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For a Swede, I believe I have an unusually small environmental footprint as my income is low and my habits relatively ascetic. But compared to most people in the world, anyone with half my standard of living is of course a huge culprit. The only thing I might brag about is having relatively few children, as I’ve fathered only one in each of my two marriages. Still, so do most Chinese, regardless of income, thanks to the admirable foresight and regrettable heavy-handedness of their dictatorship.

An obvious thing I could do to improve my enviro-karma is to fly less. I generally make two or three return trips by air each year, going to conferences and taking vacations. One of my blogger friends, Kai of Pointless Anecdotes, seems to make a lot more money than me, but he steadfastly travels by train. Still, I don’t think individual decisions to fly less are an effective way to reduce CO2 emissions.

What happens when the demand for a service lessens? Prices drop, re-establishing demand. To voluntarily put a serious dent in the demand for air-travel, affluent Westerners would have to be far more idealistic than they are ever likely to become. No, the only way to reduce passenger air travel is to make it too expensive for consumers. This will happen automatically when the fossil fuels run out, but that won’t happen until long after we’ve lost the battle against global warming.

Today, even dirt-poor Westerners like me can afford to fly. Being Swedish, I believe in a bit of social engineering. I say, let’s tax the muthas to death. We need to crank up the prices until it hurts to fly.

My planned January jaunt to the US highlights another absurd aspect of air travel. Current pricing structure strongly discourages fuel-efficient itineraries. An air trip actually becomes cheaper the less fuel-efficient it is, partly because there is greater demand for fast, direct trips. Ideally, I would go from Sweden to North Carolina to Florida to Sweden. But for some unfathomable reason, a one-way ticket across the Atlantic is almost as expensive as a return ticket. This is really unforgivable in the era of automatic web-based flight booking, where no expensive staff is involved in organising my itinerary.

Having more time than money, I have to go from Sweden to North Carolina to Florida, then back to North Carolina, and only then home to Sweden. Furthermore, domestic US flights become cheaper the more convoluted and time-consuming your itinerary. So I’m not going straight from Stockholm to Raleigh/Duram, NC: I’m touching down in Newark, NJ and Charlotte, NC on the way, both ways.

The system is grossly inefficient. A bit of tax pressure would do wonders to tighten it up. Saving the planet from heat death can’t realistically be left to the good will of individuals and corporations.

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Comments

  1. #1 Dave Munger
    November 20, 2007

    One problem with taxing flying in the US anyway is that people would just start driving more. Obviously you can’t drive across the Atlantic, but you can drive across the US. If I had more time during the holidays this year, I might consider driving my family of four to the west coast rather than flying. Even counting hotels and inflated gas prices, I could probably do it for significantly less than the $3,000 I’ll be spending on airfare.

    It would still be cheaper to drive if gas prices doubled!

  2. #2 Colst
    November 20, 2007

    Within the US, it’s possible that raising airline prices could actually lead to higher greenhouse gas production. Why? Driving produces more CO2 per mile per passenger, and trains aren’t much of an option for a good part of the US. Reducing flying would only be a net positive in the US if it meant that more than half of the trips were canceled altogether or if it led to a major upgrade in the country’s train service.

  3. #3 Ian
    November 20, 2007

    The real problem with your idea is that in some places people fly because they have no other alternative. For example where I am living right now the only way off the island during the winter is by plane (unless you have your own boat).
    I suppose you could discount the tax for those that are making essential trips but then who decides what defines an essential trip – is going to a conference essential? Is visiting my family for Christmas essential? Probably not if we are really serious about saving the environment.

  4. #4 Alun
    November 20, 2007

    I remember having to get a ticket to Boston to go to a conference. The cheapest flight to Boston was via Chicago. So I thought I could try and have a couple of days in Chicago to see the Adler Planetarium and the Field Museum. I looked for tickets and found that if you actually wanted to go to Chicago the price increased and the cheapest way to get to there was to fly first to New York…

  5. #5 Hans Persson
    November 20, 2007

    Dave: … inflated gas prices …

    From the rest of your comment I assume you’re USAnian. What you mean is “the really cheap gas we still have in the US”. I quick search tells me that US prices are something like $3 per silly anachronistic unit. Prices in Europe are somewhere close to $2 per liter. Which I, personally, think could well be increased a bit.

