Traveling – in our time

Climate change is a fact, but how can the earth save itself from itself? Try flying less often

Traveling – in our time AFP Photo/Julian Stratenschulte/DPA Picture-Alliance

“Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away.” – Frank Sinatra

That was in 1958. In December 2015 there came a new tune. We are, all of us, expected to help reduce CO2 emissions and global warming – which we can do by not flying! The United Nations Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP21) in Paris that year was labeled a success, as 174 countries agreed to work on reducing carbon emissions. How do we do that? Where does the CO2 come from? Is it from flying? Does it mean that I should fly less?

Global CO2 emissions were estimated to be 37 billion tons per year in 2018, a figure we cannot really relate to or place in any familiar context. Not only is it very big, the figure is rising in spite of efforts to control it. That should be alarming. Some of this is from the burning of coal, gas and oil. Coal production has increased recently, mostly in China, and the world is producing more fossil oil than ever. “Air and road travel are primary drivers,” says the oil industry. While emissions keep growing, additional countries commit to reducing them. As of July 2018, 195 countries had signed the Paris agreement.

Of the emissions mentioned, about 13 billion tons come from oil, and of that one billion tons from aviation. The global production of fossil oil in 2018 was about 36.5 billion barrels (or about five billion tons). Oil people talk in millions of barrels per day, sometimes shortened to MMbpd. The current global output is around 100 MMbpd. They project it to be 112 MMbpd by 2040. No reduction there – that seems clear. What should we do? “Every year of rising emissions puts economies and the homes, lives and livelihoods of billions of people at risk,” said Christiana Figueres, who was the UN climate diplomat overseeing the Paris agreement. “We are in the age of exponentials.” Exponentials? She means that “factors,” whatever they are, that affect our normal life, are accelerating, galloping away at a tempo we cannot always predict or imagine. Renewable energy and electric cars are spreading rapidly, but the extreme weather impacts of climate change are moving even faster.

The lady should know. The first comprehensive report on CO2 and the risk of global warming was published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) back in 1990. The report predicted a global temperature increase of about 32 degrees per decade with “business as usual” – and that seems to have happened. The report suggested a reduction of CO2 emissions. There have been no reductions, but a 60 percent increase, and CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have gone up from 353 to 411 ppm (parts per million).

Some more numbers for us to consider: of the total CO2 emissions of 37 billion tons, 28 percent is estimated to come from the transportation sector, and a similar proportion from electricity generation. Industry contributes with 22 percent and agriculture with 9 percent. The 28 percent from transportation includes air travel, which accounts for slightly more than 2 percent, an estimate based on the volumes of aviation fuel used up. That percentage borders on the insignificant. If our desire is to reduce emissions and global warming, there must be CO2 sources other than flying to attack with
a greater likelihood of an impact, right? So maybe we can continue flying as we are used to – and if not, what?

However, science – as usual, unable to leave things alone; that is the nature of science, isn’t it? – has found that emissions from aircraft in high-altitude flights have a stronger greenhouse effect than the 2 percent figure suggests. Perhaps the effect corresponds to 4 percent. The doubled magnitude would justify an inquiry into the potential for reduction and probably prompt us to fly less. Following up on this becomes like walking through a maze. Additional statistical information is expected to clarify the picture, but instead makes it more complicated as we walk along. It seems that we are facing rapidly moving goal posts – a small forest of them, in fact, confusing and in themselves typical of our era of exponential acceleration. For example, by 2035 the number of air trips is expected to double compared to 2016, from 3.8 billion to 7.2 billion trips or tickets sold (and that prediction is most certainly arrived at without any regard to COP21). The annual growth is currently 4.7 percent, according to some
sources. The industry claims that through its efforts to rationalize, build better planes and so forth, CO2 emissions per flight have been reduced by about 2 percent annually.

