Excerpted from "Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next" by John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay, published in March 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2011.
The Sustainable Aerotropolis
If anything, a social stigma against flying has begun to settle across Europe, akin to Americans' nausea over SUVs. The EU has voted to incorporate aviation into its cap-and-trade scheme, requiring airlines to pay for 15 percent of their pollution beginning in 2012-a lot to ask from an industry barely breaking even. Three u.s. airlines are suing for an exemption, and the governments of the United States, Canada, and Mexico have lobbied the United Nations for the same. "When you look at some of the taxes and fees being discussed in Europe," said an MIT researcher, "we might as well bankrupt our industry today."
It was against this grand tableau of grandstanding, stat-slinging, politicking, and weekend homes in Languedoc that a thousand Britons all of whom, incidentally, had taken trips abroad in the past year-were asked: Just how bad is flying, anyway, as a percentage of all the carbon emissions in the world?
Nearly a third were honest, confessing they had no idea. A fifth guessed 40 percent or more. Half thought it was at least 15 percent. The remainder penciled in 5 percent or less.
The answer: 2 percent. How did they overshoot the real figure so badly? Because we tend to think of our carbon footprints as the outcome of personal choices and personal virtue -"What can I do to shrink mine?" we ask. The answers, inevitably, are drive a hybrid, eat organic, and recycle. (When it comes to flying, the Japanese airline ANA discreetly asks passengers to use the terminal bathroom before boarding, in order to lighten the load and save fuel.) Seen from this perspective, boarding a transoceanic flight is maybe the single most destructive thing you could possibly choose. But underlying our individual choices are nearly invisible networks and systems of which aviation is just one, generating 2 percent of emissions. The others that make up everyday life are much worse:
Housing. The true cost of America's housing bubble is a landscape generating half of all greenhouse-gas emissions, according to estimates based on data from the U.S, Energy Information Administration. Residential buildings alone account for 21 percent of national energy consumption-a number driven by the expanding size of the average U.S. home, which today measures twenty-four hundred square feet, a 140 percent increase since 1950.
Food. As mentioned earlier, the United Nations estimates livestock's share of worldwide greenhouse gases at 18 percent, a combination of methane produced by the animals and the fossil fuels used to raise and eat them. Even a contrarian like the agricultural historian James E. McWilliams - no fan of organic labels or Michael Pollan - readily concedes meat carries too high a price for us to keep eating it.
Driving. Every form of transport known, save those powered by foot or by wind, combines to emit 13 percent of all emissions. Aviation is a fraction of that fraction-a sixth of the exhaust from cars, trucks, and anything else powered by an internal combustion engine. And that's before everyone in the developing world receives a driver's license.
But aviation is growing faster than any of these, a statistic its critics have zeroed in on. In echoes of the Jevons Paradox, it's growing fast enough to outstrip all of the industry's earnest efforts to increase fuel efficiency, whether that means younger, lighter, and fuller planes, cleaner engines, or smoother descents-although the airlines are striving to keep up. In the United States at least, their emissions actually fell for most of the last decade due to belt-tightening by 2.6 percent between 2000 and 2007, despite carrying 20 percent more passengers and cargo over that span. For similar reasons, the price of jet fuel actually peaked ten years ago, just before 9/11. But Europe's easyJet addiction will prove harder to quit, and coupled with renewed growth in the Middle East and Asia, flying's total carbon contribution will likely rise to 5 percent by 2050.
Another caveat is that commercial aircraft release their carbon in the lower reaches of the stratosphere, where greenhouse gases collect. To account for this, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has raised aviation's effective contribution to 3 percent-a figure equal to a quarter of the traffic on the world's highways, or half the respiration of our homes. Even at its highest estimates, it isn't likely aviation will overtake driving as one of the most ergregious global warmers, let alone factories and electric turbines. So why don't we focus our energies on fixing them instead?
The biggest smokestack in the world is China, and this has nothing to do with its airports. Its power plants and factories consume a third of the world's coal-2.4 billion tons annually and growing, already double what it was burning a decade ago. China expects to have 130 million cars on its roads by 2020, and more than the United States by 2050 (or maybe 2040). It has overtaken the United States as the world's worst polluter, partly because of its size, but mostly because of its waste. China posted the highest six-month rise in carbon emissions of any nation in history through the winter and spring of 2010. The World Bank estimates as much as half of China's miraculous growth would vanish if the costs of rampant pollution and environmental degradation were factored in. If China's emissions continue climbing at the same rate as they have for the past thirty years, the country will emit more greenhouse gases in the next thirty than the United States has in its entire existence. For these reasons, China is going green by building the world's largest domestic market for batteries, wind, and solar energy, and then cornering our market via air.