Why is aircraft CO2 majick?

A post from Eli about offsetting CO2 emissions from flights raises once again an issue in my mind, which I don’t think I’ve whined about here (do remind me if I have): why is aircraft CO2 special, and requires offsetting, whereas heating your house, driving to work, and all the other things you do to emit CO2, don’t.

Is it because people who fly clearly have too much money and so can afford to bung in a bit more for guilt-geld? Is it because a lot of people fly on business (which includes scientists) and so can get the indulgences free with the flights from their employers? Or is it because that although its manifest that we don’t have enough offsetting projects to do *all* our CO2, we can pretend to believe that we have enough to cover plane travel?

42 thoughts on “Why is aircraft CO2 majick?”

  1. Bearing in mind the usual caveats that I am not an expert on anything, it seems to me there are several reasons aircraft CO2 is a popular target:
    1) It is released high up in the atmosphere, along with a bunch of other nice compounds, right where they can do most damage.

    [Maybe, but that only affects how *much* you should offset: not whether you should -W]

    2) People really need to heat their homes. They don’t have to go to Spain twice a year on holiday or to Brazil or wherever. Thus the flights are seen as extra luxuries which can be cut down on.

    [Offsets are a way of avoiding having to cut down -W]

    3) The pressure groups focus on one thing at a time, which due to the problems associated with soundbites, communication issues etc, makes it seem like air travel is the most evil nasty thing ever. I’m sure many protestors would like to engage the media people in 3 hour lectures and discussions on the various uses of crude oil, necessities and capabilities of reduction of CO2 etc, but this inevitably gets boiled down to “PLanes are killing the planet” in the daily rag.
    4) The press don’t want to tax us poor people with complex stuff, and enough of us don’t care, so we get headlines like “Planes are killing the planet”.

    [OK, so no *good* reasons then 🙂 -W]


  2. Well, flying is the most CO2 intensive part of going to conferences, but not the only one. For example, when you buy an extra beer at a conference there is plenty of CO2 released. Sort of like CO2 is not the only forcing (or ghg forcing) but the largest one.


  3. I recall it’s rate of change of use (expected to keep increasing), and rate of change of efficiency (aircraft fleet efficiency won’t get a whole lot better quickly), working out to aviation being an increasing contributor.

    The fancy fly-by-wire engine controls have been making people nervous lately too, with unexplained power failures. They may have tweaked fuel saving a bit much.

    Most other uses have prospects of significant improvement in efficiency, or reduction of use, or both.

    Compare it to the US government’s current rejection of the utilities’ request to require them all to buy the most efficient off-the-shelf utility pole transformers be used, in the industry-wide program to replace the decades-old PCB-loaded gear. None of them want to be allowed to buy the inefficient gear; all fear shareholder lawsuits if they don’t take the short term lowest cost, because longterm efficiency isn’t competitive in this quarter’s bottom line.



  4. A brief quote from the second link, just to make it clear:

    “According to DOE estimates, requiring all new transformers to achieve the same efficiency levels as the best units currently on the market would eliminate the need for nearly 20 large new power plants by 2038.”

    That’s why the electric utilities (along with California and coservation groups) are all suing the US Dep’t of Energy to improve their regulatory specification on this issue.

    There isn’t any potential savings like that for aircraft engines, airframes, or flight electronics.

    So they’re left with changing the timing (day/night) or the altitude flown.

    Can’t even put big sails on them like they’re doing for oceangoing shipping.


  5. I would also add that aircraft, by their nature, are not as fuel flexible as ground-based vehicles or systems (you’re probably never going to see an electric passenger plane). Thus the only options to mitigate the impact are the offsetting of these emissions, or the abandonment of widespread air travel.


  6. http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/aeo/overview/transportation.html

    The overall fleet efficiency is determined by the weighted average of the surviving aircraft efficiency (including retrofits) and the efficiencies of the newly acquired aircraft. The efficiency improvements of the new aircraft are determined by technology choice which depends on the trigger fuel price, the time in which the technology is commercially viable, and by the expected efficiency gains of aircraft incorporating those technologies…. shown on “Aircraft Technology Characteristics” table.