But when we look at the totality, it still means that emissions from flying keep growing by some 3 percent per year. How do we reduce emissions, then? And consider this: four out of five people on earth have never flown in an airplane, and would most likely want to try it, and probably soon, including in Indonesia. So the flight trip prediction above may very well be a severe underestimate. In addition, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), with the role of promoting safe, regular and economic air transportation, estimates that airfares are 63 percent lower in 2017 than in 1995. They are expected to fall further. That will of course increase the attraction and the affordability, and will raise demand. Add to this new, highly competitive low-cost carriers, and a burgeoning middle class in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In sum, we will see the numbers of flights and travelers soaring up, up and away. It seems the Sinatra call prevails. Can we expect aviation to contribute to the reduction of CO2 emissions that the Paris agreement proposes?

Most movable people such as our readers hesitate at the thought of cutting down on air travel. It has become natural, convenient, a habit. If we look at commercial activities in large, sprawling countries such as Russia, the United States, Canada, China, India and Indonesia, business and social/technical
development would be seriously constrained if domestic flights somehow were restricted. So it’s not a good idea to intervene here. It is more productive to let that sector follow its course, and it is reasonable to expect increased flying.

But what about tourism? Tourism has been estimated to represent 88 percent of all airplane tickets sold. Many see leisure travel as an unnecessary and even harmful luxury, so here should be room for emission reductions. In line with this, environmental activists have focused their criticism on frivolous vacationing in faraway places. In Sweden (I will refer to Sweden below, as an off-center example of the reasoning in parts of the Western world), as it seems a country with a passion for clean international conscience – well, more on that later – the debate has reached such heights  that in 2018 the phrase “flight shame” was incorporated into the daily vocabulary. The phrase implies that a responsible Swede should be ashamed of flying to Thailand (a favored winter vacation destination among Swedes for the last 40 years!) for a suntan, generating 1.23 tons of CO2 in the process (according to an app conveniently available on your smartphone). So maybe here is the opportunity we are looking for to reduce flying.

Meanwhile, Thailand, like Indonesia, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries, are working as hard as they can to attract more tourists from the United States and Europe, and recently also from China. In the destination countries, tourism is seen as animportant source of income, plain and simple. So the supply-side expands and so does the demand: the Americans and the Europeans are more interested than ever. This looks promising and visitor numbers are growing. It’s a win-win situation if ever there was one, were it not for CO2 emissions.

Getting back to Sweden (by air, of course, what else) as an illustration, the suggestion to the Swedish vacationer that they should modify their travel habits for the sake of reduced greenhouse gas emissions is not really received with enthusiasm. But it cannot be brushed away, either. Nor can the sinister forecasts of what continued CO2 emissions might bring about. Do I have to sacrifice
something here? Activists tell me yes. On the sidelines, a discussion on a sociopolitical or philosophical level has cropped up. Is it realistic to expect citizens of a liberal democratic society to voluntarily cut down on air travel and fossil fuel consumption of a meaningful magnitude, when we are so accustomed to the conveniences?

Camps have formed, accusing each other of denial and delusion on one side, and cryptototalitarian scheming toward the limitation of free choice on the other. Here is clearly a deeper dilemma, a dilemma that any political system eventually will have to face. A change in a pleasant lifestyle, no matter how urgent, cannot be imposed without resentment. It needs to be brought about through cultivation. And that needs time. But here come the scientists from the IPCC, who supply the information basis for the Paris agreement, to say: “Sorry, we do not have time.” Significant reductions must be achieved within 12 years, starting now. So now what?

Some changes are under way. But still, some examples from Sweden. Stockholm Arlanda Airport is expanding. Anna Hagberg, the information manager at Ving, one of Sweden’s biggest travel agencies, says the company does not notice any tendency toward decreased flying, but that environmental and sustainability requirements from passengers have increased. “Conscious travel” is the big trend, she says. She does not say exactly what that involves, but it could mean savings here and there, such as no printed menus on the plane, no plastic straws in the drinks, less air-conditioning and fewer high-powered speedboats at the destination. Just greenwashing to relieve one’s not-so-good conscience? Or a sign of insight that goes with a general desire among ordinary consumers to contribute to reduced greenhouse gases in everyday life. Per J Andersson, editor of Vagabond, a Swedish travelers monthly, believes that few people will stop traveling, but that in the near future many will opt out of flying when practical alternatives are available. They also report that international air travel from Sweden is decreasing. Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage climate activist, takes the train. So does climate professor Kevin Anderson. They both conclude that flying must decrease. They form a category of their own, though. At present, all signs are that the voluntary reductions in flying will be far from enough. So what should we do?

