A View from the Hill: Climate questions

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I suggested to my brother recently that we consider booking a winter trip to somewhere warm. With the suddenly cold weather, he liked the idea.

“It’s important to get to warm weather and sun sometime during the winter, but how?” he replied.

How? From Maine, by airplane.

Then he asked, “Does carbon footprint matter?”

Andrew MarstersI’d been thinking the same thing lately as people I know boasted about their flying trips hither and yon. I didn’t want to spoil the party by telling them that, for the environment in a time of rapid climate change, there aren’t many dirtier ways to get somewhere than flying in a commercial aircraft.

I also thought about it when some regular 5:30 a.m. flight rumbled into the sky just as I was waking up.

I wondered, where the heck are they going and why? Vacation? Business? Doesn’t  anyone ask themselves, “Does carbon footprint matter?”

From my home I can see and hear the flights taking off from the Portland International Jetport, and I find the amount of traffic surprising and disconcerting.

But clearly, people are flying with a vengeance.

While passenger numbers haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels at the Jetport, particularly to the highs of 2018 and 2019, they are close. In 2021, more than 1.7 million passengers passed through the Jetport, more than double the 2020 numbers. This year’s numbers should be similar.

And it’s not just here. On a clear afternoon, the blue skies over Portland are etched with contrails of numerous transatlantic flights headed for Boston or New York.

TSA checkpoint data shows that on Nov. 14 of this year 2,263,943 passengers flew in the U.S., an increase of 250,000 over the same day in 2021. This year, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport filled 4.7 million seats, surpassing for the first time Dubai and Tokyo, according to OAG, an airline data firm.

And the airlines are eating it up and swallowing record profits. Two years ago the industry was on the edge of collapse, staying alive only because of $50 billion in federal bailouts.

“Nobody would have expected the industry was going to be where it is today,” Scott’s Cheap Flights founder Scott Keyes told the Washington Post.

Who are all these passengers? Maybe you. Maybe family, friends and neighbors. Just folks, with a few business travelers mixed in. But not many. Corporate air travel is down 20 percent from pre-pandemic levels, the story reported.

In fact, much of the increase in passengers has been fueled by pandemic-driven cultural changes.

“With hybrid work, every weekend could be a holiday weekend,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told the Post. “People want to travel and have experiences, and hybrid work environments untether them from the office and give them the newfound flexibility to travel far more often than before.”

So people are flying because they want to, and they are apparently not stopping to ask, “Does carbon footprint matter?”

If they did, they might not like the answer.

According to the BBC, aircraft are responsible for about 2.4 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions. Together with those water vapor contrails I mentioned earlier, that leaves the industry “responsible for around 5 percent of global warming.”

“For those of us who do fly,” the BBC said, “it is likely to make up a significant slice of our personal carbon footprint. This is because, mile for mile, flying is the most damaging way to travel for the climate.”

Keep in mind that in developed countries like the US, only about half the population flies in any given year. And only about 20 percent of the world’s population has ever flown. That leaves a lot of room for growth, and airline builders are bracing for it, ramping up production to meet growth.

And while the builders are working on improving efficiency of aircraft, industry growth far outpaces those improvements.

“You have fuel efficiency improvements on the order of one percent per year,” industry expert Dan Rutherford told the BBC, “and flights are increasing six percent.”

I think my brother has his answer.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning Maine journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.

 

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