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British writer George Monbiot is fast coming to be my newest journalistic hero, and this is after reading only a handful of his articles. His writing reinforces my belief that the best way to deal with our plummeting stores of fossil fuels and skyrocketing emissions is to simply stop using the fuels and emitting pollutants as much as we do.

His articles are extremely well-written, well-researched (with citations, at least in the website versions), and, perhaps most importantly, deal with subjects that are vastly underreported. He writes things about which nobody wants to read, but everybody should read. The fact that his columns appear in the Guardian means that many people are reading about these controversial topics. As the headliner quote on his website reads, "Tell people something they know already, and they will thank you for it. Tell them something new, and they will hate you for it."  One example of this quality is his article on how paradoxically harmful biodiesel can be on the environment. But his most recent article deals bluntly with an environmental hazard even less discussed: flying.

Ah yes, flying. We all do it, or, at least, those who can afford it. It's so darned convenient we shut out the negative impacts of jetliners from our mind.

Not Mr. Monbiot. His most recent article, forcefully entitled "We are all killers" (more on the title later), takes flying head on.

Already, one fifth of all the world's international air passengers fly to or from an airport in the UK(8). The numbers have risen five-fold in the past 30 years(9), and the government envisages that they will more than double by 2030, to 476 million a year(10). Perhaps "envisages" is the wrong word. By providing the capacity [i.e. adding runways at Heathrow and other UK airports], the government ensures that the growth takes place.

As far as climate change is concerned, this is an utter, unparalleled disaster. It's not just that aviation represents the world's fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions. The burning of aircraft fuel has a "radiative forcing ratio" of around 2.7(11). What this means is that the total warming effect of aircraft emissions is 2.7 times as great as the effect of the carbon dioxide alone. The water vapour they produce forms ice crystals in the upper troposphere (vapour trails and cirrus clouds) which trap the earth's heat. According to calculations by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, if you added the two effects together (it urges some caution as they are not directly comparable), aviation's emissions alone would exceed the government's target for the country's entire output of greenhouse gases in 2050 by around 134%(12). The government has an effective means of dealing with this. It excludes international aircraft emissions from the target.

If you think the airline industry has clear skies ahead of it, you haven't been paying attention.
In researching my book about how we might achieve a 90% cut in carbon emissions by 2030, I have been discovering, greatly to my surprise, that every other source of global warming can be reduced or replaced to that degree without a serious reduction in our freedoms. But there is no means of sustaining long-distance, high-speed travel.
He then goes on to explain how more efficient engines or the obvious chimera of a hydrogen-fueled plane could even further catalyze global warming, because of the increased amount of water vapor they emit.  Water vapor also serves to trap the sun's heat in the Earth's atmosphere.

Now, he also mentions the fuel-guzzling characteristics of fast passenger boats and high-speed trains.  I have more hope for the latter.  Regular-speed trains clearly expend less energy per passenger mile, and I believe they are the most capable of being powered by real alternative energy sources, without getting into the sticky issue of biodiesel.  But as far as flying is concerned, he's exactly right: there is just no environmentally-friendly way to fly on the scale we fly today. From the biodiesel article I linked above,

In 2003, the biologist Jeffrey Dukes calculated that the fossil fuels we burn in one year were made from organic matter "containing 44×10 to the 18 grams of carbon, which is more than 400 times the net primary productivity of the planet's current biota."(1) In plain English, this means that every year we use four centuries' worth of plants and animals.
To cite an oft-used analogy, our oil reserves are like a savings account where for millions and millions of years the Earth's plants were "despositing" their energy reserves without withdrawing anything. Today we are like compulsive gamblers at a casino, constantly going to the oil "ATM" to withdraw chunks of this once-massive reserve, in order that we might have more fun before the night is over. Commercial airlines are like the $50 or $100 blackjack tables. Now the account is getting low, and the transfer fees are only increasing.

As for Monbiot's bold title, consider flying's complicity in climate change and climate change's complicity in hardships already taking place around the world. It had at least some bearing on the harsh hurricane season that brought us Katrina.  I am not trying to lay a guilt trip on anyone, and I am partially responsible since I have flown a fair amount in my life.  But let's not forget,

the people who are being hit first and will be hit hardest by climate change are among the poorest on earth. Already the droughts in Ethiopia, putting millions at risk of starvation, are being linked by climate scientists to the warming of the Indian Ocean(27). Some 92 million Bangladeshis could be driven out of their homes this century(28), in order that we can still go shopping in New York.

Flying kills. We all know it, and we all do it.

Originally posted to Brudaimonia on Mon Mar 13, 2006 at 02:13 AM PST.

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