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Last year, after saving up for years & years, I blew most of my accumulated United Airlines miles on a domestic flight. Then, in a startlingly callous act of customer disloyalty, I decided that exercising my option for a freebie had the effect of loosening my reins. With my balance radically lowered, I was free to fly on Those Other Carriers without worrying too much that I'm not accumulating precious (or, in my experience, overvalued) miles.

April's gala opening of SF International Airport's rebuilt "Terminal 2" led to an obvious choice: Virgin America, Sir Richard Branson's shiny new U.S. carrier, based right there in the airport from which I most frequently fly. I booked Virgin America to travel to the east coast and back last week, for a meeting in the DC area and some R&R in New York.

Let me start by saying several nice things.

First, Virgin America is a pleasure to fly. Nice leather seats. Nice individual touchscreen TV + music + order food anytime + flight-map device in the seatback in front of each passenger, and -- yes! -- it has an off switch so a decent, TV-hostile passenger can read. A book, not a Kindle. A hardback, no less (Ransom, by David Malouf). Nice flight crew, younger and hipper than you might have encountered on certain other airlines in which the staff have invested major fractions of their working lives (I'm not calling this a good or a bad thing, it is what it is). The most amusing bit was on the outbound flight, in which one crew member kept exhorting passengers to ask his fellow crewmember -- who'd gotten some distance along the American Idol road to ... to ... to wherever the heck that road leads -- to demonstrate her vocal talents. And, for now at least, fares are low, low, low. I just booked another flight, also combining business and R&R, for later this summer, and Virgin America was 40% cheaper than United on the dates I'm traveling to Chicago. Yeah, it's always a crapshoot depending on your travel dates and when you book ... but jeez. 40% cheaper? It would have been downright irresponsible to my financially ailing employer to buy a ticket on my "usual" carrier. (Word to the wise: for a great way to search for the fares and schedules you want.)

Second nice thing: SFO's Terminal 2 is nicely laid out, the art is humane, the space is scaled to human proportions (I flew back out of JFK, don't ask), and the concessionaires include decent places to eat. Not just food you can choke down, but food you might actually enjoy. It's enough to make you think you're in an airport local to some of the foodiest communities on the continent. I had a baked-to-order pizza at the Napa Farms Market, and -- miracle of miracles -- it was a meal I would have enjoyed even if I weren't in an airport. Okay, enough free advertising, this diary is not monetized.

Third nice thing: it's better to save energy than not.

But that third nice thing leads me to think it'd be a good idea to take a closer look at this newborn addition to San Francisco's airport.

SFO's Terminal 2 has been trumpeted as a significant advance in modern passenger air travel. The terminal won Gold Certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program of the U.S. Green Building Council, the first airline terminal in the world to achieve that certification.

SFO's own description reads:

Designed to improve indoor air quality and reduce energy consumption, the innovative sustainable elements included in Terminal 2 will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the facility by an estimated 1,667 tons per year.

The page from which this is taken suggests that most of  the reduction is a product of lower electrical energy consumption. Also from the same source:

SFO will provide PC Air and 400 Hz power supply to aircraft at all T2 gates, reducing jet fuel consumption by aircraft Auxiliary Power Units (APU) by 1,400,000 gallons per year and reducing CO2 emissions by approximately 15,000 tons per year.

Add it up: 16,667 fewer tons of greenhouse gas emmissions per year than your standard-issue terminal.

Sounds pretty good, eh? Getting to one's gate sure feels better than your usual stale-air and florescent-lighting walk through an airport terminal. (There's something spooky about the fact that it's called a terminal, don't you think?)

But I had a nagging suspicion. You know the kind I mean. The suspicion that anything that looks that good has to be papering over a story that's rougher around the edges. So I did a little research. Just a little -- I'm not claiming to have the final report prepared here, and would love to hear from folks who know better than I do.

Let's start with some facts:

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics gives 12 month stats for passenger enplanements and miles in the U.S. -- 728,920,000 and 813,160,763,000 respectively from March 2010 through February 2011.

In describing the environmental impact of air travel, Wikipedia cites statistics from Finland that peg CO2 emissions at somewhere between 114 and 178 grams per passenger-kilometer (g/pkg) depending on whether flights are long-haul or a medium domestic (within Finland) distance.

SFO's T2 "About" page tells that the new terminal has "capacity for 5.5 million enplaned passengers per year, and a projected 3.2 million enplaned passengers in the first full year of operation." (These numbers are offered prospectively: the page from which they are gleaned has not been updated, as of this blog's composition, to reflect the fact the terminal is now open.)

