about tourism a world away — here in Oceania or South Asia where the costs and carbon are massive if they are flown to from far off. But for my mates their preferred route to Europe was via the Trans Siberian Railway or back home by bus through Iran and Afghanistan and India. Burma was always a problem.

    These are both adventures and opportunities for small communities to access the tourist dollar when a sterile resort style setup offers no social or cultural context of any substance.

    As for Cuba! — a ferry from Miami! To do Latin America –do it as Che did on two wheels! And today the big tourist option in Vietnam is to tour by bicycle(so long as you can get there!)

    So in many ways tourism is a mind set. Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” was about a tourist event.

  • DJ

    As far as shipping goods, check out these numbers:

    Air freight: 28,000 BTU/ton-mile
    Ocean freight: 417 BTU/ton-mile

    No comparison in terms of greenhouse emissions!

    Source:, Table 1

  • Joe Hartley

    Following up, once again, on what DJ points out: shipping and barge traffic have always been the cheapest methods of transport and still are. Even in the 1960’s it was still a big deal to fly to Europe rather than taking a boat. So areas will be more remote and less accessible, and possibly more mysterious, not susceptible to people simply dropping in and out. I’m not sure that’s a big deal in the long run, and might remove some of the frenzy from modern life.

    It DOES mean that Bob and Sue might not be able to cover as much territory in a limited time, and might have to take a train, for example, or a boat through the Panama canal, thus taking 14 days rather than 14 hours to cross the country.

  • Given that Americans are lucky to get two weeks in a row of vacation (and usually just one week), getting to Hawaii from Connecticut would not be do-able.

    Seems to me there has to be a way that jets can be made to spew much less carbon.

  • Dave Riley

    I think there’s a mistake with your outlook, Bob and that is that you presume that such changes in the way travel is conducted is isolated from other social and economic changes — like on how much vacation time workers are allowed. You also presume that it has to include destinations like Hawaii.

    I mean, do people really want to go so far every year in their stolen week or two of free time?

    I’m not against changes in the way planes could be engineered and EcoGeek, for example, has run reports on aviation options in regard to emissions — but the core problem, I feel, is facing up to the reality that as well as all these other things a climate fixit plan needs to address — one of the most important among these (although that varies from country to country) is massively reducing (and NOT expanding) air travel. Thats’ the challenge posed by the Heathrow Climate Camp.

    While we all think there is a way to negotiate through issues like energy production, urban transit, and the like — air travel is such a wonderful indulgence that (like disposable dipers/nappies) it is so very hard to part with.

    But the shocking figures speak for themselves and they are rising. Here in Australia the figures are scary and they don’t include international air travel from these shores. These stats are no doubt being kept secret from public debate….

    The main question about Hawaii isn’t whether you and thousands of others can get there without doing so much damage to the climate — but what sort of industry can the Hawaiins rely on if tourism were to suffer as a consequence. In effect we are talking about consumerism and the like aren’t we — as Hawaii is a commodity which you purchase and it is sold like any other.

    For me a week at the beach is my annual holiday. We live in a tent and cook on a bar b que and use shared facilities in a camping ground. The quality is very real in terms of respite but it is not as exotic as Hawaii.

    But it’s still ‘a holiday’ — akin a lot to Monsieur Hulot’s perhaps. But thats’ all we can afford and theres’ also a cultural tradition like that here as that’s they way millions here “vacation”. and have done so for decades.

    “Tourism” because of this country’s isolation is something that was only discovered and became possible on any scale from the late sixties and historically to go anywhere would cost so much. Thats’ why, for instance, until recently a trip overseas was so often measured in months as you’d go knowing that you could never afford to go again. So it was this massive adventure. You’d even resign your job to go.

    Although I don’t like it, I’m thinking that air travel overall has to be cut back somehow unless some radical fix is fostered. And what I’;m imagining is that under capitalism what that will mean is that only the rich or the selected will be allowed to travel by jet plane–that air travel will became an exclusive province of the rich (and their CEOs) and the massive access that big planes and cheaper flights have offered us will be a thing of the past.

  • Sue’s parents lived in Hawaii, which was a primary reason we went. Tourism, especially post-9/11, is the primary economic base for Hawaii. Take that away, and their economy would crumble.