On the other hand, is it right to look at the matter as just a quest to reduce flight tourism? Is a reduction in tourism only positive? How does that sit in a globalized world and a contemporary context? A basic point to consider is that when it comes to longdistance destinations, as it almost always does
for people in the North, and as it is evolving among tourists from the South, means of travel other than flying are not realistic. The choice then stands between flying or staying home, or staying in the region. The way it looks, we need to accept increased flying for long-distance tourism as a fact.

To look at tourism from another angle, I like to contemplate the situation when the Swedish Tourist Association was founded in 1885 by pioneers who knew they had a mission. The association settled for the motto “Know Your Country!” Not very original, but sound; we should think of it as an extension of the motto from ancient Greece: “Know thyself.” It shouldn't be different now. Although today the perspective has widened to a planetary one: “Know your earth!” We should consider that the better people understand other people’s way of life, and the interaction of man and the environment, and the issues that go with that interaction, the better it is. And the easier it will be in a democratic society to gain acceptance for the interventions in everyday life, and the reductions in energy and raw materials, that we now understand are necessary to bring down CO2 emissions and our “footprint” as a whole.

But we should also consider the positive impacts that carefully managed tourism can bring to the residents of tourist destinations. Note that aside from the CO2 issue, local and central

governments need to regulate – foreign agents cannot do that – to prevent “over- tourism” in the most popular destinations. A much-publicized case is Boracay, in the Philippines, where the government eventually decided to close down tourism to the island for half a year, just to clean up and establish the infrastructure required to maintain the site’s attractiveness. Just recently, the Indonesian government took a similar decision regarding Komodo Island in Komodo National Park. Anyway, the conclusion is that we should appreciate air travel for the good things it brings.

This less chemistry-oriented and more human interest angle to the issue was forwarded in the Swedish evening paper Expressen last February, when the national parliamentarian and soon-to-be European Union parliamentarian Emma Weissner of the Center Party, wrote in an inspired tone: “The climate issue is not about fighting curiosity and adventure.” We should reduce our flying, all right, and adapt our behavior, but it is the transportation sector as a whole that should be scrutinized. To reduce mobility, traveling and trade is wrong. As to technology, alternative solutions should be pursued, and we should stop subsidizing fossil fuel. Here she refers to a massive complex of arrangements that are simply too convoluted to dive into in this essay, but also to the fact that aviation fuel – different from any other fuel – is tax exempt, based on an international agreement under the auspices of IATA. Weissner would find that any attempt to change the subsidies would be met with resistance. Her conclusion is that shaming is not right, and we should not cut too deeply into tourism. This is a quite powerful message that sounds more like: “Don’t worry, things will be all right.” But no matter how pleasant this sounds, it does not reflect the essence of the Paris agreement. And the “alternative technical solutions” are de facto, not operational. So where does this lead?

Now we approach territories where policy decisions by governments are necessary to move us ahead or upward or downward, as the case may be, on the issue of greenhouse gases. We have already noted that restrictions are likely to be unpopular. To continue with the Swedish example, the government has confirmed in the state budget a general tax on air travel introduced some time ago. But it looks more like window dressing. The tax is so low that most travelers will not be deterred. According to the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, this tax may already have led to a slight “decrease in the rate of increase” in flying in Sweden – yes, a decrease of the increase – which unfortunately does not mean much, especially in the global context.

A general tax makes the entire business more expensive, with no incentive toward specific improvements, but might lead to risky cost cutting. Fuel cost represents 30 percent to 40 percent of the total operating cost. Tax on fossil fuel should therefore be preferred, since it will prod the industry toward reduced fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. As mentioned, IATA opposes such taxation, and IATA does not depend on the governments that signed the Paris agreement. There is no tax on fossil aviation fuel at present, certainly not in Sweden. Where does this lead us?