    Pity about the alternatives. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AEREON_26

    [Or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_powered_aircraft -W]


  7. Hank said it best. It is the lack of apparent low carbon alternatives. Plus it is publicly visable. ….And it was one way the denialists tried to discredit Al Gore.

    I’m gonna disagree with Guthrie here:
    (1) It doesn’t matter that the CO2 is released high in the atmosphere. It will be well mixed in elevation with a few weeks. Some of the other contrail forming emissions do matter more because of altitude, but their effects are relatively short lived.

    [I think you’re right about the CO2, but other things (the water vapour) make fuel burning at those altitudes 2+ times more warming than fuel burnt on the ground. I’m not sure how long-lived the effects are -W]

    (2) I hear in Japan, and to some degree in England, they don’t heat their homes. At least to nothing like the degree we do in the US. If we heated/cooled our homes to the degree I do at home (62 winter 78 summer) our heating/cooling budgets would drop dramaticaly.

    [We heat our homes here. Maybe less than in the US -W]

    (3,4) No dispute here.


  8. Tom, we do heat here in the UK. Kinda required… I think our thermostat is about 20 at the moment (78 in the alternative arbitrary measure, 293 in the real one) which gives you a variable 11-20 depending on the room in our student hovel.

    Air conditioning, on the other hand, is known here as the [i]open window.[/i] I do own a table fan, but only for the sake of my old laptop.


  9. > water vapor and aerosols
    That’s why I mentioned time of day/night and choice of elevation; contrails are a choice to some extent. So is engine efficiency. They often trade off.

    Good relevant points here, from

    The Top Ten Things Environmentalists Need to Learn

    …. start with the largest problems with the simplest solutions and the least cost in remedying.

    For example, underground coal fires produce as much CO2 as all the light cars and trucks in North America and most of those in Europe. ….

    Similarly, aviation accounts only a small portion of CO2 emissions and there are no apparent alternatives to hydrocarbon fuels for aircraft which do not result in huge tradeoffs. …

    As Donella Meadows was wont to point out, we seem to be naturally _very_ good at finding the leverage points on which any problem turns. And we invariably push them the wrong way, over and over, claiming we know what to do.


    Ever have the feeling of living in a civilization that your fellow citizens either hadn’t noticed they were part of, or were tearing up to sell for scrap metal, or burning to stay warm?


  10. Funny this should come up now as there is a story breaking about companies that sell these CO2 credits to people who feel guilty. I haven’t found the story in English yet, so here’s the google translation.

    I don’t think it’s fair to say that you cannot buy off your CO2 footprint for other stuff. My electricity is 100% from wind, this comes at a premiuim which I am prepared to pay. My gas company also offers to plant trees in compensation for the gas I use, but given the above story, well who would be sure. Actually, I’m waiting for green gas – gas made from biomass injected into the gas net, before I switch. And if this happens then I will be paying CO2 compensation.

    Trees are just a short term buy off, and I was never sure of it being worth anything in the long run. So what if some company promises to look after so many hectares of rain forest everytime I turn the computer on. Those rain forests should be protected anyway.

    [As you say about the rainforests, there are real doubts about the “additionality” of many of the offsetting schemes, and worse. Some of them are mere scams, some are genuine. But it is certain that there aren’t enough for us all to buy off all our CO2. Buying wind power seems fair enough. I haven’t done that quite, but I have enough shares in wind farms to effectively own enough capcaity to generate all my own lectric -W]


  11. Some of the climate offsetting schemes do try to take into account non-flight CO2 emissions; e.g., Climate Care.

    Even so, I too have wondered why some things, such as flying, are treated more magically than others. Flight is a particularly tempting target for a number of (non-technical) reasons, including: (1) Aviation fuel is not taxed; (2) It’s one of the fastest growing sources; and (3) Speculating, since it’s highly dependent on airports, air traffic control, et al., it might seem more managable. You’ve far more accurate numbers to work with, plus, as others have pointed out, there is money involved (in many different senses).


