Sunday, 12 August 2007

Air travel and global warming

Just before leaving the USA (on a jet plane) for my current trip around the world, I was interviewed at length for a story that has now been published in the Ottawa Citizen on the growing concern (more in the UK than, to date, in the USA) about the contribution of air travel to global warming.

I’ve been saying for years that the current phenomen of world travel by air accessible to ordinary people from First World countries is not only recent (dating only to the last half century) but likely to be short-lived. That was already apparent as a consequnce of the dependence of air travel on fossil fuel, and the inherent scarcity of the same. The negative environmental effects of air travel are only likely to accelerate its rapid (in historical terms) demise over the next half century or less.

I have mixed feelings about this.

Among the interesting questions is what type of transportation system will succeed the fossil-fuel system of internal-combustion land vehicles and jet airplanes. Most likely, it will be a mix of electric trains on land, and a renaissance of trans-oceanic passenger shipping between continents.

The social implications of these likely changes are as yet hard to predict, but one thing seems clear: as the world reverts to its historic state of isolated island continents between which relatively few people can afford to travel, and mostly only at the speed of ocean liners, the chances that humankind can coexist and survive in that physically fragmented future depend critically on whether we take advantage of the current window of oppportunity, just a few generations long, to build a common global sense of human community and understanding of our diversity.

What do you think? Please send me your ideas in the comments. (Don’t be alarmed if they don’t appear immediately, as I moderate comments to keep down the spam.)

[Follow-up, 3 April 2009: Aviation and the environment ]

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 12 August 2007, 11:02 (11:02 AM)

I think environmentalists, if anyone, should focus on science-- as if one cares about the environment then the only way to evaluate it or try to improve things is via science.

But unfortunately it has become abundantly clear that environemntalism is a political movement whose primary goals are not the environment, but totalitarianism (of a socialist stripe).

This is the only reason I can think of for the constant adherence to the two faiths: Scarcity of oil and Global Warming-- that have long been disproven by science.

Oil is not scarce- it is abundant. In shale, in "oil sands" and in heavy crude. Light sweet crude is cheap and easy, and that is in decline, but this isn't really a problem as technology makes "harder" oil easier to get.... there will be centuries before we start having to worry about oil.

Also, oil is not a fossil fuel. The assumption that it only was created at one point in earths time is silly-- because what geologic process only exists for a single period? And based on the fact that early scientists found fossils in oil that was pumped and concluded (wrongly) that the oile was just a type of fossil.

Oile is continuously produced by the earth, and while the process is not fully understood (as the "fossil theory" doesn't work either) the evidence is that dry wells fill back up after a couple decades.

Also with global warming-- yes, the planet is in a long term warming cycle-- because if it wasn't we'd be heading to another ice age. The planets temperature follows sun sycles in the short term (and the planet has been getting cooler for the last 10 years- a short term cooling in a longer term trend, but one that utterly disproves the global warming hypothesis as generally understood by "environmentalists") These cycles have gone on for a long time, and exist on other planets as well.

But you're right about one thing-- cheap easy air travel will not last long- totalitarians do not appreciate freedom of movement by the masses and will not allow it to continue-- they are already cracking down in the US for "security" reasons... and I wouldn't be sprised to see the UN put forth some patently absurd excuse like "global warming" to try and do it internationally-- easier to tax and control people when they have to get your permission to go anywhere.

Posted by: Jay, 12 August 2007, 12:16 (12:16 PM)

I think everyone has its own responsibility over our Mother earth, we can not blame science or any other field because its us humans who continuously using up the resources this earth could offer and abused it all at the same time.

Posted by: it2blog, 12 August 2007, 21:40 ( 9:40 PM)

Everyone contributes to the problem. We are responsible for our mother earth and I think we need to work on it before its too late.

Posted by: it2blog, 12 August 2007, 23:30 (11:30 PM)

If we find a seriously good way to convert sunlight into synthetic oils, there will not be a problem. Or rather the problem will be too much travel, congestion etc. History tends to show that where it is theoretically possible to do something, we work a way out pretty quick.