  6. #6 Martin R
    November 20, 2007

    Dave, Colst: if you invest those air-tax dollars in better railways and subsidies for rail tickets, the equation will change significantly. Swedish long-distance trains have a maximum allowed speed of about 125 mph (200 km/h). Their speed record is closer to 300 km/h.

  7. #7 Martin R
    November 20, 2007

    Ian, you’re right, there should probably be a few exceptions to the rules. You islanders might for instance be allowed a certain number of untaxed trips a year.

  8. #8 Mark P
    November 20, 2007

    My mother could take a bus trip from northwest Georgia to Tampa, Fla, (about 500 miles) for almost the same as an airline flight, assuming she did not buy a bus ticket two weeks before she left. Unfortunately, she would have to drive about 50 miles to get to the nearest bus stop (she lives in a small town about 60 miles from Atlanta). The bus lines deserted the small towns a few years ago. And train travel disappeared a few decades ago. If you want to see incredibly wasteful, discouraging travel, try to book a train trip from Atlanta, Ga, to Denver Col. It’s about a three-day trip by train, going first from Atlanta to Washington, DC, then to Chicago, and then to Denver, with hours-long stops at each place. I can drive it in two days. And it’s expensive.

  9. #9 kai
    November 20, 2007

    The perverse thing is of course that I travel by train because I can afford it, most of the travel I do would be a lot cheaper (for me, in the short term) if I were to fly.

    Of course I won’t save the world, but you know, sometimes you just have to make a stand…

  10. #10 Jarrett
    November 20, 2007

    In the United States, suppose 250 people are on a plane from A to B. Suppose those same 250 people drive themselves. The plane leaves a much smaller environmental footprint than that many cars on the road. Yes I have a larger footprint by flying; however, we (collectively) have a smaller footprint.

    Could it be improved by high speed rail? A more earth-friendly bus running on biodiesel? Sure. That’s a completely new discussion.

  11. #11 Martin R
    November 20, 2007

    Jarrett, if flying became prohibitively expensive, then most of those 250 people wouldn’t take the trip at all unless there were a cheap and fast railway connection. Who wants to drive for days?

  12. #12 Caledonian
    November 20, 2007

    Jarrett, if flying became prohibitively expensive, then most of those 250 people wouldn’t take the trip at all unless there were a cheap and fast railway connection.

    No. You don’t grok Americans, Martin. Most of those 250 people will drive.

  13. #13 Hampo
    November 21, 2007

    I would just like to draw you attention to the latest (summary) report from IPCC available at ipcc.ch. There it states that the transport sector contributes with ca 13% of the ghg emissions worldwide. On a global scale air traffic does not contribute to even half of that – i have heard numbers around 2% but cannot reference that – considering the vast amount of cars in the world I find it realistic. In this context the energy sector contributes to more than a quarter of the global ghg. I find that discussions such as this takes unreasonable proportions in relation to the service air traffic provides and the contribution of emissions it has on a global scale.

    I am not saying stop worrying about your flight habits – but raising a concern that the main issues are (comparatively) left without discussion (or atleast attention in media). By making active choices on where you buy your electricity I believe you can make more of a difference than not to visit your family on the other side of the Atlantic. The most inefficient way to produce electricity today (in terms of CO2 emissions) is from coal, which is also the cheapest and most readily available fuel source in India or China..

    Briefly, in the context of Sweden the transport sector accounts for a high percentage of emissions. Mostly because all other sectors are relatively “clean” in a worldwide perspective. That is possibly why air traffic receives much attention in national media.

  14. #14 Martin R
    November 21, 2007

    Hampo, that’s interesting! By the “energy sector” I suppose you mean various kinds of electric power plants?