Okay? If those are the facts, it's now back-of-the-napkin time.

Let's split the difference between the number of "enplaned passengers" for which T2 has capacity, according to SFO, and the number projected in its current first year of operation: call it 4.35 million.

Using the BTS stats cited above, assuming (back-of-napkin, remember?) that traffic from SFO is average in length of trip, and converting passenger miles to passenger kilometers, we get the BTS reporting an average trip of about 1795 kilometers per passenger during the period covered.

And working from the CO2 emmissions estimates -- again splitting the difference in the range given by the Finnish organization LIPASTO -- we're talking CO2 emissions of something on the order of 262 Kg/passenger-trip.

That's 1,140,213,300 Kg of CO2 emmissions per year for the passengers who are expected to enplane at Terminal 2 each year. (I can't say I've understood this correctly, but the language leads one to believe that passenger 'deplanements' aren't included in the SFO stats given above. Fair enough. Let the arrivals count against some other airport's CO2 boo-boos.)

Turning kilograms into tons, we're talking 1,256,870 tons of CO2 emitted in the course of passenger air travel embarked upon from SFO's Terminal 2 each year.

(Ah, units-of-measure. Brings you right back to high school physics. Word to the wise: Google unit conversion.)

So, comparing apples to apples:

  • Terminal 2's annual CO2 emissions reduction, in tons: 16,667
  • CO2 emitted annually by air travel originating at Terminal 2, in tons: 1,256,870

And, Q.E.D., how does the back-of-napkin comparison boil down?

Environmentally oriented affordances at SFO's Terminal 2 reduces CO2 emmissions by 1.33% of the quantity of CO2 spewed by the air travel that originates at its gates.

Can that be right? Any engineers out there want to shoot holes in my napkin?

It might still feel good to fly in and out of the new terminal at San Francisco International Airport. But if I've done credible arithmetic, we can't delude ourselves. Groovy new airports don't solve the fundamental problem that jet planes are bad bad bad for our planet's climactic equilibrium. They're not going to right the ship.

I'm expecting that next pizza at Napa Farms Market, the one I might well order on my way to Chicago next month, won't taste quite as good as the first.

This diary is cross-posted with the author's blog, One Finger Typing

Originally posted to Steve Masover on Mon Jun 13, 2011 at 10:06 AM PDT.

Also republished by California politics.

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Comment Preferences

  •  * sigh * (0+ / 0-)

    The point of all this was that it was a "feel good" effort to assuage the consciences of SF liberal types.

    The point was definitely not to microanalyze the whole thing into meaninglessness.

  •  A real challenge ... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Hedwig, Lorikeet, BYw

    what is the value of incrementalism ... and, even more questioning, incrementalism on a per unit basis when the total number of units (in this case) travelers goes up?

    Thus, more efficient coal production using less oil / coal in the production process does, honestly, cut the pollution -- but it is still about pulling coal from the ground.  Etc ... Etc ... Etc ... And, well, at this time, an airport is about putting people in the air in machines that pump out a lot of pollution.

    However, if one is going to fly, better to carry a kindle than 20 books in an extra suitcase, better to fly direct than connecting flights, and perhaps better that your terminal was more efficiency / 'greener' than not.

    Blogging regularly at Get Energy Smart NOW! for a sustainable energy future.

    by A Siegel on Mon Jun 13, 2011 at 10:22:10 AM PDT

    •  Yes, but maybe it's even worse... (0+ / 0-)

      David Owen wrote in The New Yorker this past December on The Efficiency Dilemma, in which he described Jevons Paradox and the modern economist Len Brookes who echoed his argument. Quoting from the New Yorker article's abstract, Jevons wrote in 1865:

      "It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth."

      The article treats arguments both that Jevons Paradox (an effect, Owens says, that is now called "rebound" or "backfire") is applicable, and that it is not.

      In the case of air travel, the question whether it is applicable might be reduced to asking whether the illusion of "green" air travel increases proclivity (or reduces reluctance) to hop on a plane.

      You're dead-on right. It's a real, hard challenge.

      (But I only brought the one book with me. And a couple of New Yorker issues. I remain unconvinced about the Kindle.)

