The trouble with flying

I just got back from a conference in Geneva where I was asked to speak to trade unionists from around the world about our BC climate justice project. In addition to this great opportunity to share information about green jobs and climate policy with a friendly audience, it was also an eye-opener to be in Europe for a little while. The urban form of European cities and transportation networks are what struck me as the most different from North America.

Yes, there are cars in European cities, but for a large share of the population the default is public transit and bikes. Part of this is in prices — gas prices at the pump in Geneva were about $1.70 per litre, but this is combined with infrastructure and settlement patterns that are more conducive to green living.

I had a layover in Amsterdam and was blown away by the vast numbers on their bikes and the city’s impressive network of bike paths. Trams and buses in the cities work well because of “European densities”, an urban form of compact living (4-6 story buildings throughout) that much more conducive to transit. The trains between cities are fast, convenient and rigidly on time (at least in Switzerland, home of clock-making). This is also an outcropping of settlement patterns, which are closer together overall, especially compared to the west of North America. It all goes to show that things in North American don’t have to be the way they are.

But what nags at me is the flying. If there is a major sacrifice to be made in the name of global warming it is air travel. And the irony of flying halfway around the world to speak at a conference for 20 minutes is not lost on me. At the same time, this is a systemic problem – as an individual no personal decision I or even thousands or others make is going to change the emissions from this industry. Those planes are flying whether my buns are in the seat or not.

Air travel emissions are about 3-5% of the world total, but shrinking that number may be our biggest challenge. In 2009 there were more than 536 million passenger trips, which means about 1.5 million trips per day (this may count connecting flights as multiple trips, but you get the point). I’d suggest a hierarchy of actions:

First is decreasing frivolous consumption. I’m talking about work meetings and conferences, which could be videoconferenced, and short vacations, like playing golf in Mexico for a week. I’m guessing that well over half of air travel is for these reasons, and could be given up without much pain (more Seasonally Affected Disorder during the cold winter months).

Second is mode shifting. Most short-haul flights could be replaced by high speed rail or electric buses or maybe it is time for zeppelins to make a comeback (there’s a great ad campaign to be had for company that called itself Led). Even in Europe short-haul air travel has become common in spite of the train network. The point is that if there is to be air travel, save it for long-haul flights.

Third is fuel switching. Of what remains, some of the fuel, and perhaps all of it at some point, could be replaced by biofuels. These have been tested but are not quite there yet, and the land requirements for growing biofuel are problematic to the extent that they displace food production, and even if not use of chemical fertilizers have a large GHG footprint too. Research may demonstrate the viability of totally different clean fuel source like hydrogen, which has also been tested, but is still decades away if at all (and like biofuels, you still have make the hydrogen sustainably).

All of these actions would dramatically reduce air travel emissions, more if we add in prvisos for more efficient engines, but it would be really hard to eliminate them entirely if we want to get around the world at least some of the time. The biggest challenge of the bunch is getting people accustomed to flying to think about stopping, and actually compelling them to do so. The BC government has reduced air travel in the public sector by 60% over the past couple of years by imposing a regimen of videoconferencing, so it can happen if the will is there (and given austerity all around, better to cut here than the workforce).

Personal travel is profoundly unequal because it is the most privileged who do the most flying. It is a more extreme version of the issues of car ownership and driving; billions of people have never taken a flight, while a handful fly all the time. So how to reduce consumption? One way is to make flying more expensive, which prices out of the market the middling flyers, but not the Super Elite Executive Class.

Perhaps a fairer way to do it would be through quotas of some sort. The exact numbers would have to be worked out but say every person gets a right to a long-haul flight once every year or two, and if they do not use it they could sell it to someone who really needs to get in that extra trip. But big change is hard; doing it fairly even harder.

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