The No-Fly Zone for Greens

On page 4 of GPMI’s 2014 platform, under the heading “The Environment,” it says, “Efficiency helps – but to reduce our contribution to climate change, we need to do less driving and much less flying.” The question has come up, “Why single out flying for special treatment? It sounds like class envy.”

Well, it’s going to be a somewhat involved discussion, but this is a reasonable place to start:
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130617111345.htm
What the Science Daily article does not mention is that commercial planes are already designed to be about as fuel efficient as possible, so not a lot of improvement can be expected in the future. But this carbon footprint analysis is hardly the final word on the subject.

Here’s another article that makes a valid point about the time frame over which global warming is calculated:
http://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2010/sep/09/carbon-emissions-planes-shipping
This article does have a big flaw. It looks only at the warming effect of emissions but not at the ocean acidification effect. Sulfur dioxide aerosols look great for short-term cooling and terrible for acidification. Consequently, all the reasons this article likes cooling aerosols only apply if you are willing to ignore acidification.

One consideration for curtailing flying starts with the fact that carbon dioxide is converted back into oxygen and (hydro) carbon by plants at the surface of the earth and in the oceans. Cars, trucks, trains and boats emit their carbon dioxide at the very bottom of the troposphere, where this part of the carbon cycle takes place. plane, of course, emit their carbon miles away from the surface, sometimes in the upper part of the troposphere and other times actually in the stratusphere, so that little mixing with the troposphere occurs.

It logically follows that carbon dioxide emitted so far above the surface of the earth will have a longer residence time in the atmosphere than equivalent emissions at the surface of the earth. More residence time means more warming effect. I have not seen any study to quantify this effect, so I don’t know if we are talking about 1% more warming or 100% more warming from airplane emissions. I don’t know how much difference there would be between low-flying propeller-driven planes and jets in the stratosphere.

At any rate, if you agree with the idea of using much less energy overall, then one of the easiest and most obvious ways to do this is to eliminate unnecessary long-distance travel, and that’s more likely to mean plane travel than anything else. It goes along with living close to work, school and shopping to eliminate unnecessary long commutes. It goes along with insulating buildings to use less energy heating them, and so on. However, not getting on a plane is something we can each do immediately, and see savings immediately as well.

If this way of evaluating travel choices brings the bicostal jet set and wealthy ecotourists into disrepute, so be it. A certain amount of class consciousness and knowing which side you are on is involved, but it is not right to call it class envy.

Art Myatt

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