Climate Change Action is Coming: will it include Aviation?

While speaking in Berlin yesterday, President Obama said that the United States will address climate change. In the coming weeks, he is expected to announce new U.S. measures to fight global warming.

“Our dangerous carbon emissions have come down, but we know we have to do more. And we will do more,” he said in a speech.

Many were very hopeful last January, when he spoke about the environment during his Inaugural Address. But since then, many have become increasingly doubtful that he will follow through. Thus, yesterday’s words provided a glimmer of hope … and maybe will be followed with real action.

Heather Zichal, the deputy assistant to the President for energy and climate change, spoke at a forum sponsored by New Republic magazine. She advised that President Obama plans several steps toward tackling climate change as a priority in his second term. “In the near term, we are very much focused on the power plant piece of the equation,” she said.

Also yesterday, at a Thomson Reuters Newsmaker event in London, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim said that we need to stop arguing about whether humans are causing climate change and start taking action to stop dangerous temperature rises. “If you disagree with the science of human-caused climate change you are not disagreeing that there is anthropogenic climate change. What you are disagreeing with is science itself.”

The initial emphasis: appliances, powerplants, … and more Fracking(!?)

The emphasis presented so far includes two areas: improving the energy efficiency of appliances, and managing carbon produced by powerplants. Another early focus is to accelerate ‘clean energy development on public lands’. The possibility of a carbon tax is considered too divisive, and has reportedly been nixed by the President.

Some would suggest that working on appliance energy efficiency is akin to straightening the lounge chairs on the Titanic. Few will disagree that strategies to reduce powerplant CO2 are a good idea. Many will see past the euphemistic ‘clean energy development on public lands’ and shake their heads; maybe even yell — this is FRACKING, which means…

  • the support, by our government, of energy companies allowed to pollute the subsurface to extract natural gas.
  • A process that has nothing to do with the word ‘clean’.
  • A process where companies are protected from disclosing what chemicals they pump into the subsurface, and where they generate huge amounts of liquid waste that are shipped off to pollute other localities, too.
  • A process that will aid our continuing excessive CO2 consumption, while also destroying the ‘natural infrastructure’ of groundwater that likely will prove critically important for those around in a few more decades.

Some would call this FRACKING idea insanity. And, when this or the previous presidential administration serves as a propaganda mouthpiece to sell a bad idea, well, that not only makes the bad idea happen, but it also destroys confidence in our government leaders.

Our Collective ‘Carbon Eating Disorder

We can all trade up to more efficient appliances, but if we really want to tackle the CO2 problem, we will need to do a lot more. And soon.

The core of the problem is excessive consumption. Every mile traveled, be it by car or by airplane, is a unit of energy consumption, and that unit creates a predictable amount of CO2. Over many decades, the commercial airline manufacturers, just like the automotive industry, have reduced weights and improved engines and aerodynamics, producing a dramatic improvement in  fuel efficiency per passenger mile. That is all great, but if it only entices us to travel more miles, there will be no improvement on the 400ppm CO2 problem.

And, based on this chart, it is clear we have an energy eating disorder — one that would have shocked our grandparents. [If this graph had anything to do with the activities of one of our kids, we would have grounded them sometime around 1951. And they would have been the better off for our tough love!]

If you are an environmentally responsible person, you likely will develop good habits that reduce energy usage while also reducing creation of waste and other problems. You might really dive in, because in your heart you want to do well; you use your bike more, walk more, and you proudly know that you rack up only 3,000 miles per year on the small car you leave parked, most of the time. You encourage others, too. That’s great. But, as  a rule of thumb, the fuel consumed per mile on a commercial airliner is very comparable to the fuel consumption of your small car. So, if you splurge once, with an airline vacation to another continent, you will have just added 10,000- to 20,000- or more miles to your personal carbon impact for that year. Think about that.

What Does this Mean for Aviation?

What this means is that, when you fly commercially, it has the wonderful benefit of saving you many hours of driving, but at the troubling cost of making you a very efficient CO2 polluter. Every hour spent flying has roughly ten-hours worth of impact driving a car. A vacation in Asia with a 12-hour airline flight each way produces roughly the same CO2 as if you drove continuously for ten days straight, non-stop.

We all need to be environmentally responsible, mostly so as to leave the best possible environment for future generations. But, how about our generation? We cannot be expected to sit at home, right? Right. We simply need to moderate our consumption to an appropriate level. We should all, in a lifetime, hope we have a chance to travel, which ideally will include experiencing distant places and cultures. And we can. In our final days, if we share fond memories of a couple grand trips, that would be great … and far better than trying to sort out a blur of dozens of grand adventures.

Consume less yourself, save more for the future; we will all be healthier.

Obama’s Climate Change Solution needs to include Aviation Policy

A serious effort at Climate Change requires the rapid development of new aviation policies — which will require real leadership by FAA. And, FAA will have to adopt a new set of values; their work will need to become more about helping the environment, and less about helping airlines and manufacturers score profits. Here are some possible new policies:

  1. Re-regulate the U.S. commercial aviation system. Recognize that the real benefits of the hub-and-spoke system almost always go to single (monopoly) or paired (duopoly) airlines. Recognize, too, that those extra miles flown by passengers doing zig-zag routes instead of direct routes do add up to a very substantial added CO2 impact by aviation. This impact could be reduced. We have vast improvements in the capacity to crunch data and manage information; with those improvements, we could develop a re-regulated U.S. commercial aviation system that is efficient, transparent, and serves the whole nation.
  2. Apply a substantial aviation carbon tax to aviation fuels, especially jetfuel. This is by far the easiest, most appropriate, and most effective opportunity to reduce excessive CO2 production in transportation. There are many people who consume air miles excessively. The businesswoman whose company keeps her in the air, racking up airline points, should be discouraged from such excessive consumption. A successful businessman, who chooses to commute to his job via personal helicopter from his mansion on the mountain, creates a huge amount of CO2 and noise impact; that behavior can and should be fiscally discouraged. A private equity investor, who has made millions shipping U.S. jobs offshore so that we can all buy cheaper foreign goods, …he or she may enjoy frequent cross-country jaunts to golfing junkets in Palm Springs, or beaches in tropical waters, but if their private (or charter) jet burns hundreds of gallons per hour hauling just a few people, it is a selfish and excessive indulgence. All of these people have a right to consume in excess, but our future would be far better off if they were discouraged from doing so. A tax would serve well as that disincentive. And, as a plus, a steep carbon tax on jetfuel would apply only to those who can afford to pay it, thus would not impact those who can hardly even afford a junk car.
  3. Change the airport funding program, so that it removes the incentive for airports to grow into massive Aeroplexes. The current PFC system, and the AIP funding program, puts airports into a state of cash-dependency that forces them to accelerate airport development, even when it is not needed. It also takes away local airport control, giving it over to the FAA. These funding programs have created a national system filled with hundreds of massively under-utilized federally funded airports. This has served the construction business and local airport authorities quite well; it has also aided incumbents during their reelection campaigns (and thus made them more inclined to support PFC and other transportation programs). But it has added to the destruction of local farmlands and ways of life, while accelerating fossil fuel consumption. This needs to change.
  4. Related to the above, focus airport development AWAY from the super-hubs, and into smaller airports. The new policies need to assure that people who do travel via airlines have real and price-comparable air service at an airport within fifty miles, instead of 100-300 miles away. There are way too many U.S. communities whose airport sits empty without air service, while residents spend hours on freeways driving to and from airport parking structures. This is just absurd, and it is one of the larger failures of the 1978 airline deregulation.