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A New Shade of Green

By Sherry Listgarten

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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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Flying: A letter from a reader

Uploaded: Feb 14, 2020
I am beginning a series of blog posts on flying starting this Sunday. To tee it up, I thought I’d share a portion of an email I got from a reader about a year ago.

"I was wondering: Are you planning a future column focusing on air travel?

I first learned about global warming in about 1990, when I was in my early twenties. I was already a cyclist, having ridden to school since the age of 7, but I made a commitment at that time to be a bicycle commuter. At first I didn't ride every day, more like 2 or 3 days a week. But over the years I started biking more and more, and now I drive to work only about 4 times a year. Reducing my personal production of greenhouse gases (GHGs) has always been a large motivating factor for me to commute by bike, and there are lots of other benefits as well, such as exercise and never getting stuck in traffic. It's not always easy, but the benefits outweigh the costs.

Back in the 1990s, I knew that cars emitted a lot of carbon dioxide, but I didn't learn about the GHG contribution of air travel until much later, probably around 2008. I learned that in a single airplane trip I could obliterate all my GHG savings from a year of bike commuting. I'd do better to drive my car and never fly than to bike every day and fly a couple of times a year.

I cut back on flying but not completely until I started dating my boyfriend who had already cut out flying. (He's also a transportation bicyclist.) It has been more than two years since I last flew and I'm saving any future flights for true emergencies. If I can avoid it, I'm not going to fly."

She goes on to wonder why as a society we disapprove of littering yet approve of travel, though the latter pollutes the skies for centuries. "Try crumpling up a piece of paper and throwing it on the ground within sight of other people. They will freak out about the litter. But say to the same people, 'I just took a trip to Paris,' and they will say, 'Oh how wonderful!'"

Well, Paris is more interesting, right? And the food…. I come from a family of fliers, starting from when we were kids. My dad traveled overseas a lot for work, taking us with him on occasion, and the “travel bug” proved catching. My sister grew to appreciate the multicultural experiences so much that she became a travel agent. My brother’s family loves exploring interesting places. And my parents continue to enjoy beautiful trips to far flung places. The decision to travel is a very personal one, and there are many excellent reasons to travel. I am not a particularly good traveler, but I do get in planes and will surely increase my travel if my kid goes to college and later establishes herself far away. So I see no point in being dogmatic on this topic.

But there is a lot of room for flexibility, so what I will do is provide some information about flying that you may find helpful. This Sunday I will talk about the relative impact of flying and how I’ve thought about it. The following Sunday I will have some practical tips for choosing and offsetting flights, with some more detail about the flight emissions calculators. Then the week after I will talk some about how aviation regulations and technology are evolving.

Americans fly a lot (1), and those of us on the mid-Peninsula fly even more (2). So it makes sense to pay attention to its impact on our climate. Buckle up!

Notes and References
1. As shown in the figure below, the average U.S. resident uses about six times the jet fuel of the global average.

Per capita jet fuel use in liters for 2016, adjusted to discount tourists. Source: The International Council on Clean Transportation

2. I don’t have a great reference for this, but miles flown is highly correlated with wealth, and we are (on average) wealthy. A carbon footprint calculator from UC Berkeley estimates miles flown per zip code simply by looking at wealth. They estimate the flight miles for an average single-person household in 94301 (Palo Alto) at 5,700 miles per year, compared to 2,500 for an average single-person household in the general United States. Their estimate for a single-person household in Atherton is twice that, at 11,300 miles.

Current Climate Data (January 2020)
January 2020 was the warmest January on record for the globe

Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

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Posted by Bloviating “do gooders”, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 14, 2020 at 10:48 am

Yes. By all means . Let's stop flying. Let's kill the tourism industry as one example of this misguided “flying is evil" push, across America and in foreign countries. And what about all the millions of people that make their living off of tourism? Too bad, I guess the answer will be.

This is another ridiculous idea being pushed by a Palo Alto resident, who thinks that they know what is best for everyone.
You think flying is evil- then don't fly. But stops lecturing everyone on what is right or wrong.

