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A Magazine of Ideas

Greens’ Irrational Fear Flies Again

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A closer look at environmentalists’ hatred of air travel.

“I hate flying,” William Shatner once said, “flat out hate its guts.”

It may seem surprising that he who played the legendary Captain James T. Kirk in “Star Trek” loathes his character’s very purpose in life. Far less surprising, but much more alarming, is the hatred environmental activists direct at air travel.

Greens, as a rule, despise flight because its carbon footprint exceeds that of their beloved high-speed trains, but also, more darkly, because the airplane has become synonymous with economic development and growth.

Consider just a few examples:

•    As part of its “CO2 Smackdown,” the Natural Resources Defense Council urges Americans to “skip one flight” each year.


•    Columnist George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian in 2006 that “‘ethical' people [scare quotes his] are in denial about the impacts of flying,” urging the British government to “limit the capacity of our airports.”


•    And Greenpeace’s United Kingdom chapter called for the government to “ban all mainland domestic routes” and “end plans for airport expansion.”

So it was predictable that environmentalists would jump on the bandwagon of the European Union’s (EU) impending expansion of its Emissions Trading System (ETS) to include air travel. Previously exempt from the eight-year-old program, airlines are slated shortly to begin paying a steep carbon tax for the privilege of landing on European airstrips. And sure enough, greens on the Continent and stateside have waxed euphoric about the ever-burgeoning EU ETS.

By way of example, Elisabeth Rosenthal, a New York Times reporter on the environment, took to the opinion pages of the Grey Lady last month to slam flying and laud the new airborne carbon tax:

For many people reading this, air travel is their most serious environmental sin. One roundtrip flight from New York to Europe or to San Francisco creates a warming effect equivalent to 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person. The average American generates about 19 tons of carbon dioxide a year; the average European, 10.

Setting aside, for the moment, the nomenclature of the greens — i.e., carbon emissions as sin, offsets as indulgences, multinational treaties as communion — Rosenthal’s statistics bear little relevance to the question of air travel.

Europe and the United States diverge widely in their emissions not so much because of airplanes as geography: whilst most Europeans are clustered tightly in densely populated urban areas, requiring only short travels, Americans tend to live in open spaces with much longer (typically car-dependent) commutes.

Plus, as Rosenthal herself explains elsewhere, cultural factors account for a good chunk of the carbon dichotomy.

So where does commercial flight fit into the picture? Here’s Rosenthal again:

Though air travel emissions now account for only about 5 percent of warming, that fraction is projected to rise significantly, since the volume of air travel is increasing much faster than gains in flight fuel efficiency.

But these numbers are dubious. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change itself has estimated that aviation is responsible for only 2 percent of global emissions, with an impact of 3 percent on climate change — an effect that may one day rise to 5 percent, but not before 2050.

Europe and the United States diverge widely in their emissions not so much because of airplanes as geography.

More to the point, pace Rosenthal, airborne efficiency has taken huge strides in the past few decades, and it is poised to make even more.

Britain’s National Air Traffic Services (NATS) has for the past year been implementing a “3D inefficiency” matrix that seeks to environmentally optimize flight paths for all major airlines traversing its space. Through 3Di, NATS expects to “save around 600,000 tonnes of CO2 before 2015, saving our customers £120m in fuel costs” in Britain alone — enough, in Rosenthal’s estimation, to eradicate the annual carbon footprint of some 60,000 Europeans.

Even the Sierra Club blog acknowledges that “the noise, unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and other yucky stuff produced by commercial jets has been significantly reduced since the 90s.” Roberts generously quotes Bill Glover, Boeing’s managing director of environmental strategy, who observes that “fuel efficiency of commercial jets has improved since the 60s by 70 percent.”

Glover attributes these improvements to “a fundamental change in the architecture of the engine design. The high bypass engine moves higher volumes of air at lower speeds, thus noise is reduced and fuel is saved.”

Meanwhile, various airlines have been experimenting with aviation biofuels, including American Airlines and United, both of which have partnered with Boeing, and Alaska Airlines, which initiated a 75-flight program using 20 percent biofuel.

Of the 18 major domestic “Transportation and Logistics” corporations Newsweek ranked by environmental performance — including trains, trucks, and ships — American Airlines ranked second, and 88th among all U.S. companies. United, for its part, has realized a 32 percent improvement in fuel efficiency since 1994 “through investing in a modern, fuel-efficient fleet and equipment” and is aiming for carbon-neutral growth by 2020.

Most astounding, though, is Rosenthal’s conclusion:

One way or another, [air travel] prices seem bound to increase some, and perhaps that is fair. We spend more for LED light bulbs and hybrid vehicles in part because we care about the environment.

This is a spectacularly inapt comparison. There’s no question that part of the reason we’re willing to invest in hybrid and LED technologies lies in our desire to reduce our ecological footprint. But a much larger motivation is the very efficiency those technologies promise, i.e., the near-certainty that, at least over the medium-to-long term, we will wind up spending less on gasoline or electricity, as the case may be, than with traditional technology.

Various airlines have been experimenting with aviation biofuels.

In contrast, artificially raising airfares confers none of those efficiencies, instead simply burdening flyers with higher prices. Whatever the ultimate destination of the monies raised by the air-carbon tax — presumably, the EU Commission Subcommittee on Five-Year Plans for Pursuing Ecological Equity and Combatting International Capitalism, or somesuch — it will most assuredly not be a market-friendly place. Worse still, unlike with lighting and automobiles, consumers will not be freely choosing to spend more on a good or service they select from a menu of alternatives; instead, they’ll be forced to fork over more money for the same service.

This is the greens’ ultimate goal, the enviro endgame: curtail flying, and maybe curb it altogether, through higher ticket prices. It’s a fundamentally antigrowth approach, it ignores necessary tradeoffs between economic development and conservation, and it neglects the possibility of better, greener living through technology.

Boeing’s Glover put his finger on the issue, noting that environmental concerns “must be balanced with the economic consideration that our customers face: their number one cash expense is fuel. They demand improvements each time they order new aircraft.”

Likewise, writing in the New York Times in 2007, Giovanni Bisignani, CEO of the International Air Transport Association, argued that efficiency constitutes “the best way to take us to carbon-neutral growth,” while technology represents “the only way to zero emissions.”

So in the end it turns out that the supposedly advanced and progressive green movement clings bitterly to an irrational fear of scientific progress. Captain Kirk would be proud.

Michael M. Rosen, a contributor to THE AMERICAN, is an attorney and writer in San Diego.

FURTHER READING: Rosen also writes “The Constitution, in Text and Spirit,” “Are We Doomed No Matter Who Wins?” and “Will California Become a Right-to-Give State?” Jason Richwine asks “Would You Fly Liberty Air?” Sharon Kehnemui discusses “Global Air Travel and the EU Carbon Tax.” Roger Bate explains “Britain's High Green Taxes.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group