The aviation industry works on fossil fuel savings through three approaches: the technical development of airplanes and engines, shortened routes and more economical ways of maneuvering the planes, and mixing biofuel in the tanks. At present the industry may be at a plateau with regard to planes and engines. But it should be possible to reduce emissions by mixing in biofuel. (A percentage mix of up to 25 is suggested; there seems to be two ideas put forth: one to really mix fossil and biofuel in the tanks, the other to keep separate tanks and alternate the two types of fuel as conditions like speed and altitude change – this is only said to indicate some of the complexity in both aviation and fuel chemistry.) If produced in specified ways from suitable raw material, biofuel burns more or less like fossil fuel – although the power output may be a bit less. The desirable point here is that biofuel will not increase the atmospheric content of CO2 (in the long term at least) since the corresponding CO2 amount is absorbed by the plants that produce the feed stock for the biofuel. We conclude that technical development needs to turn toward biofuel. Let the governments provide the right incentives so that we can continue flying.

But we need to note that in the global perspective, a 25 percent reduction in fossil fuel will soon be eaten up – in 10 years or so – by the big increase in traffic we predicted above. We estimated it to be about 4.7 percent per year. So for a more long-lasting impact, we need a higher biofuel content. Jet engines can be made to accommodate that. Now we are definitely into a territory where we as individuals cannot really influence development. The governments and the airplane manufacturers need to work with technical innovators. Our discussion needs to shift track.

Biofuel can be divided into two types: “conventional” and “advanced.” The conventional ones are essentially vegetable oils, whereas advanced biofuels are produced from biomass such as farm residues in the form of straw, leaves and stalks, or from “garbage” that otherwise goes into a landfill. This requires relatively sophisticated chemical processes (that must not be costly) where the desired final output is a carbohydrate liquid. Can the production be sustainable? And can we find big enough volumes of feed stock for full-scale implementation? Positive answers, of course, mean the climate will not be jeopardized and that air traffic can continue to expand, which is what governments, airlines, tourist operators and agents, passengers – almost everyone – want.

The only example of conventional aviation biofuel production on a routine basis mentioned in the news until now is a plant in California that refines used cooking oil from French fries into something that can be mixed into aviation fuel. That may not fly us very far. (Until now, other vegetable oils such as palm oil, allocated to traffic, go into trucks as biodiesel.)

As to advanced biofuels, many research and development projects are under way and that is indeed positive news. An example is the Airbus JetBlue project in the US state of Alabama, where biofuel from farm residues, not including soybeans, I assume, is refined into aviation fuel and used in regular flights. Airbus seems very confident about the future of this kind of fuel extraction and plans to expand soon to new supply centers in Europe. A challenge is how to straighten the supply chains to keep down the cost of feedstock, and also how to minimize the cost of the process. The all-important question right now, in the face of steadily rising CO2 emissions, is this: how fast can this production be scaled up? No clear answer has been given.

Let us look at Sweden again – a small country where the dimensions of the problem may seem manageable, and where it should be easy to see what we are up against. A major potential for biofuel is considered to rest in the forest, more precisely in treetops and branches from felling sites. An advantage here is that the food conflict does not arise.

Those residues, until recently left to decay on the forest floor, are estimated to correspond to about 40 TWh of energy per year. About 20 TWh of this is already taken, though, for municipal heating through direct burning – a simple process when compared to the production of biofuels. The truth seems to be that a technically feasible process for extracting biofuel from Swedish forest residues is available but has not yet shown that it is economically competitive or can be scaled up. Add to this that the power reserve in Swedish forest residues (the 20TWh mentioned correspond to less than 12 million barrels of oil per year) are, so to say, a drop in the ocean, as they would reduce fossil emissions from aviation by no more than 0.5 percent. The total consumption of aviation fuel for 2019 is expected to be 2.3 billion barrels. Clearly the search for biofuel sources of sustainable volumes is a challenge and needs to be extended all over the planet. We have not really come very far at all in our search for something that is scalable, sustainable and emission-reducing so that we can continue flying. So now what?

Under the category “conventional biofuel,” Indonesia and Malaysia are supplying the vast majority of palm oil to the global market. The total export volume is in the order of 60 million tons per year. Of this, about 55 percent is produced in Indonesia and 30 percent in Malaysia. Of Indonesia’s exports to the EU, more than half goes into biodiesel. The potential of the already planted areas is considerable, and there is space for planting even more.

