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The carbon cost of tourism and travel

Air travel prices have dived in this time of BC, what a New York Times columnist calls "Before Corona." But where would you fly? And besides, can you even afford to buy cheap airline tickets now? It’s a different world.
CRJ at Sunrise, Bozeman
Sunrise in Bozema, Montana. ALLEN BEST PHOTO

Air travel prices have dived in this time of BC, what a New York Times columnist calls "Before Corona."

But where would you fly? And besides, can you even afford to buy cheap airline tickets now?

It’s a different world. But some day – maybe this summer, maybe next year – we’ll start returning to our far-traveling ways.

When that happens, the Bow Valley and other mountains resorts will have to again grapple with how to reconcile their environmental ideals, lofty as Tunnel Mountain, with the ugly truths of emissions produced by transportation, including aviation.

If emissions from airplanes had been a country Before Corona, they would have ranked somewhere between Japan and Germany. The world’s fleet of 25,000 commercial aircraft generated 2.4 per cent of all global emissions (carbon dioxide equipment) in 2018, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation. That percentage was projected to rise rapidly in the next several decades.

Some of us contribute more than others. The United States alone produces 24 per cent of the worlds’ emissions, followed by China, the United Kingdom, Japan and Germany. Within the U.S., 12 per cent of the population take two-thirds of flights, a percentage likely mirrored in Canada.

“Although huge homes and hulking SUVs are familiar symbols of emissions excess, frequent flyers are among the people with the very biggest carbon footprints,” says Robert Henson in The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change.

It’s hard to say how the pandemic will affect air travel. What can be said with greater certainty is that major technological innovations remain distant. More imminent may be dramatic climatic disruptions.

You probably head that 2019 was another year globally for the books, the second hottest in records that go back to 1880. It’s part of a pattern.

Swedes have been at the forefront of this movement they call flying shame. Maybe it was the fires above the Arctic Circle. In 2015, Olympic biathlon gold medallist Bjørn Ferry committed to stop flying. Some Swedish celebrities have followed suit. To avoid flying, the adolescent climate activist Greta Thunberg last summer sailed to the United States to call for urgent action. She has a following, as was acknowledged by Time Magazine with its Person of the Year designation, displacing a churlish Donald Trump. 

Of course, Alberta has had its problems with wildfire, too. Remember the May 2016 fire that sent most of Fort McMurray’s 80,000 residents fleeing for their lives down the two-lane highway to Edmonton?


What to do short of riding a bike? Take a bus, if possible, or a train.

OK, what about driving versus flying?

First, like cars, air travel has become more efficient. Not all air travel is equal, though. Your own private jet? Monster carbon footprint. Even first-class commercial travel has three times the carbon footprint of economy.

How far you fly also matters. Shorter flights have a greater carbon intensity per mile than long-haul flights. A quarter of the fuel on a single trip can be burned in getting from the ground to 9 or 10 kilometers altitude. That makes short-hop flights, say between Calgary and Edmonton, more energy intensive.

This rule only applies so far, though. The fuel for every long-haul flights itself requires energy for transport, because of its weight. WorldWatch Institute estimates that the most fuel-efficient distance for airlines is 4,200 kilometers, roughly the distance from Montreal to Vancouver. But those added kilometers still produce more fuel consumption and hence greater emissions. 

Carbon dioxide emissions can be calculated on the carbon-tracker website maintained by the International Civil Aviation Organization, an agency in the United Nations. 

Driving, in some situations, could be worse than flying. It depends upon the vehicle and the number of occupants. Driving a Denali solo from Canmore to Toronto certainly should have you pausing frequently along the way to seek carbon absolution.

In December, I flew from Denver to Las Vegas cramped next to a woman with dyed blond dreadlocks and a perfume that tested my gag reflex. Arriving in Vegas, I discovered a friend from down the street in Denver had rented a medium-sized electric hybrid that gets 40 miles per gallon and had driven alone. After the conference, we returned home as we had gone, he by car and me by plane. 

Who had more cause for carbon guilt? As best I can tell, using the carbon-tracker website, I produced 109 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions to linger in the atmosphere of a few hundred or maybe a few thousand years, compared to 151 kilograms for my friend in his rented hybrid car. 

You might imagine this in terms of bowling balls. I created 16 of them and he hefted 21 bowling balls into the sky. 