Posted by: d, 13 August 2007, 03:52 ( 3:52 AM)

I am a regular reader of your article. And I am very impress with your blog upon Global Warming. Now I am also write a blog upon effects and causes of Global Warming. This blog is collection of news & reviews like the study found that global warming since 1985 has been caused neither by an increase in solar radiation nor by a decrease in the flux of galactic cosmic rays. Some researchers had also suggested that the latter might influence global warming because the rays trigger cloud formation.

Posted by: Tarun K Juyal, 13 August 2007, 05:13 ( 5:13 AM)

When planning for travel from eastern Canada to Europe for a conference in Copenhagen this spring, I looked seriously at a transatlantic ocean voyage as an alternative to air travel, at least in one direction.

The Queen Mary 2, as near as I could determine, is the only passenger liner with regular transatlantic voyages; trips started at $999 when I checked, which was manageable for me, and I was willing to put in the 6 days it would take, but the timing didn't line up for me (and I would have had to take a bus to New York City, which would have added another 48 hours on to the trip).

An alternative was to fly from Halifax to Reykjavik, Iceland (there are direct flights on Icelandair), then travel across the country to Seysdisfjordur and take a ferry to Hanstholm, Denmark, and then a train to Copenhagen. Again, getting all the schedules to line up was a deal-breaker for me.

There was also the specter of a passenger-accepting cargo ship traveling either from Halifax or Montreal to somewhere in Europe, a possibility I didn't seriously investigate at the time.

In the end I flew Air Canada to Montreal, then Swiss to Copenhagen via Zurich.

Posted by: Peter Rukavina, 13 August 2007, 06:53 ( 6:53 AM)

Excellent topic. I have been pondering upon the implications if travel were to slow down and be less common in the future. Below are some of my ponderings.

Much will depend upon the way carbon emission reductions are worked out. How much will be by law & treaties and how much will involve market dynamics.

Besides the ship travel for crossing oceans, we could see technological improvement over the lighter-than-air transport of the early half of the 20th Century. (Of course, we would not use hydrogen for these craft.) Because such craft would not use much energy to keep them aloft, it may be possible to propel them forward with far less polluting means.

Should a drastic cut in emissions be required, perhaps air travel would not be feasible and even ship travel of many type be difficult. Perhaps in such cases, updated version of schooners and other sail ships may be developed.

The social adjustments may be more challenging than the lower emission transport technologies. The jet age has changed the time expectations drastically. Reversing those changes can be difficult. In 1930s US, taking trains for long distance travel came with the understanding it would take days. Trans-oceanic travel came with the understanding it would take weeks. Going back to such time frames would discourage much business travel. Personal holiday travel also would be curtailed if one's vacation time was less than the time for the round trip.

Perhaps we would use global telecommunication to compensate for much of the loss of travel. But, I believe, this would not fully compensate for the loss of mobility. One would not the exposure of places and people that ones gets by really being in a place.

Could a loss of mobility encourage parochialism? If people no longer travel elsewhere and if they no longer get many visitors, it may be easier to be dismissive of "foreigners", etc.

For immigrants in a given country, curtailed mobility may have a mingled effect. No longer able to shuttle back to the "old country" might push for the immigrant to make stronger ties with the new country. But it may also separate families, given the prospect that one might see the overseas family members may once or twice more in one's life. (This was often the situation for immigrants to the US and a century ago. Many never did get to go back for a visit at all.)

For non-immigrants, the familial impact may be felt as families spread out across a country are no longer able to see each other. Moving for a job or education might be a harder decision. Perhaps, many families would stay closer together or, in some cases, make the move together rather than individually. This can have some benefits reversing some of the isolation many people face.

One potentially big impact would be to economies that rely upon tourism. That, in turn, could have some environmental impact. For example, wildlife preservation efforts in some countries may suffer if the local people no longer see an economic benefit of having wildlife that draws in tourists. The animals may be seen as competitors for food, land, and other resources.