However, it should be noted that clearing rain forest for palm plantations is causing forest destruction and biodiversity losses, loss of habitat for orangutans and other wildlife, erosion, landslides, deteriorated water quality, forest fires lit when clearing the land and so forth. Planting oil palm has been identified as one of the key drivers of rain forest destruction and peatland drainage in Southeast Asia. This causes the release of CO2 from forest land due to burning and natural decomposition in the wake of land clearing. In particular, the clearing and drainage of peat forest for conversion to plantations accelerates the decomposition of the peat soil. The peat stores CO2 captured during thousands of years of forest growth, and it should best be kept where it is. The use of palm oil as fuel can therefore on balance not assure reduced CO2 emissions. It may even make them increase. In this light, palm oil does not help us in our “to fly or not to fly” agony. Private ventures working on biofuel development for the aviation industry agree. And this is also a reported sentiment among ordinary customers.

This is a side issue, but of interest to Indonesia, against the backdrop of Norway (not an EU member) as the first country in the world to declare that it does not intend to import palm oil for use as biofuel. The net CO2 reduction is not secured, as outlined above. The move takes a skilled diplomat to explain. Norway’s main export is fossil fuel. But that is another story. Based on similar reasoning, in March 2019, the European Commission concluded that palm oil cannot be counted as renewable fuel in the EU’s sustainable fuel balance. A delegated regulation was adopted, which classifies palm oil as a high-risk, unsustainable commodity. Now, we have definitely moved from individual responsibility and choice and into international politics.

The Indonesian government has formally expressed objections to the European Commission’s decision, on 10 counts. Quite understandably, the ban is seen as a way for the EC to protect the market for vegetable oils produced within Europe. The Indonesian government points out, among other things, that oil palm requires much less land to meet market needs. There is no question that palm oil has brought much economic progress to Indonesia. The Indonesian government places oil palm plantations in the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and intends to bring the case to the attention of the World Trade Organization. How this plays out against the Paris agreement’s target to reduce CO2 emissions remains to be seen. This can only be sorted out among governments.

The total global consumption of fossil oil at present is about five billion tons per year, and as we have seen it continues to rise in spite of efforts to reduce it. Approximately 315 million tons are used in aviation. If we wish to replace 25 percent of aviation fuel with biofuel, that means we need to find biofuel that corresponds to almost 800 million tons of fossil fuel. (All numbers here are estimates, but hopefully they show the proportions and can guide our conclusions.) We can now see that palm oil could at most cover 10 percent of the present aviation needs, so it would not make much difference. And that becomes even more apparent when we remember that all other sectors, and especially road transportation, also look for biofuel to reduce CO2 emissions. A representative of an enterprise working to produce aviation biofuel from farm residues claimed recently that there would be a need for 50 new biofuel plants every year to keep up with air traffic demand. I have no idea how such a number is arrived at, nor how realistic such a target could be. I just mention it as another illustration of the magnitude of the challenge. Where is the way forward? Will this tiresome “on one hand, and on the other hand” seesaw exploration help us out?

The big question that will not go away is this: do we have enough biofuel sources, and can we mobilize enough biofuel processing capacity in time to maintain air travel, while reducing CO2 emissions? No, it does not look like that, at least not in the short term.

Let us take a look from another side. Reducing CO2 emissions is the agreed target, with the eventual objective of reducing CO2 content in the atmosphere. If the content is above a certain value, the global temperature will leave its current relatively comfortable level and rise, perhaps to dangerous levels. The IPCC suggests we should not let it rise above 35 degrees Fahrenheit.

So instead, can we reduce the CO2 content by capturing some of it and storing it in a safe place? Up until now, our forests have done that for us by storing CO2 in the wood and in the forest soil. But many forests have been cut down and the area is reduced, with a double effect: when they were cut down they released CO2 that now remains in the air, and the forest area that still stands has less capacity
to capture CO2. But as it is, forests are the best machinery we have available to do this. Expanded forests may be the best guarantee for our survival. Open land all over the world could be planted with trees for carbon capture. It will be costly and time consuming. There are studies showing that, unfortunately, it will not be enough given the enormous amounts of carbon that have been released since the beginning of industrialization. But we must keep in mind that it will be an important help.

