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Toward sustainable travel: breaking the flying addiction

Flying dwarfs any other individual activity in terms of carbon emissions, yet more and more people are traveling by air. With no quick technological fix on the horizon, what alternatives — from high-speed trains to advanced videoconferencing — can cut back the amount we fly?

In most departments I have excellent green credibility, and my carbon footprint is small. I have not owned a car in more than 20 years and commute to work by subway. I walk to the market and generally no longer buy produce flown in from far away. I recycle. I have an air-conditioner, but use it only on the hottest of days. I have gone paperless with all my bills.

But my good acts of responsible environmental stewardship are undercut by one persistent habit that will be hard to break, if it is possible at all: I am a frequent flyer, Platinum Card. Last year, I traveled nearly 100,000 miles of mostly long-haul travel. And that figure puts me in the minor leagues compared to legions of business consultants, international lawyers, UN functionaries — and even climate scientists — who certainly travel much more.

Flying, particularly on long-haul flights, is so highly emitting that it dwarfs everything else on an individual carbon budget. Many climate groups have calculated that in a sustainable world each person would have a carbon allowance of two to four tons of carbon emissions annually. Any single long-haul flight nearly “instantly uses that up,” said Christian Jardine, a senior researcher at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University.

Despite the fact that most governments have vowed to reduce carbon emissions by a significant chunk by 2020, most of us are flying more and more. So while emissions from most other sectors are falling, they are relentlessly rising for aviation and will continue to do so.

According to various estimates, emissions from aviation currently represent 2 to 3 percent of CO2 emissions and are likely to double or triple by 2050. The United States’ Federal Aviation Administration projects that even after the air travel slowdowns caused by 9/11 and the recent economic collapse and the rise in fuel prices and the bankruptcy of several major carriers in the past few years, the number of general aviation hours will grow an average 2.5 percent a year through 2030, according to the latest projection.

While jobs and housing and car sales are only slowly recovering from the economic crisis of 2008-9, airline travel has rebounded with a vengeance: In March, international air travel, measured in paid passenger miles, was 10.3 percent higher than a year earlier, according to the International Air Transport Association. Airfreight, measured by the weight of goods flown, was 28.1 percent higher. In fact, current levels of air travel and freight are only 1 percent below their early 2008 highs. Can the stock market replicate that?

The current vogue of canceling out the emissions effect of plane travel by purchasing carbon offsets to support activities like tree-planting in Africa has come under fire as a feel-good illusion and, anyway, cannot be scaled up to cover the amount of flying going on. Although the airline industry is working hard to improve efficiency with more direct routes and less idling time on the runway, it acknowledges such activities yield limited, one-time gains. There is no quick technological fix, like fully renewable airline fuel, on the horizon.

Given the math, it is easy to feel all is lost. George Monbiot concludes in his book, Heat, that to meet current environmental targets set by the British government for 2050, almost all flying will have to stop and the current fleet of planes grounded. “I recognize this will not be a popular message,” he writes.

Many of us by now have adjusted our land transportation habits — buying hybrid cars, revisiting public transportation, or biking to work, for example. But few have addressed what I call the “flyers’ dilemma”: When do we really need to fly on an airplane, and can or should we change that? With business and life so dependent on air travel, it is hard to even imagine how to do with less. In 2005, Allianz employees flew 490 million kilometers a year — 12.5 thousand times around the world, according to the company’s filing with the Carbon Disclosure Project, whose corporate members agree to report their carbon emissions, with an eye ultimately to reducing them.

Anyone who cares about a future with lower emissions and less fossil fuel must face the problem and some, like Paul Dickinson, executive director of the Carbon Disclosure Project, say change is inevitable: “I’m absolutely, definitely sure that people like you and me will be flying a lot less in 5 to 10 years.” Last month the European Environment Agency started a series of workshops with representatives from all over Europe assembled in Copenhagen to think about how Europe might function in the future without air travel — or with much less of it. (Participants, ironically, flew in.) But how to reduce or eliminate an activity that has become as reflexive as hopping in the car?

High-speed trains will steal market share from flying — they are already doing so on some short-haul routes in Asia and Europe. Emissions estimates of train versus plane vary tremendously, depending on the how you do the calculation. Christian Jardine notes that estimates for airline travel range from 98.3 to 175.3 grams of CO2 per kilometer for each passenger, depending on things like aircraft type and whether the warming effect of airplane contrails is added in. Reasonable estimates for trains depend a lot on the source of electricity the train is using (coal versus nuclear versus renewable). Jardine says he uses a per-person estimate of 17.7 grams per kilometer for international train rides and 60.2 for British national travel. (Much of Britain’s electricity comes from coal, while France’s is from nuclear.)

Where there is very high-speed rail and the distance is less than 350 miles, such as Barcelona to Madrid, train is a no-brainer, quicker than flying. Once you’ve ridden Spain’s AVE on the 2 ½-hour ride between those cities, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would fly the route.

Some of the reason, perversely, is price: The explosion of low-cost airlines on routes like Barcelona to Madrid and Paris to London means that it is often cheaper to take a flight than a train, regardless of the emissions consequences.

For businesses, Dickinson of the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) believes that high-quality video conferencing, like Cisco-AT&T’s Telepresence, will displace a huge amount of flying. (Full disclosure: Dickinson has financial interest in a company that sets up conferences). Video conference? I know. Videophones have been on display for decades at Disney’s EPCOT Center but, in real life, the concept has never quite gelled; it long had the feel of those telephone chats with astronauts floating in the Space Station. But with Broadband it can really be different, with images and sound so clear that it appears that the people you face on a large screen are actually in the room.

Indeed, even though Dickinson has been promoting the idea for several years, he, himself, continued to fly a lot. But when a volcanic ash cloud recently turned London into a no-fly zone, he was forced into a serious road test: On April 18 he was scheduled to interview candidates for the job of CDP’s China director in Beijing. When his flight was canceled, he decided to nonetheless proceed with the interviews, virtually. “I interviewed three candidates and chose one — it was unbelievably good,” he said. “Next time I won’t buy a ticket.”

I think this attitude will spread, and is embedded already in the generation now emerging from universities and graduate schools. While people of my generation feel the need for eye contact to negotiate or a handshake to seal a deal, this new generation is far more comfortable with the reality of virtual presence. My two teenagers happily do group school projects and debate team preparation over Skype, MSM or Google chat. When I (50-something) suggest they should meet up in person, they roll their eyes. What would be the point of schlepping across town for tasks like this? You schlep for fun things, like movies and parties.

Price pressure, too, I think will force us to rethink this flying habit. In 2012, airlines enter Europe’s emissions trading scheme. If airline fuel or emissions are ever taxes or traded — and I’d guess they will be — ticket prices will rise, and travel will decline.

Of course all this won’t be enough to totally solve the aviation emissions problem, and will not be the solution that airlines want. I can’t imagine my job — or many jobs — getting done with one long-haul flight each year. But we could reduce our flying and emissions from air travel an awful lot. Whatever gains can be achieved through behavior, policy, and technical changes in different sectors will be important.

So now a challenge for 2010: Last year more than 40,000 people flew to Copenhagen to attend the United Nations Climate Conference, COP-15. There were scientists, negotiators, students, journalists (myself included), as well as politicians, many with 20-person retinues in tow. They were there because they cared passionately about climate. Perhaps, as COP-16 in Cancun approaches this year, each of us should ask what we add, or take away, by being on site? Do we really need to fly there?

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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