  15. #15 Hampo
    November 21, 2007

    Yes, it is my understanding (from previous readings – not specified in the report I referred to) that it includes the generation of electricity from burning fossil fuels, such as oil and coal.

  16. #16 paddy
    November 21, 2007

    10 years ago flying was not so cheap and I didn’t do very much of it. Today it is very cheap and I fly all the time. Now, what could be the connection here, I wonder..?

    I don’t really feel sorry for Americans who believe they will have to drive long distances to replace their flights – most flying is any not essential, or even important. And trains, people? Don’t you have trains any more in the US? Didn’t you practically invent the damn things? And don’t blame me that your profit-hungry state dismantled the rail system to make way for cars.

    And it’s not just the CO2 given out by the planes – how much energy do modern airports consume? How much waste results from building a modern airliner? And how many flood plains are covered by runways?

    I want airships to make a return – slow, stately and magnificent. Travel should not be fast – that just encourages binge flying and too many fast business trips for idiot rich people. What’s the point in flying from A to B in “JUST ONE HOUR!” when you will anyway spend all the time you “saved” watching TV and hanging out in shops?

  17. #17 windy
    November 22, 2007

    Martin implied that train tickets would be cheaper than flying – I was about to comment on that, but kai got there first :)

    The perverse thing is of course that I travel by train because I can afford it, most of the travel I do would be a lot cheaper (for me, in the short term) if I were to fly.

    Exactly! Maybe the Nordic national railways companies should be held responsible for their insane pricing policies, especially when they crash with environmental goals. Train travel should be more flexible than flying, not such that you need to plan your trip to the minute 3 months in advance to get a reasonable price.

    Someone has suggested that much of the actions of the leadership of these companies can be explained with “flight envy”…

  18. #18 kai
    November 22, 2007

    And trains, people? Don’t you have trains any more in the US? Didn’t you practically invent the damn things?

    No, I think that honour has to go to our British friends. You are thinking of aeroplanes, they were invented by Americans. Furthermore, European locomotives have always been more energy-efficient than their US contemporaries. (A recurrent problem: there has always been ample and cheap energy in North America, so there is an ingrained culture of waste being OK, thus the paper-thin outer walls of buildings, big cars and powerful and hungry locomotives.)

    And yes, it seems that for passenger transport, trains are few and far between, except in certain areas, like around Chicago and the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis. I once wanted to go from Seattle to Vancouver and reflexively called the train company. They did the edge-away-from-the-crazy-man routine on the phone…

  19. #19 kai
    November 22, 2007

    Exactly! Maybe the Nordic national railways companies should be held responsible for their insane pricing policies, especially when they crash with environmental goals. Train travel should be more flexible than flying, not such that you need to plan your trip to the minute 3 months in advance to get a reasonable price.

    Someone has suggested that much of the actions of the leadership of these companies can be explained with “flight envy”…

    Well, it’s not just the Nordic railways, I’d say the foremost example of flight envy is the Eurostar–separate terminals, security checkins, VIP lounges, the lot.

    That said, I really would like for train travel to be more like flying in a couple of respects: First, that waiting halls should be indoors and warm and I wouldn’t say no to comfortable seats either–or even recliners as I’ve rested in in some airports. Most Swedish railway stations would have indoor waiting spaces if it wasn’t for the fact that they often close them for the night long before the last train leaves. Second, I’d like more of end-to-end guarantees, right now train travel is barely aspiring to Ryanair standards on customer service with regards to delays and cancellations. (I’m happy to say that Deutsche Bahn are making an effort these days.)

    Now, if you want cheap train travel with minimal advance planning, you should get yourself an Interrail pass. They cost a bit, but after that you can travel on any train in Europe and only pay for seat reservations. (Of course, seat reservations are typically mandatory on high-speed trains.) Unfortunately, Interrail is not supported for domestic travel.

  20. #20 Hans Persson
    November 22, 2007

    Jarrett: n the United States, suppose 250 people are on a plane from A to B. Suppose those same 250 people drive themselves. The plane leaves a much smaller environmental footprint than that many cars on the road. Yes I have a larger footprint by flying; however, we (collectively) have a smaller footprint.