      •  That New Yorker article (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        SCFrog, BYw

        Gets taken apart pretty thoroughly at Climate Progress

        In summary, the energy reductions from efficiency may be reduced to some degree by rebound, the 100% rebound is incredibly unlikely.  As described in that link, people trying to show occurences of the rebound effect  do not correct for other variables such as increased affluence in a population.

        Worse, and even more transparently wrong, Owen points to the increasing use of air conditioning in the developing world, especially India and China, as evidence of a globally expanding Jevons effect. Never mind the fact that income in China is growing something like three times as fast as in the U.S. and that the cost of air conditioning as a share of average incomes are falling at an even greater rate.

        •  right, rebound effect (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          is small in all the important cases. This may be a weird exception in which a nice local improvement in efficiency of some small process has enough psychological effect (as opposed to monetary) to more than offset the benefit. It's pretty hard to argue against improvements on such a hypothetical basis, however.

          Michael Weissman UID 197542

          by docmidwest on Mon Jun 13, 2011 at 01:06:06 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  At this point, I don't think airport capacity... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Lorikeet, BYw

      ...really increases the number of passengers so much as it simply redistributes them (from fewer, more crowded terminals to more, less crowded terminals). In my experience, people's decision to fly isn't really all that directly dependent on airport capacity, except insofar as that affects the cost of air travel... if it has any effect at all on people's flying decisions, it'll just be to convince people to fly out of a different airport.

      I think very few people are going to think "well, I was going to skip my vacation this year, but now that SF has that nice new terminal, I think I'd like to go to New York."

      •  Mostly agree ... (0+ / 0-)

        that wasn't the point that I was making.

        If a terminal is rebuilt, to handle more passengers but handle each one more efficiently, the total 'cost' (environmentally and otherwise) might be higher even as the incremental falls.

        Note, by the way, that the "Green" seems to be calculated from a 'what it would have been if we were green' level of savings rather than any form of abosolute savings claim.

        Blogging regularly at Get Energy Smart NOW! for a sustainable energy future.

        by A Siegel on Mon Jun 13, 2011 at 11:55:00 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I think that's how it needs to be. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          A Siegel
          Note, by the way, that the "Green" seems to be calculated from a 'what it would have been if we were green' level of savings rather than any form of abosolute savings claim.

          I think it needs to be a comparison against the alternatives, with the assumption being that all the alternatives include the thing being built at all. I don't think you can do "green" planning against the alternative of completely restructuring the way transportation works in the US.

  •  Unless SF Terminal Two sprouts wings and flies (6+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    citisven, JamesGG, Lorikeet, grollen, SCFrog, BYw

    its green characteristics should be measured against other buildings. Which still are the source of half of the CO2 emitted---planes are 3-5% IIRC.

    •  Maybe there's a broader way to see the question... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Sure, if what's being measured is the building's effectiveness at reducing the CO2 emitted by buildings. But what if its larger social effect is to help people evade responsibility for the fact that flying does have significant greenhouse gas effects, that need to be curbed?

      Here, from the BBC News in 2005, Aviation 'huge threat to CO2 aim':

      UK homes, firms and motorists will have to cut carbon dioxide emissions to zero due to air travel growth, a study says.

      Even if such growth is halved, the rest of the economy will need cuts beyond targets set for 2050, said the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

      The government predicts UK air passenger numbers will rise from 180 million to 475 million by 2030.

    •  This is the defense of LEED buildings with parking (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Steve Masover

      Where a "green building" is located and how people get there should be part of the equation.

      The proposed new Apple "spaceship" would have a massive parking garage beneath it. Is that a "green" building?

  •  There's only so much a terminal can do. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MKinTN, Lorikeet

    It can really only address what happens while the planes are there; it can't change the nature of air travel itself, and I don't think anyone is pretending that a LEED Gold terminal is going to make air travel completely environmentally-friendly.

    Now, if we had a high-speed rail infrastructure, that could change the landscape.

    It wouldn't change things too substantially for cross-country trips, as folks would still want to get from SF to NY in less than the two days it would take even on high-speed rail, but it could give folks an option other than a five-hour flight or a three-day drive.

    But it would make a huge difference for shorter trips like SF to LA, Vegas, or Seattle... HSR could be a good replacement for the plane trip or drive, thus saving a great deal in emissions and passenger stress.

    •  Yes! (0+ / 0-)

      And so perhaps the argument is that at a high level, humans are better off investing in HSR than in LEED certified terminals? As a better, more effective return on investment?

      •  I'm not sure it's coming out of the same pot. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        If the choice in funding was between a new air terminal and HSR, of course I'd choose HSR.

