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On the fly… | Feature Story | Pique Newsmagazine

In early December, a friend from Denver and I both travelled to Las Vegas for a conference. I flew, he drove. We both worry about greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere and the strong evidence now emerging of climate disruption. Which of us should have more carbon guilt?

Flying shame, the phrase translated from its native Swedish, has come into vogue, at least in some circles. We zoom around the continent, sometimes across great oceans, because we can, and because it’s wonderful compressing great distances with so little effort, so quickly immersing ourselves in new geographies and cultures, and because, as was the case of my friend and I, we thought our work required it.

Quick, easy movement has a cost, though.

If emissions from airplanes were a country, they would rank somewhere between Japan and Germany. As of 2012, that represents about 1.5 per cent of global emissions (carbon dioxide equivalent), according to the World GHG Emissions Flow Chart 2014. Other sources, slicing the greenhouse gas pie differently, put it at 2.4 per cent. Residential buildings (11.2 per cent), cars and trucks (10.6 per cent) or even livestock and manure (6.5 per cent) still produce more.

This may understate the impact of airline emissions, though. Scientists suspect emissions at high altitudes have impacts double or more than those at ground level because of chemical interactions. Uncertainty remains about how contrails produced by airplanes may force radiative heating.

And then there’s this, summarized in a New York Times headline from October: “‘Worse Than Anyone Expected’: Air Travel Emissions Vastly Outpace Predictions.” The story said that air travel has dramatically outpaced gains in efficiency, meaning outsized growth in emissions. Aircraft might account for 25 per cent of the global carbon budget by 2050 as emissions from other sectors phase out combustion of fossil fuels, a 2019 report from United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization concluded.

The larger context is a rapid growth in air travel, an increase from 1.8 billion passenger trips globally to 4.3 billion trips between 2000 and 2008, according to the International Air Transport Association. It projects 8.2 billion passenger trips annually by 2040. North American air traffic has been part of that growth, but the larger story going forward will be China, India and other countries as they produce larger middle classes able to afford air travel. Even as aviation technology improves and emissions from other sectors fall, that growth will cause aviation to be responsible for 20 per cent of global emissions by mid-century.

Relatively few people cause most aircraft emissions. The International Council on Clean Transportation finds that high-income countries and upper-middle income countries are responsible for 90 per cent of emissions. The United States alone is responsible for 24 per cent of emissions. On a per-capita basis, Canadians look a little better. Less-developed countries that contain half the world’s population accounted for only 10 per cent of all passenger transport-related aviation CO2.

Even within the United States, the few fly frequently: 12 per cent of the population take 66 per cent of flights. “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. Just six per cent of the world’s population has ever flown.

The ski industry’s success of the last 60 years has been tightly tethered to airplanes wings. The ease of flight has been so important that many ski resorts have offered subsidies to airlines or at least income guarantees. This poses a conundrum. Snow sliders, perhaps more than most, embrace environmental values, not least the joys of snow. Greenhouse gases pose a direct and almost immediate threat to snow. If winter can still bring tremendous dumps of snow, the edges have begun fraying discernibly, most notably during spring. How can we harm that which we treasure? What is our responsibility?

Despite promising gains, including the beginning of electrified air travel for short distances, major technology solutions remain distant. Far more imminent may be dramatic climatic disruptions.

The worries about climate

What most worries climate scientists is not the evidence of climate change that has emerged so far, but what has already been locked into the system, to emerge later. Rising heat is well documented. The years between 2014 and 2018 were the five warmest years globally since record-keeping began in 1880, according to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. (Data for 2019 were not available as of this writing).

Yes, the climate on its own warms and cools. There is “very strong inter-annual and decadal variability,” a 2019 report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted. But some of the weather extremes have human fingerprints. Consider the wildfires in Australia that in just a few days in early January covered areas the size of Switzerland. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman notes, “climate change makes the kinds of extreme weather events we’ve been seeing much more likely.”

Can the January rainstorms of recent years in both Vail and Aspen be part of this? Possibly. Whistler, being much lower in elevation and close to the ocean, has always had winter rain. But Whistler’s rains are projected to become more common. The elevation on the ski mountains of Whistler and Blackcomb where rain turns to snow will rise.