  12. I found the original story, I’m sure you can find translation tools yourself (google, babelfish). The film is a real hoot, I’m just sorry that some of you won’t be able to follow it until someone adds some subtitles to it on youtube.

    The reporter first drives around a town asking people where the “climate woods” are. Of course noone has heard of it. In the woods he ask the owner “How many trees have been planted for the climate?” Answer:”None.” Then an interview with Trees for Travel – who praise these woods on their website. “No we don’t!” – is shown copy of the website – “OK, yes but that’s not our website” – shown again – “OK, it is our website, but it’s just an example of what we could do”. i.e. nothing.

    This is followed by a interview with World Wide Fund for Nature (who no longer have a elephant trophy hunter as president) who indicate that there are only 4 projects worldwide that have their approval.


  13. Big tom- you’re right about the CO2, but I’m pretty sure WIlliam is right about the water vapour etc.
    Then there are the contrails- I cannot recall whether it was decided they contribute more to warming or cooling.

    Also BiGTom- it is probably true that in the UK over the course of the 20th century, the USA was heating its homes much more to much higher temperatures, but by the 90’s we were nearly sorted. I recall visiting many elderly relatives in the 80’s, and few had central heating, mostly storage heaters and small electric fires, thus their houses were around 16 to 18C (60 to 64F). Nowadays though just about everyone has central heating, including elderly relatives, thus the average house temperature has gone up dramatically.

    My understanding is that with the advent of gas central heating, a great many people are keeping their homes at the 21C and above (70F). I find that 18C (64F) is about right, as long as I am wearing a jumper. Therefore UK energy use for heating and cooling homes is probably more comparable to the USA’s than you would think.

    As for your personal CO2, a couple I know have done a Tom and Barbara* and have a wood burning stove and will be getting a wind turbine, essentially making them independent from the net. All they need to do now is wait for a decent electric car.

    *British cultural reference that will only be gotten by people over 30.


  14. I did one of those online “CO2 footprint” thingies and air travel was by far the largest contributor. So from my personal perspective it makes the most sense to try to cut down the largest part of my footprint.

    From a global perspective, I suppose, not so much, because most people don’t fly.


  15. Guthrie – do your friends also claim to be leading the good life?

    Independence from the net is very difficult to achieve with just wind power – well at least if you want to be able to use all mod cons whenever you like. With a bit of water power and rechargable battery power, maybe you could get there. The only real reason I can afford to say that I’m doing my best at the moment to decrease my CO2 footprint is because too few people want or care to take contracts with their electricity companies for 100% wind power. If we all did it then there would have to be more solutions. Like, using any excess power to pump water to high reservoirs for later use in times of less wind, and installing enough over-capacity in enough places that there’s always wind somewhere.

    But maybe the CO2 from planes can be bought off by investing money (as W does) in wind farms, at least initially.


  16. it probably doesn’t matter much, as air travel, as we know it (a mass market thing), is not likely to last all that long due to Peak Oil, which Shell thinks happens in a few years, appears to be happening right now for Exxon & Chevron, and T. Boone Pickens thinks happened in 2006. Look up : Peak Oil, EROEI, Matt Simmons “Twilight in the Desert”

    According to the Wall Street Journal, Russell Gold, Feb 2-3, 2008:

    (ExxonMobil: $40.61B profit, “Oil and natural-gas production declined for the year…”

    “Chevron also said it was trimming its production forecast for 2008 by 5.4%, or 150,000 barrels, off the originally projected 2.8M barrels/day.”

    Jet fuel is, I think, currently about 25% of the cost of running an airline, and gets some odd tax breaks, so it’s not trivial.

    The UK government appears determined to invest in a 3rd runway at Heathrow, to be completed around 2020 to handle the expected increases in air traffic. Good luck.


  17. I think Guthrie has the reasons for picking on aviation right, and Dave Munger adds the kicker. For an individual, the carbon emitted by flying on holiday or business can very easily exceed the total emissions from other sources (heating, electricity use, even driving), particularly if the air travel is long haul. From our perspective down here, being a long haul from everywhere, if too many people get hung up on flying our tourism business (20% of economy) will suffer. Hence Air NZ has been very keen to work with Boeing on biofuels and is trying to work with the conservation estate here to generate offsets.