        But HSR is (a) a great deal more expensive than a new terminal, (b) requires cooperation from multiple jurisdictions other than whatever authority SFO is operating under, and (c) probably not funded by the SFO airport authority.

        I think the choice was between redoing Terminal 2 to be LEED Gold, or redoing it not to be—and given that choice, I'll take the LEED.

        Cities like San Francisco shouldn't be asked to foot the bill for HSR investment; rather, this needs to happen on a federal level, not necessarily replacing investments in maintaining or rebuilding aging infrastructure (including airports, bridges, etc.) but replacing new infrastructure building... in other words, the first thing I think they should do is invest in HSR instead of widening or building new freeways.

  •  What happened to sloping runways? (0+ / 0-)

    Earlier somebody had come up with the idea of having airplanes take off and land on sloping runways. When the plane lands, it lands going uphill. The uphill slope will slow the plane down in lieu of the brakes. When the plane takes off, it goes downhill. The downhill slope helps accelerate the plane. I don't know how much energy that would save, but it just sounds like a readily doable, passive solution that doesn't require any high tech innovations or unobtanium.

    •  Off the top of my head... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      ...and as someone who has only a rudimentary understanding of the physics and logistics of air traffic control and air safety, It seems to me that there would be a few problems with that... if any people with experience would like to correct what I'm saying, please feel free.

      First, it seems to me that every pilot in the country has trained and flown with more or less flat runways for his or her entire career. They've probably got so much instinct and muscle memory built up for taking off or landing on a flat runway, that any slope significant enough to make an energy difference would create some major safety concerns... not to mention that unless you had a uniform slope angle (which would significantly add to construction costs at airports), they'd have to deal with a different slope at different airports—which seems to me like asking for trouble.

      Second, you'd need to effectively double the number of runways at any airport, since they currently operate so that planes take off and land going in the same direction, on the same sets of runways. Since the runways couldn't be like my walk to school when I was the age of those damn kids who won't get off my lawn (i.e, uphill both ways), they could only operate in one direction.

      Which would create yet more safety concerns, because unless you're doing some major earth-moving (major additional construction costs), you've now got airplanes flying straight at each other coming into the airport, rather than all approaching from one side and leaving from the other. Not only would that create some serious ATC headaches for their routing of ascending and descending planes, and some serious turbulence concerns, but it would also significantly increase the chances of a head-on collision or head-on near-miss (again, major turbulence issues) between two planes - which would be really ugly.

      But those are my first impressions as someone who's just flown a lot and has a minimal understanding of the situation... does anyone with more knowledge think that idea could actually work?

  •  Actually it's really important and good (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Lorikeet, grollen, docmidwest

    The potential negative effect cited, I don't think it exists.  There is nobody who will make a decision to fly because the terminal is more energy efficient.  A big reason is that someone who cares enough will also knows (roughly) the numbers cited, the energy use and emission of the terminal are a pittance compared to the plane energy use and emissions.

    Why is an energy saving, low emissions terminal really important and good?  Here's why.  It demonstrates to the general public that energy efficiency costs nothing and has no negative impact on people's experience.  That single demonstration doesn't do a lot by itself, but the overall progress of seeing more and more energy efficient (buildings, planes, vehicles) in the world and the fact that they all work really, really well is something that has the potential to tip the balance of public opinion.

    After acceptance comes expectation.  After this kind of energy efficiency is more and more present, people (just average people) will start to wonder why a certain (building, plane, vehicle) is not up to date, and why somebody is not doing something about it.

  •  Strange Comments For An Int'l Airport (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I understand flying has a pretty high carbon footprint, but except for Canada and Mexico, how else are folks supposed to travel internationally?

  •  I'm not so sure that air travel... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    is such a wasteful use of oil. It provides us with something that we can't easily get via any other means: rapid travel to anywhere on Earth. And it's gotten a lot more efficient than it used to be.

    Yes, it's still a huge consumer of oil and producer of greenhouse gases. But we're getting a lot in return. So while I think we will have to cut back on it, I don't think it's really the low-hanging fruit when it comes to cutting back on these things as far as societal bang for the buck (or reductions-for-the-sacrifice).

    Many uses of cars strike me as much more reasonable places to attack than commercial air travel (private jets are another matter). There are plenty of less energy-intensive ways that can easily get people to places within 2 miles of their house, but few that can get them to the other side of the world in 12 hours. The energy efficiency of buildings also seems easier to address.

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