Scientists have stipulated we must keep warming within two degrees Celsius or risk serious threat of destabilization. Better would be 1.5 degrees C. Temperatures have already climbed about one degree C globally, less in some places but more in others. Even if emissions were to stop tomorrow, the heat to be produced from existing atmospheric pollutants will likely increase temperatures another 0.5 degrees C globally.

Why the fuss about one or two degrees? Even a small change can have outsized impact. Consider that it took just drops of one or two degrees to plunge the Earth into the Little Ice Age, permitting Queen Elizabeth to routinely play ice games during the 16th century on a frozen Thames River. But then there were the Ice Ages, when glaciers marched southward across North America. The last glacial advance put parts of Canada under ice of up to four kilometres and extended southward across Wisconsin and other border states. It was accompanied by an average drop of five degrees C.

Change may be neither uniform nor linear. The IPCC’s 2019 special report noted that the American South has warmed very little. But places of higher elevations and northerly latitudes have had increases of five degrees C since the 1950s in Alaska and Western Canada. The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin in December wrote about cemeteries in coastal towns of Alaska being submerged by water as the Earth melts.

Scientists fret about feedback loops. For example, there’s the albedo effect. White reflects sunlight, but dark materials absorb it. This has been demonstrated in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains as storms have delivered dust from deserts of the American Southwest on the snowfields above Telluride, Silverton and other mountain towns. The dark-coloured dust causes the snow to melt more rapidly. Now consider what happens as glaciers recede and Arctic sea ice is replaced by dark-coloured sea water.

To stay within that margin we need to dramatically cut back emissions. Instead, we’re accelerating like a driver heading into a tight curve.

Consider what has happened since 1988. Even then, climate scientists had been becoming increasingly concerned about impacts of atmospheric pollutants. James Hansen, a one-time farm boy from Iowa, was summoned by a congressional committee chaired by Tim Wirth, a senator from Colorado who liked to spend time in Crested Butte (as he still does, although he’s no longer in the Senate). Hansen warned the senators of the risks of failing to curb emissions. Concentrations of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, then stood at 350 ppm, up from 280 ppm when the Industrial Revolution began in the coal-burning factories of England more than two centuries prior.

This year, they can be expected to near 420 ppm. They’ve more than doubled since Hansen’s warnings in the sweltering Senate hearing room in Washington. Instead of slowing our emissions, we continue to add by about three per cent a year, even increasing the rate of emissions in the last few years. Unless we have drastic changes, babies being born this year can expect, when entering college or trade school, to have global concentrations of 450 ppm.

Scientists in 2003, when I began poking my nose into climate change science, warned about greater risks of climate destabilizing at 450 ppm. Since then I’ve observed that scientists, for the most part, have tended toward conservatism. The reality has moved ahead of the predictions of consensus science. Wildfires in the northern boreal forests, such as the one that forced 88,000 residents around Alberta’s Fort McMurray to flee in 2016, have been one part of that reality.

A slow boat, or maybe a train?

Perhaps the fires above the Arctic Circle have unnerved the Swedes. In 2015, Olympic biathlon gold medalist 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, who thought the world revolved around his tweets. It’s fair to assume that some snow riders, with their greater attentiveness to environmental issues, follow the Swedish activist.

No boats being available to ski resorts, what’s the least carbon-tainted mode of travel? Bicycle, obviously, although catching a bus will do you well, too. But don’t be in a hurry. It’s nearly a five-day trip from Toronto to Vancouver (that’s before mentioning that Greyhound cut service in Western Canada two years ago, including to Whistler, although several smaller bus operators have stepped in to fill some of the void.)

How about trains? That’s how the early guests arrived at Sun Valley, Idaho, the Unites States’ first destination ski resort. The ski area was created by Averell Harriman, owner of the Union Pacific Railroad, which delivered passengers like Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn and other Hollywood celebrities after the lifts opened in 1936. Today, though, Ketchum has no train tracks. Direct flights into the local airport originate from cities as distant as Chicago.

Rails remain near several resorts, but with little consequence. At Colorado’s Winter Park, for example, rails emerge from a tunnel under the Continental Divide within a few dozen metres of ski slopes, but deliver just 10,152 travellers to the nearby depot in Fraser annually. A ski train from Denver adds 20,000 passengers annually for day trips.