In some fashion, it is already being done. The airline Garuda Indonesia, as part of its Garuda green strategy, sets aside money for the establishment of tree plantations in areas where there is land and an organization capable of doing the field work. The growing trees will absorb CO2 from the air and in that way compensate for the increase in traffic and emissions. This is called carbon offset, and there is even a certain trade developed where emission-generating industries, for example in Europe (with less land and labor available), pay an organization in another country to plant and protect trees that absorb CO2. The volume growth of the trees can be estimated and compared to the quantities of fossil fuel the industry is consuming. Someone joked that we pay somebody else to diet for us. That is not entirely fair, because if the trees survive and grow, they very much serve the purpose. So far, the idea has not gained to the extent of having any measurable impact, and the carbon content keeps rising.

There are also methods for CO2 capture by means of chemical processes such as “enhanced weathering,” where a mineral rich in calcium is made to bind the atmospheric coal as carbonate. This is a “natural” process well known from geology. In a way, it is the reverse of burning a carbon-rich fuel, which means that much energy has to be applied. Normally, we would get that energy from burning fossil fuels, which would of course not make sense. The energy must be found elsewhere. There is a pilot plant functioning in Iceland using geothermal energy to drive the process. The scaling up to a measurable impact will be costly, and it will be lengthy unless governments take drastic action. It still looks like we do not have a solution that can be applied in time. As I hope I have shown above, it more looks like “one damn thing after the other” – things that are interdependent, and require consensus on restrictions, and somehow slip out of the  decision agenda.

What have we learned?

The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is rising. This is a measurable fact. The effect of this phenomenon on our climate is not yet fully agreed upon. But a consensus has crystalized, not least at the COP21 in Paris, accepting the warnings of scientists that we have a problem. And that we need to do something about it.

But who needs to do what? Individuals can reduce their flying and lead by example. But governments need to offer incentives for biofuel production and technical advancement, as suggested. On the other hand, strong interests are at work to expand air traffic in the name of economic growth. We have mentioned IATA, as a trade organization of the aviation industry, working for increased and cheaper flying. And where is there a government that wants to slow down tourism or business in general? Big famous banks continue to finance an accelerating extraction of fossil fuel, including oil, because it is profitable. (To what extent this profit is genuine is another story. It is known that a system of direct and indirect subsidies is at play that seems to favor fossil rather than renewable fuels.)

To try another tack, we know now that the richest 10 percent of the world’s population causes about 50 percent of the world’s consumption-derived emissions, meaning not only from traffic but also from the production of consumer goods and general lifestyle.We can safely assume that this population stratum also does most of the flying. It has been estimated that if the 10 percent could be convinced to reduce their general consumption to a level corresponding to, for example, that of the average EU citizen, then global CO2 emissions could be reduced by 30 percent. That would have a significant impact. Combine that with tree planting and gradual conversion to biofuel and we’d be getting somewhere.

Can we get together as a global community and sort this out? Develop the production of carbon neutral energy and convince the richest 10 percent to reduce their emission-generating activities to the level of the average EU citizen? This will need a reframing of values.

If any conclusion can be drawn from all of the above, maybe it could be something like this: The challenge is enormous, as I am sure the numbers above show, and there is no quick and easy solution in sight. What we can do as individuals will only have a marginal effect. Even so, we should consider cutting down on our flying to set an example in front of our leaders, and for the reason that climate issues in all likelihood will only get worse. But to have a real effect we need to support the scientists and push our leaders to draft the right policies.

Restrictions on flying will not be appreciated. Other approaches need to be found. We all know what to do, says Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, we just do not know how to get re-elected after we have done it. The policies need to focus on incentives that promote a shift from fossil fuels to the use of sustainably produced biofuels in quantities that meet the big and growing demand. The policies need to influence the wealthiest 10 percent, who are best placed to make an early difference.

To quote the American writer and activist Susan Sontag, “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” The truth is, of course, that our bucket list isn’t getting any shorter. And that is precisely the way it should be. We are never done. Curiosity stays with us, new minds enter and new ideas come up. We will not say “game over.”

Lars-Gunner Blomkvist is a retired forester from Sweden who enjoys flying and has decades of forestry experience in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia.

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