    Business conferences. I’ve been to geek fest Gnomedex twice, it’s in Seattle. Conferences like this could no longer happen either, and doing it remotely wouldn’t work because a main reason to go is the schmoozing, and that has to happen face-to-face.

    Our move from CA to CT couldn’t have happened easily if at all without air travel, as we flew here to look at homes, then flew again to move (with three cats on the plane.) Driving cross country with three cats would have been difficult at best.

    So, IMO, air travel is not a specialized luxury that can be gotten rid of easily, and certainly not without severe economic dislocation.

  • DJ

    It struck me today as I was stuck in traffic in Los Angeles that the fundamental problem here is that the cost of petroleum use is not reflected in its price. It SHOULD NOT be cheaper for me to drive 450 miles to work– but it is.

    If the price of petroleum refected its impact on our lives, it would be much higher, making cmmutes like mine economically prohibitive. And it would adjust the cost of air travel accordingly. Then our trips would better reflect their importance. I’d still go home to see my family in New England from time to time, but business trips would be a thing of the past.

    As for Hawaii’s economy, given that ocean travel would remain far more eocnomical than air (due to its consuming 1/70 of the fuel per ton), I suspect it would become the destination for people of leisure. It might also find itself in the odd position of having its economy fueled by agricultural exports– some of which are less than legal.

  • If you couldn’t drive to that client of yours in L.A. every few months and if other such business trips also became impossible, then the economy as we know it would take a very big hit that it would probably never recover from.

    The assumption in much Left Green stuff seems to be that we’ll all have to live much simpler lives and commerce as we know if will be gone, and that this shall be penance for our dissolute ways (ok, I’m exaggerating some!)

    Well, no. I don’t want to live in a yurt and gather root and berries to eat. I like the internet, jet travel, and modern medicine.

    We need to figure ways to keep the best of what we have and not assume a vast downsizing of everything is coming.

  • DJ

    “the economy as we know it would take a very big hit that it would probably never recover from”

    Interesting that some of the very things you mention are integral elements in the globalized economy so many abhor. But if the true cost of air travel was reflected in the price, you could still make your trip– if it was important enough for you to spend the money.

    IMO, a responsible reduction would eliminate a lot of unnecessary jet travel, especially for business, because the cost would discourage it. Reduction would emphasize local foods, mass transit, and driving fewer miles, as well as friendlier technologies. It would not sacrifice modern medicine, nor sanitation. But you might find it hard to buy kiwis, bananas, or cheap plastic goods from China, and a trip to Las Vegas would cost more than $79.

    We can clearly cut our energy consumption in half without significantly affecting our quality of life, because that (if properly done) would bring us to the standard of living of the other industrialized nations. I suspect further cuts would be possible without making major (life-altering) sacrifices.

    My recent posts on my own blog about reaching ZERO emissions will conclude that my household can do it through reduction, self-production, and carbon-aborbing offsets– and without having to hunt our own food or gather berries and grubs. Reduction does not mean stone age. Unless of course we wait until we’re forced to change– then it will be much less pretty.

  • I’m not against globalization as such, but rather exploitative globalization. And I think jet travel is integral to world commerce, trade, and tourism. (So is the Internet, for that matter, and both require huge amounts of energy to run.)

    Sure, we can cut back on flights, and use less resources. But do you think the United Nations IPPC reports on global warming, which took several years to complete, happened without those thousands of scientists flying somewhere at least some of the time to meet in person?

    We’re back at the old question, what entity can regulate how many plane flights are made, and be able to enforce it? Especially considering the country next door may have few restrictions.

  • DJ

    There are two approaches:

    1) Regulate who can do what and how often. Can scientists fly wherever they want whenever they want? Can Al Gore? There will be conflicts. Clearly my vacation would take a lower priority than flying a liver to a donee, for example.

    2) Raise the price of fuel so that the market works it out. The cost-benefit ratio would determine who flies and where. This obviously benefits the wealthy. But air travel is already the province of the wealthy. Probably 75% of the world’s population will not fly on an airplane in their lifetime. Those of us with a laptop computer and wireless access ARE wealthy.

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