In some places, near-distance tourists might offset the loss of long-distance international tourists. The affordable options for travel might end being closer to one's home.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about the prospects. I have been looking forward to a day where I could travel more. Sometimes, I wonder if the door will be narrowed drastically when I will have the time to travel.

Posted by: J.D. Abolins, 13 August 2007, 19:31 ( 7:31 PM)

This is a hot topic here at the Adventure Travel World Summit 2007 in Whistler, B.C. (Oct. 4-7). The subject of air travel's impact is a compelling one. I enjoyed reading the comments and your story. The CEO of Virgin America, Fred Reid, was a speaker this morning at the conference. I can't imagine he would like to see a future without planes: "Most likely, [future transportation] will be a mix of electric trains on land, and a renaissance of trans-oceanic passenger shipping between continents." Edward, I thank you for your dedication to writing on this issue. I am an avid bicyclist and bike commuter - before I ditch planes, I would prefer to ban cars!
- Karen Kefauver, freelance writer,

Posted by: Karen Kefauver, 6 October 2007, 22:34 (10:34 PM)

You guys need to learn not to do so much pollution or I WILL KILL YOU! You goddamn losers! all of you can go lie in a ditch!!! Because you expect to change the world than change yourself first because we all play a part in this global warmimg!

Posted by: Diesree, 26 November 2007, 08:18 ( 8:18 AM)

Unfortunately, "Jay" is grossly misinformed on several fronts, oops "many" fronts - err, sorry, ALL fronts. I can't believe thinking persons can still spout this nonsense.

Environmentalism has nothing to do with totalitarianism. Environmentalism has to do with protecting and preserving the environment.

None of us should be "free" to destroy the planet we live on. Freedom in it's truest sense comes with responsibility, which needs to be personal responsibility and accountability. Environmentalism and many others are asking for that.

I agree though that the Green Movement has been hijacked, it's now just another big business enterprises to continue the capitalist status-quo.

Oil IS a fossil fuel because it took 400,000 years of sunshine (solar energy / photosynthesis) to produce it. If that does not qualify as "fossil" then nothing does.

Global warming is a FACT, the Arctic will be ICE FREE in less then five years from now. The opening up of the Northwest Passage across the North Pole is very disturbing as is the energy race and war drums for exploiting the North.

The abiotic oil theory has been widely disproven as being pure bullshit, I suggest Jay get an education and do some serious reading. It doesn't have any serious support anymore and it's really a moot point anyway. Countries such as Mexico will be DRY within 6 - 7 more years.

I'm stunned to read how those who deny resource limits, and defend infinite consumption, expansion and destruction of the planet are so ill-informed. The only explanation for this is ignorance and arrogance to defend their wasteful lifestyles. Or just sheer stupidity. In any case, they're dead wrong and dead we will be if we continue to follow their so-called "advice".

The Earth is in severe peril right now - there are tons of scientific reports and evidence for anyone who would care to watch, read, learn and listen. The IIPC predictions are a good place to start. Also tune it to Radio Ecoshock for some broadcast by world renown scientists and climatologists -

Those the refuse to learn are destined to die, it's that simple, and they will by their ignorance and inactions, take the rest of humanity with them.

Posted by: Survival Acres, 5 February 2008, 07:44 ( 7:44 AM)

It is very important that we all pull together to ensure that we are doing what we are able to do to reduce the effect that global warming has on our atmosphere.i am very keen to know everything possible about global warming, and i would like to help in every possible way, start an ngo, educate people, approch govt institutions,file pils in courts, guys lets do our little bit to save our mother earth, wake up, lets do just do.

Posted by: Max Mickle, 8 February 2009, 21:12 ( 9:12 PM)

I never really thought that we would be reaching the point where we will no longer be able to travel by air, up until I've read your post. And well, actually, that thought worries me. Because if that happens, it would also mean a great slow down on our economy, and that is scary. Recession is bad enough, but that would be even worse.

Posted by: Anonymous, 9 December 2011, 09:47 ( 9:47 AM)
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