    Biofuels are the key to low carbon aviation, hence Branson’s rush into funding their development. GE algae seem the best bet at the moment…


  18. Bocco- not quite yet, they don’t have the vegetable garden and the coppicing up and running yet, but they probably already contribute less CO2 than many other people.

    John- re peak oil, I think it’s peaking now, and we’ll get a long plateau for the next 5 to 10 years, with some ups and downs. Who knows, maybe it’ll plateau for 15 years. But I was correct a year ago to predict that oil prices would go up and not come down. Shame I didn’t have any money to invest at that point.

    Gareth- any form of biofuels apart from some fancy algae is no use due to the high inputs required and ecological damage caused by appropriating more of the land for our use rather than ecosystems use. Plus it helps put food prices up.


  19. The biggest reason air travel gets disproportionate attention, is that it has been effectively used as a propaganda tool. Climate skeptics can discredit climate conferences, because their attendees can be painted as hypocrits -they emit CO2 by going to conferences etc. This is an effective way of derailing a discussion of issues into an argument about the purity of the lifestles of the proponents of environmental responsibility.

    Guthrie, you may well be right about heating trends in the UK. My argument was about to what extent heating/cooling is a necessity versus a luxury. It is well known that our species has a strong attraction towards a minimum energy environment (i.e. we tend to seek the temperature which minimizes human energy expenditure).


  20. ON room temperature, wikipedia says:
    “For human comfort, desirable room temperature greatly depends on individual needs and various other factors. According to the West Midlands Public Health Observatory (UK)[1], 21 °C (70 °F) is the recommended living room temperature, whereas 18 °C (64 °F) is the recommended bedroom temperature.”

    As a general rule, if my grandparents can live into their 70’s and 80’s in buildings with temperatures that vary from around 16 to 20C, I see no reason I can’t do so. Obviously it is nice to have a hot room now and then, but then we get into the matter of cost and energy wasted.


  21. Guthrie:
    Of course, the nature of oil Peaks is that they’re really only certain in the rear view mirror. Oil folks argue a lot about the plateau. [I used to help sell supercomputers to petroleum geologists worldwide.] It is 100% certain that if they push the reservoirs too hard to stay on the plateau,
    (a) they will lessen the total recovered,
    (b) leave more in the ground
    (c) produce a bigger carbon pulse earlier
    (d) fall off the peak much more rapidly, which can be seen from the effects of horizontal wells already.
    (e) lessen the oil price rise early, then really raise it fast due to item (d).

    From a climate perspective, (b) is good, (c) is bad, and (a) is ambiguous, in that less oil => more pressure for tar sands, shale oil, and coal-to-liquid synfuels.

    From an oil-company view, (e) is good, given the time value of meoney and quarterly profit issues, unless petroleum geologist+economists argue that terrifically-increased profits from the later oil makes up for not pumping it earlier.

    From a coal-company view, (a) and (b) are good, because the faster oil goes away, the quicker coal becomes worth more.

    From anyone else’s economic view, d) and (e) are especially bad, as they inhibit the price signals that help get people to get more efficient and substitute. See the Hirsch Report entry in Wikipedia.

    NZ: I’ve been there a dozen times, used to tell your government folks in the late 1980s / early 1990s who were complaining about difficulty of sheep exports that:

    a) NZ should have more tourism.
    [“We’re too far away.”]

    b) NZ had some good software people, and bits were cheaper to ship than meat.

    c) NZ had great scenery, could fake being anywhere, and could do a lo more movie-making.

    This was before Hercules, Xena, and Lord of The Rings, which did something for all three. [I used to see Weta Digital every year, helped them plan the storage systems & workstations for LoTR. First-rate software people, competitive with ILM, Digital Domain, etc.]