Whistler visitors still have the option of training to Vancouver, before venturing to the resort up the Sea to Sky Highway. It’s a little faster than the Greyhound bus, 96 hours from Toronto to Vancouver. Plane travel comes in at five hours. But even round-trip economy flights produce 511.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency, which has a carbon-tracker website.

What makes environmental sense—and economic sense for ski areas—is that when customers fly, they linger. Whistler Councillor Arthur De Jong makes that point. Most who fly long distances already do. A study of Rocky Mountain resorts by Colorado-based RRC that was commissioned by the National Ski Areas Association found 40 per cent of out-of-state customers who flew stayed six days or longer. Of international travellers, 80 per cent stayed six days or longer. The difference was particularly evident among those who stayed between 10 and 22 nights at the resorts. “As would be expected, international visitors tend to have the longest stays, followed by out-of-state visitors (and then) in-state visitors,” says RRC’s David Becher.

Can improved technology diminish the climatic risk caused by air travel.? It is becoming more efficient in jet fuel used per passenger kilometres. In other words, how far does a passenger travel on one litre? It has improved from 13.75 passenger km per litre in 1991 to 22.5 passenger km today.

Not all airplanes are equal, though. You can bet that Air Force One, the jet that ferries Donald Trump and other U.S. presidents around the globe, with its executive desk and sleeping quarters, gets less than 22.5 passenger km. Flying first class has a carbon footprint three times or more greater than flying economy, owing to the greater space and the heavier seats.

How far you fly also matters. Shorter flights have a greater carbon intensity per mile than long-haul flights. A quarter of the fuel can be burned in getting from the ground to 30,000 feet (9,144 metres). That makes short-hop flights, say between Calgary and Edmonton or between Portland and Vancouver, the most energy intensive.

This rule only applies so far, though. The weight of fuel for very long-haul flights itself requires lots of energy to transport. WorldWatch Institute estimates that the most fuel-efficient distance for airlines is 2,600 miles (4,184 km), a little longer than the trip from New York to Los Angeles. But those added km still produce more fuel consumption and hence emissions. Shorter, if less efficient, is still less.

Driving, in some situations, could be worse than flying. It depends upon the vehicle and the number of occupants. Driving solo from Toronto to Whistler in a SUV, for example, will be more carbon intensive than flying economy. From San Francisco, though, it’s a tougher call. The best guide to travel comparisons I found was assembled by the Union of Concerned Scientists. (See chart on page 37).

For the water conference in Las Vegas, my friend from Denver rented a medium-sized electric hybrid that gets 100 km per seven litres (40 miles per gallon) and drove alone. I flew first to Reno, a woman next to me, her hair dreaded fashionably and dyed blonde at the ends, her perfume nearly leaving me gasping as I studied the slopes of Deer Valley and Park City below me. From Reno, I caught a flight to Las Vegas, glimpsing Lake Tahoe. Returning to Denver, I flew directly from Las Vegas even as my friend drove.

My research using the International Civil Aviation Organization’s website suggests that I had the lighter carbon footprint, 109.1 kg, compared to 151.5 kg for my friend in his rented hybrid car. Had my friend and I gone together by car, we would have had much lower carbon footprints.

My friend does buy carbon offsets when travelling, whether by car or by plane. Such offsets have become more common. Air travellers flying in and out of two mountain resort communities are now participating in an offset program call Good Traveler. Good Traveler was initiated in 2016 by the San Diego International Airport, which chose the Rocky Mountain Institute to manage it. It now counts 17 participating U.S. airports, including those in San Francisco, Seattle and New York City.

To qualify, offsets must demonstrate actions that can be verified and measured and prove additionality. Would this action have occurred or been avoided had the money not been invested? For example, the $8 for a round-trip flight from New York’s La Guardia Airport to Aspen collected by the New York airport goes to improve marine efficiency in the harbour there. The Jackson Hole Airport’s collections go to ensuring the native prairie at the May ranch in southeastern Colorado remains unplowed, continuing to sequester carbon. Telluride Bluegrass has also purchased offsets for all its festival-goers, with that money also going to the prairie preservation.