    Do you have a reference for that, or is it just a wild guess?

  21. #21 Hampo
    November 23, 2007

    A modern airplane combusts 3,5 l fuel per kilometer and passenger. I ve seen figures that the new airbus A380 is around 3 liter/km/pass (or less). That is less than half of a Vovlo V70 with one passenger (which is usually the case…). The industry is most likely driving the change towards fuel efficiency beacuse of high fuel costs…

  22. #22 Martin R
    November 23, 2007

    Whuh? Are you suggesting that a Volvo V70 combusts >6 litres of gas in one kilometre?! Most cars burn about 0.1 litres a kilometre.

  23. #23 Hampo
    November 23, 2007

    Wow I got the units all messed up! Sorry.
    Its 3.5 l fuel per 100 passenger kilometers – or in the case of the new A380
    3 l/pass/100km. = 0.3l/pass/10km
    Hope that makes better sense

  24. #24 kai
    November 24, 2007

    Then again, for air travel, water vapour at altitude may be at least as important as CO2 emissions. See George Monbiot’s Guardian article from last year.

  25. #25 Hampo
    November 24, 2007

    Then again, it might not as the effects from formation of clouds is one of the biggest uncertainties of global warming (it might catpure heat and it might reflect sun radiation). But you are right there is no doubt that contrails is a parameter to take into account! See http://www.intute.ac.uk/sciences/worldguide/html/image_518.html for an example.. or simply google for pictures of contrails to see how widespread they can get in the right conditions.

  26. #26 Martin R
    November 24, 2007

    I once flew closely past a pair of contrails at sunset. Incredibly beautiful, like two loooong glistening giant marshmallows, blushing orange in the late sunlight.

  27. #27 Doug Hudson
    November 24, 2007

    Its an interesting argument, but I have to take issue with your last sentence. I really dislike “save the planet” rhetoric, because to me it clouds the issue. We cannot “save the planet”, because, at least at the moment, we can’t destroy or even really damage the planet. Even the radioactive waste we generate will fade in a few hundred thousand or million years. We are trying to save ourselves (and, not incidentally, countless other species that exist along with us.) But the earth will be here long after we are gone, and all our works a memory.

  28. #28 Martin R
    November 25, 2007

    I’ll grant you that “save the planet” doesn’t literally mean “save the planet’s biosphere from severe damage”.

  29. #29 Hampo
    November 25, 2007

    Off course on a geological time scale this is nothing – we didnt even have oxygen in our atmosphere 1000million years ago – but is that relevant in the disucssion? Doug you bring up a valid ponit, the earth will persist (it takes more that a little bit of heat). But ‘save the planet’ is a simplificated slogan – it gives a message that is easy to commuicate – hence used (or misused) in all sorts of occasions. I think it is up to the reader to put it in context.

  30. #30 spuriousmonkey
    November 28, 2007

    I saw an article in an old New Scientist in the coffee break room where they assessed the environmental footprint of some of our activities.

    This particular piece related to shopping. Basically driving your car to go shopping is comparable to going to the amazon with your oil tanker and breaching the hull. Ok, maybe that was a slight exaggeration, but if my memory serves me correctly it was comparable to flying.

    The long distance transport of food had a minimal effect. Most costly (environmentally) was the national distribution, and people driving to the supermarket.

    By basically walking to the supermarket all year long you can afford to flush down your chemicals down the toilet at home and still be king of the environment.

    I am happy to say that I have never owned a car and never will. Not even when I lived in Florida. I must admit though that it is much easier to do so here in Finland.

  31. #31 Martin R
    November 28, 2007

    Looking at maps of Ft Lauderdale in planning my trip there come January, I’ve been kind of scared. The only way to get anywhere seems to be by car on great big highways. I don’t look forward to trying to walk around the place!

    A lady I know in Mississippi, a very respectable professor at Ole Miss, tells me that when she rides her bicycle to work people look at her as if she were a deranged bag lady.

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