Tuesday, October 13, 2009

How High Flying May Come Down to Slow and Low

Aviation – The Limited Sky.

By Paul K. Haeder

Sure, the counterpoints here in this episode are those who think biofuels that are “tweaked” (as in bio-engineering, as in modified, genetically) to become hydrocarbon-like long chains and thus look, act and burn like fossil fuels will help save our frequent flying madness, or as George Monbiot calls it, our love miles, versus those voices who see carbon offsets, slower air speeds, more efficient and straightforward air routes, and a real multi-modal transportation schema that includes high speed electric rail and air ships (those lighter ships that use 1/5 the amount of fuel, and thusly have a factor of ten reduction in harm to the environment, including lower CO2 emissions) as the solution to our limitations.

What’s interesting about the E-Squared series is that there are those who think technology and innovation of products and entrepreneurial thrust will come up with solutions to the very big issues tied to climate change and global warming. Others interview in these documentaries have a more holistic approach to solutions and the true nature of climate change and peak oil/energy. At times, it’s both interesting and a bit off-putting since the E-Squared series is backed by technology as the solution mentality.

Whether we have to cut 80 or 110 percent of our carbon emissions to avoid huge and rapid climate change reverberations in the next decade or two is really not part of the discussion for what seems to be an industry gone wild -- air travel. We just will not have enough oil-based energy for the future.

We have 95 percent of all trade and travel fueled by oil-based energy and products, and yet we see that aviation travel is the fastest growing sector of emissions. Expansion of airports and additional flights are two obvious fallouts of so-called growing economies. We’re looking at 25 percent expansion of air travel in Eastern Europe and China and India; in the USA and Europe, it’s 5 or 6 percent.

How big of a CO2 emissions producer is aviation? The figures vary from 4 to 9 percent, but in any case, the expansion of air travel around the world will fuel more CO2 emissions and will play a role in adding to the melting of the glaciers (maybe 35 years from now all glaciers in the Himalayas will be gone, and that will put 20 percent of the world’s population at risk for deepening water stress scenarios.

This episode discussed the 30 to 50 percent operating costs for airlines coming from hydrocarbon fuels, kerosene, essentially. Innovation in lightweight and strong material in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner just won’t cut the muster.
The reality is that there will not be enough oil in the future to run our transportation sectors as we know them. And, if we want to cut into global warming, one leg of the solution is that we have to find a lot of energy, clean energy, to fuel our economies and societies.

Right now, a seat on a jet to Boston is $187 one way. That price is artificially held low since the aviation industry has tons of exemptions in the taxes applied to fuel. Carbon offsetting might be one way to add to the cost of a ticket the real price of that combustion, that air travel.
As one of the E-Squared consultants said, it’s absurd that people in Europe fly to New York for a weekend shopping spree. And, there is no silver bullet to a biofuel that will or will not replicate the energy intensity gasoline has. We already have most of the arable land in rotation for food and livestock feed. The price the environment would pay for land used for biofuel is huge.

In the end, the ideology and thrust behind the so –called slow food movement might be applied to transportation – slow travel. Speeds have to be reduced. These air ships can provide some of the trans-Atlantic trips, with luxury overnight accommodations and just real cruise liner in the sky features, like outside deck where one can view the stars in the sky.

The point was emphasized at the end that our grandchildren may be wondering why we ever wanted to have the luxury of flying across the world in a day, considering all the environmental and social costs to that high-flying speed.

Can’t we start with higher prices for airline tickets that reflect the real cost to the environment? What about tugging planes from the terminal to the runway? And making straight lines in our air space and taking out some of the restricted air space limitations? Then this continuous descent approach that lowers fuel consumption? These three major features in air traffic and air space control and operations could offset a lot of fuel burning.

So, E-Squared looked at Amyris Technologies’ research into microbe tweaking to create a carbon based fuel, over the more traditional ethanol production, but in the end, we have to do much more with planning, with our values, with framing these issues of those who may never fly, even to see a loved one on his or her deathbed, and those who constantly fly around the country and world to talk about sustainability.

In the end, one gallon of jet fuel is so much more fuel intensive than ethanol. Maybe 75 to 80 percent more fuel energy intensive.
How do planners fit into airport planning? How can we have serious conversations about the global impacts of air travel? We’ve not even finished debating the noise, air quality and visual intrusion of airports and air travel, so when will the idea of the global impact of so much flying on us, nature and other countries with smaller economic choices be broached? -
We need truly innovative planning and distributive thinking in this camp of transportation. Who would rather get to Seattle from Spokane via train if there were many more trains departing and returning? And if the trains ended up in some cool multi-modal transportation hub? And if the trains actually went over 120 miles per hour?

E-Squared shows us the leaders in the areas discussed, but those leaders are behind the constant growth paradigm, the constant profit margin of old economic thinking. We need public-private-government-academic partnerships in designing our communities, our travel, our land, and our needs versus wants.

What is your take on air travel and the points brought up in this 25-minute E-Squared episode?

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