    A few years ago, on some travel program, I was amused to see PM Helen Clark showing off parts of NZ with somebody whose job title sounded like “Minister of Lord of The Rings Travel”. 🙂
    Google lord rings new zealand travel

    However, NZ indeed better hope for bio-jetfuel… which needs a lot of work, or much of that tourism boost is toast. For anybody else, NZ is a truly beautiful place, and is worth seeing before the price of jetfuel gets really high…


  22. John- yes, you’ve summed peak oil up nicely enough. I don’t know details, but have agreed with it for 5 or 6 years now, and as you say there are plenty of uncertainties. Nevetheless, it is funny how it has moved into the mainstream quietly in the past couple of years. 5 or 6 years ago it was definitely outside mainstream. Now, when they cannot pump oil fast enough, but yet cannot find enough new stuff to drill, people and organisations who were slagging it off now meekly accept the end of cheap energy.
    Meanwhile, as I expected 2 or 3 years ago, the decline in North sea oil and gas is beggining to bite. This will continueto harm our balance of payments and its going to be a rather messy next 2 or 3 years.


  23. Why offsets for flying?

    Well I can buy green electricity easily enough (the Aussie system is well audited and regulated) but offsets is the only way I can reduce the impacts of flying other that not flying at all. The latter won’t happen because grandparents want to see their grandkids and vice versa.

    I can buy additional green power from my electricity company to offset flights (eg effectively buying someone else green power) which I think is a better bet than some of the tree planting schemes – at least while green power users are in the minority.


  24. Thanks for the recommendation, John. Note we have a well-appointed cottage available to all Stoat readers at “mate’s rates”. 😉

    Watching LoTR was a strange experience from a NZr’s perspective. One minute the hobbits would be tramping along a ridge near Queenstown, then they’d be on a mountain in Nelson, before heading down to a glacial valley in Canterbury. Most disorientating.


  25. Gareth: looks nice, upscale from some other places I’ve stayed in NZ (shepherds’ huts on a 3-day horse trek from Wanaka to Arrowtown, recommended, even for someone like me who had never been on a horse).

    LoTR: those hobbits were quick hikers. I was lucky to have Weta show me 20-30 minutes of footage about a year early, having signed a ferocious Non-Disclosure Agreement. Movie folks are always tough, but in this case, I recall something like if I told anyone anything before release, they’d sic orc lawyers on me… a threat not to be taken lightly.


  26. > Cottage

    Oboy. I’ve a bet on with my wife that when she finishes the Excel spreadsheet and we can really look at our expenses and CO2, it’ll be far better all ’round if we just close up house in January and February and go to someplace in the Antipodes.

    I’ve always wondered if we’re in the Antipodes as far as y’all are concerned.

    Left you a note about hawk kites in the ‘olive harvest’ thread.


  27. Re-heating in the UK. Of course there seems to be increasingly few (recently) who can afford to heat their homes. That’s the perception from the media, I’ve not looked at actual figures. However, in the UK we have a *lot* of relatively (in some cases very) inefficient housing (including plenty of newer built stuff)and so even if we keep our houses at lower temperatures, some people may be using more fuel. It’s the problem with having irregular (infrequent?) extremes. Economically, and unless otherwise forced, people build for the average.


  28. Adam, from what I’ve read from reasonably reliable sources, you could build a far better insulated and more environmentally friendly house for the same or not much (4, 5, maybe 10,000) more than the current costs. This would then pay back in much lower energy etc bills within a few years.
    However, the housing industry is stupidly conservative, and there’s probably some laws or testing required, not to mention retraining. Also public education, and not necessarily having that extra 5,000 pounds up front don’t help either.
    Basically, the gvt needs to pass some laws tightening the building regulations an increment every year. They also need to pay for proper inspectors to show that the regulations are being followed.


  29. guthrie, that’s pretty much how I see it too. The extra “£5000” up front to me should be a “no-brainer” as £5,000 on the mortgage should add less annually than the energy payment savings.

    However, that doesn’t affect the very large stock of older (or just existing) housing that’s clearly inadequate. This may be a generalisation, but that sort of housing is also the sort that the low income and aged population tend to have. That’s why I think that there’s a double pay back in improving current housing as well – less CO2 & a reduction in the winter excess mortality rate. But this is going way off topic now.