Posted by Sammy, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Feb 14, 2020 at 12:41 pm

Flying is "bad" but will be one of the last areas of concern to ba addressed with technological solutions.

Just curious, @bloviating, when did you accept that climate change is a very serious problem?

What solutions do you support?

Posted by MP Resident, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Feb 14, 2020 at 12:54 pm

Globally, aviation is 2.4% of CO2. Not great, but not the largest source by far.

Aviation has some low hanging fruit that really would help, too. Moving short haul flights to turboprops, for example, can result in a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. This doesn't meaningfully reduce comfort, safety or convenience, or increase costs. However, people are reluctant to fly on turboprops without the right incentives.

This is where alignment of incentives comes in. Aviation is a great argument for a carbon tax. Let people make their own tradeoffs, instead of trying to regulate each source. Let the market push efficiencies by making the lack of efficiency more expensive. From an equity POV, this would also be a bigger hit on more expensive classes of seating - International Business has a much higher carbon footprint than Premium Economy, which is somewhat higher than Economy.

But... let's quit screwing around with feel-good solutions to small parts of the problem, tax carbon in a way that lets market solutions to problems work, and call it a day.

Posted by Bloviating “do gooders”, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 14, 2020 at 3:07 pm

Sammy- about 10 years ago.

Telling people not to fly ( without any consideration of all the impacts ) is like the virtue signallers in Palo Alto saying everyone should bike and walk.

Posted by eileen, a resident of another community,
on Feb 14, 2020 at 6:19 pm

"So I see no point on being dogmatic on this point." Then Sherry goes on to say that she will post some information on the impact of flying, choosing and offsetting flights, and aviation and technology. She even flies and may well do so more in the future. Doesn't sound like she is saying "Yes by all means let's stop flying." Chill, guys, open your minds, and read the next three posts.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Feb 15, 2020 at 2:04 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@MP: Yes, it would be so much simpler if all of this climate impact were just folded into prices. (Similarly, wouldn’t it be nice if manufacturers had to charge for the true costs of recycling and/or disposing of their products?) But effective carbon pricing is easier said than done, not just the technicalities (e.g., getting an import tax to pass muster with the WTO) and the format (e.g., when does the price increase and by how much), but also haggling over formulas (e.g., for non-CO2 impact) and exemptions. Not to mention getting Congress to agree on anything. The ones that do pass are often too weak to effect real change. Given all that, some of these other approaches (e.g, encouraging people to do their part, or implementing the CORSIA program) can help us make progress faster. Alas, you know you’re in trouble when asking people to change their behavior is one of your better options.

Posted by Robyn, a resident of another community,
on Feb 17, 2020 at 3:04 pm

I would like to see the carbon footprint of the container ships that carry "recyclables" and manufactured goods and food around the world. Do we need meat and dairy from Ireland and New Zealand? Would it not be "better" to manufacture the things in place and reuse them locally?
But, trade agreements probably trump science.
Disclaimer: I frequently fly commercially for business and leisure.
It seems that airlines support the local economies by purchasing refreshments, utensils and amenity kits and by patronizing hotels and restaurants. They also pay landing and fuel fees. This is away from the author's point but shows an offset.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Feb 17, 2020 at 4:12 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Robyn, those are great questions. FWIW, on a global scale, the carbon footprint from food has only a very small contribution from transportation. See picture below (transport is in red), but you can see it much more easily in the original. That doesn't clarify whether that means most food is local, or that transport is relatively low in emissions. But they go on to say that shipping isn't bad, and give this example: "Shipping one kilogram of avocados from Mexico to the United Kingdom would generate 0.21kg CO2eq in transport emissions. This is only around 8% of avocados’ total footprint." From what I read, eating less meat and cheese (and especially beef and lamb) is the big winner here (plus a few other things, like farmed shrimp).

I don't understand the airline business too well, but I do understand that our governments subsidize the industry and the airports. I don't know how it all balances out, though. Their fees and taxes are not really offsets, because that revenue is not used to address their climate impact. There is a program called CORSIA that is coming, though, which I'll write about in a few posts...

Hope this helps some, and thanks for the great comments/observations.

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