Had my friend and I gone together by car, the car would clearly have won out. But we didn’t know of each other’s plans. Plus, I had been in Florida the day he set out from Denver by car. It gets complicated.

My friend does buy carbon offsets when traveling, whether by car or by plane.  Such offsets have become more common. Air travelers flying in and out of both Jackson Hole and Aspen are now participating in an offset program called Good Traveler. Qualifying offsets must demonstrate actions that can be verified and measured. Would this action have occurred or been avoided had the money not been invested? 

The Jackson Hole Airport’s collections go to ensure that the native prairie at a ranch in Colorado remains unplowed, continuing to sequester carbon. Telluride Bluegrass has also purchased offsets for all its festival-goers for the same prairie preservation.

If offsets allow us to feel better about our travel, some analysts have been skeptical. We need actual reductions of emissions, they say, and not just offsets.

The slow progress of e-planes

Biofuels remain just a tiny puddle in the sea of jet fuel now burned to allow us to pull down the shade and go to sleep, whether clouds or glorious mountains outside our plane windows.

Electrification of planes has produced excitement of late. In December, a Vancouver company attracted international attention when it conducted a 10-minute demonstration flight of a 17-passenger seaplane retrofitted to operate on batteries. It expects to eventually have a fleet of 40 e-planes for short hops along the Pacific Coast in the Seattle-Vancouver area.

Advances in battery storage will be needed to make electrified flights possible for longer distances and larger planes. Battery storage has improved. A Tesla 3 battery has 10 times as much energy density as that used in the EV 1, an early electric vehicle that went into production in 1996. Energy from batteries has been increasing eight per cent annually.

Much, much more will be needed. Even the newest batteries hold just two per cent that of liquid fuel, Wired magazine explained in a 2017 story. In other words, 1,000 pounds of jet fuel yields about 14 times more energy than a 1,000-pound battery.

Peter Savagian, the senior vice president of engineering for a company called Amkpaire, told an audience in Aspen during November that his company sees opportunities in smaller, short-range and smaller aircraft such as the Vancouver firm envisions or as could be used to shuttle passengers among the Hawaiian Islands. 

Savagian also counselled patience. “It will be decades before the largest aircraft are likely to be fully electrified,” he said at the symposium, titled “The Future of Aviation in a Carbon Constrained World.” 

Can we afford to wait? Aspen-area resident Amory Lovins—a co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute—maintained at the same forum that airplane manufacturers could use carbon-fiber composite materials to make airplanes three to five times more energy efficient. “Many components made of metal today should not be,” Lovins said. 

Price signals are needed to spur airlines to more rapid adoption of fuel-saving technology.

“Without a clear market signal, vendors and investors will largely stay on the sidelines,” Lovins said. 

As he was speaking in Aspen, not Banff, he did not address Alberta’s carbon tax, nor that of British Columbia.

Lovins deplored incrementalism that squanders fuel, efficiency and precious time.

“The climate crisis will not wait,” he insisted. “Business as usual won’t work.”

In aviation, as in so much else, it’s easier to create the problem than solutions. 

Some think we’re in such a climatic pickle that we need to explore high-risk geo-engineering strategies. Think giant mirrors in space to reflect sunlight or a giant aerosol spraying in the stratosphere to simulate the effect of volcanic eruptions. A volcano eruption in the Philippines in 1991 cooled global temperature by 0.6 degrees Celsius for about two years afterward.  

Direct air capture is another idea, part of a broader set of solutions called negative emissions technology. One of the entrepreneurs engaged in this research is David Keith. In 2010, when I met him, he was teaching at the University of Calgary. The year before, he had started a company called Carbon Engineering.

A prototype of the technology was set up at Squamish, a town 40 minutes from Whistler. In 2018, after three years of work, the company announced small-scale success. 

Now at Harvard University, Keith published a book in 2013 called “A Case for Climate Engineering.” Despite the title, he warned against seeing geo-engineering as the solution to climate change. “Our gadget-obsessed culture is all too easily drawn to a shiny new tech fix,” he said. Best, he said, would be to avoid creating emissions.

For tourism, indeed all of civilization, the carbon costs of travel are a conundrum. The tourism industry depends upon travel, obviously. But you can make a compelling case that the world is better off when we can see each other as human beings, not far-off “thems.” But assuming there will be a resumption of air travel once this ugly virus crawls into its hole, we need to more fully come to grips with the climatic cost of our easy travel.