  30. Hank, putting out underground coal fires is anything but simple, for example the Carbondale fire and please don’t tell me you have the good magic. Lots of people have tried.

    BTW I finally figured out what is driving me nuts about this thread. Majic is not spelled with a k just like sulfur is not spelled with a ph. Get it right Stoat.


  31. Well, we spell sulphur with a ph.
    AS for magic, no lesser authority than Aleister Crowley spells it “Magick”, so I think Stoat needs to replace the J.


  32. Is it because people who fly clearly have too much money and so can afford to bung in a bit more for guilt-geld?

    Yes. It’s a scam, and they’re the most easily scammed.


  33. Eli, I quite agree with you about the difficulty of putting out coal fires — in many areas the strata are self-ventilating and well drained and have overcome all attempts. That guy’s arguments are simplistic. He’s no ecologist either. There may be areas where it’d be doable if there were a bounty on reducing CO2 emission, I dunno.

    Guthrie, got my passport …


  34. How about we split the differnce and go for magiph and suljur? They’re already very popular on google with 6 and 301 hits respectively (and maybe even more when this page gets crawled).

    I tried to find some information on the amount of CO2 released to atmosphere from underground coal fires, and came up with nothing. Although I did stumble across something rather surprising (to me) with repect to natural CH4 emissions from the North Sea. I cannot figure out how something (the gas) that formed quite a long time ago could still be seeping through today. Unless it was somehow disturbed.

    Anyhow this still leave me with no clue as to whether I should try and compensate for flying, underground fires in europe (yes, I am willing to share) or gas leaks from the sea floor in my zone of the north sea (sharing only goes so far).


  35. Guthrie: you could do worse than to look at, as an example:

    and specifically


    In some towns, LEED for Homes is being adopted, i.e., more stringent rules applied through local building permit processes.


    Gives KWh per capita use by state in 2005. CA is last (lowest), and some of that may be from weather, but most is from paying attention:


    Basically, CA KWh/capita has stayed flat over the last 30 years.


  36. Thanks John. In the UK, the gvt is carefully avoiding doing anything about it all.
    CA is also an example of what gvt regulation can do, which is handy, especially when ‘ve just found a pet troll who appears to be a randroid, with a bad case of “Nazis were socialists so socialism is evil”.


  37. “I can buy additional green power from my electricity company to offset flights (eg effectively buying someone else green power) which I think is a better bet than some of the tree planting schemes – at least while green power users are in the minority.”

    Dude, I just might copy that idea…


  38. Thanks for the underground coal-fire links – interesting reading. It would seem then that tackling this would come well down the list on things to do to reduce GHG emmisions to the atmosphere.


  39. I agree with your oneliner W, which is “Offsets are a way of avoiding having to cut down.” Also …

    Aviation emissions are magical because governments, airlines, airport operators, economists, and traders can make money by supporting and enabling growth in the aviation industry, which increases aircraft emissions at a time when global reductions of emissions are needed, thereby creating a marketplace. Policy decisions need to be explained in economic terms. It is the speed of growth in this market segment–as well as comparisons with other activities an individual, company or government could choose to spend its carbon quota on–that draws attention to aviation. All emissions can be tracked and traded; but it is with aviation that definitions, multipliers and allocations can be negotiated and bargained, thus adding to the magical quality of this source.

    Now, to encourage growth in aviation, you have to turn a blind eye to the physical world and enter an imaginary world, where aviation emissions tokens are traded into non-existence by airlines purchasing counter-tokens from other (3rd world power) industries that supposedly cancel out the undesirable increases.

    In a Department for Transport Public Exhibition on Heathrow expansion recently, I pointed out that the power companies could be left to reduce their own emissions without trading, as we would all be better off without aviation emissions increasing in the first place. The reply? “Ah, … but power companies could not afford to reduce emissions without the airlines paying them to do so.” Now, there may be a valid argument within that statement, but it is not the only way to balance the books.


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