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

Can shiny gadgets save us?

Burning biofuels, instead of fossil fuels, would theoretically reduce emissions. But they have been unable to achieve scale. In 2018, just 2 million litres of alternative jet fuel were produced, compared to the 360 billion litres of jet fuel consumed that year. Too, some suspect that lifecycle carbon costs of biofuels make them little better than conventional fossil fuels.

Potential electrification has produced more excitement of late. All-electric planes began use in 2019 at a Denver-area airport for training of pilots. 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. Harbour Air, the sea-plane operator, hopes to begin commercial operations within two years after safety of the e-planes has been proven. It plans an eventual fleet of 40 e-planes for short hops along the Pacific Coast in the Seattle-Vancouver area.

Slower-moving, short-range and smaller aircraft is also the focus of a company called Ampaire. Think of the short-haul aircraft that shuttle passengers among the Hawaiian Islands. Peter Savagian, the company’s senior vice president of engineering, told an audience in Aspen in November that such short-haul flights were responsible for one-third of global air emissions.

Ampaire and another company, IKHANA, have also been awarded contracts by NASA with the mission of pioneering hybrid diesel/electric configurations for the 19-passenger Twin Otter.

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

But 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 (454 kg) of jet fuel yields about 14 times more energy than a 1,000-pound battery.

In his talk at the Aspen Institute event, “The Future of Aviation in a Carbon Constrained World,” Savagian counselled patience. “It will be decades before the largest aircraft are likely to be fully electrified,” he said. But when that happens, both airlines and consumers will benefit. His company projects savings of 90 per cent from electrified airplanes and maintenance costs cut 50 per cent. Those savings, in turn, will allow airlines to cut fares by 15 per cent, producing 40 per cent more volume.

Speaking at the same event, Aspen-area resident Amory Lovins—a co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute—maintained that airplane manufacturers could use carbon-fibre composite materials to make airplanes three to five times more energy efficient. “Many components made of metal today should not be,” Lovins said. He cited a simple $20 coffee pot. Replaced by a higher-tech model with energy consumption, it saves weight and hence fuel. “You take a pound out of a typical airplane and it’s worth around $2,000 in net-present value in fuel costs.”

Lovins has credentials. In 1976, amid the Arab oil embargos, he wrote a landmark essay published in Foreign Affairs magazine that talked about climate change, renewable energy and energy efficiency. Both businesses and governments responded sluggishly to his vison. Time has mostly proven him correct.

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. He deplored incrementalism that squanders fuel, efficiency and precious time. “The climate crisis will not wait,” he insisted. “Business as usual won’t work.”

Some think we’re in such a climatic pickle that we need to explore high-risk geoengineering strategies.

For example, can temperature rise of accumulated greenhouse gases be counteracted by reflecting more sunlight away from the Earth’s surface with a giant mirror in space? Another calls for spraying aerosols into the stratosphere, which is about 10 km above the Earth’s surface, simulating the effect of volcanic eruptions. A volcano eruption in the Philippines in 1991 cooled global temperature by 0.6 degrees C for about two years afterward.

Direct air capture is another idea, part of a broader set of solutions called negative emissions technology. This idea seeks to withdraw carbon dioxide or other greenhouse pollutants from the atmosphere. This is already being done in Squamish by a company called Carbon Engineering. The company was founded in 2009 by David Keith, then a professor at the University of Calgary (and now at Harvard University). Keith, with backing from Bill Gates and Murray Edwards, the financier of oil/tar sands extradition in Alberta (and co-owner of the Calgary Flames), succeeded in removing CO2 from the atmosphere in 2015 and converting it into fuel in 2017. Now, with backing from oil producers Chevron, Occidental and BHP, he’s trying to accomplish this at scale.

But Keith, in a 2013 book called A Case for Climate Engineering, warned against seeing geoengineering 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.

In aviation, though, it’s easier to create the problem than solutions. A case in point, is Denver International Airport, the fifth busiest airport in the United States and a hub for many connecting flights to ski towns. The airport plans to add 39 new gates to accommodate growing traffic. Nowhere in the storiesannouncing the expanding airlines was mention of the carbon footprint.

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