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Thursday, June 01, 2006


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Yes, no, but lucky you, except for the expensive rail bit.

Yes, lucky us, but still, the priorities are all wrong and in
Europe, cheap air fares are so ubiquitous, it's a big contributor to global warming.
I'd be as happy to go by train and boat for cost reasons - at least, I think I would. It's a toss up whether a rough crossing is as bad as a turbulent flight.

Rapidly, rapidly, nothing very much in this world is making much sense.

European nations tax petroleum products at a high level, high enough to reduce consumption and mitigate global climate change. I don't know how effective European nations have been in meeting Kyoto targets, but they're doing far more than the US (especially since the US never, actually, you know, ratified Kyoto). If there's one place in the world where I'd be least anxious about my consumption of petroleum-based fuels, it would be Europe.

To put it another way, the current (and probably short-term) cheap airfares trend in Europe don't per se result from low petroleum prices. Petroleum prices in Europe are HIGH. The current cheap-airfare boom there has to do with price competition among start-up airlines, who are foregoing marginal profits to generate gross revenues. Also, their labor and airport (landing berth) costs are lower, as are their overheads because of their reduced routes. It's far cheaper per flight to fly just a few routes to smaller airports than to maintain a trans-continental network to the big-name airports.

Also, the super-cheap tourist fares on inter-city flights are filling the last seats on flights serving cost-conscious business travelers, whose fares are much higher than the tourist fares but far lower than the main (BA, Lufthansa, etc) fares. And for a businesswoman, the gain in time of the flight offsets the higher costs (instead of trains). Until these start-up flights became available, though, there were fewer flights at higher cost to choose from. Tourists are helping airlines fill empty seats, making each airplane fly more profitably as it approaches 100% capacity.

Europeans can lobby for higher petroleum taxes to increase those airlines' costs, if they value global climate stability more than cheap fares to Ibiza, but truly, the petroluem component alone doesn't explain the low fares at all. And don't forget: electric trains don't themselves generate CO2, but the electricity is produced at coal and natural-gas and nuclear power plants. Power plants may or may not be more efficient than individual diesel engines (I don't know how much of Europe's electric power is now generated at inefficient, dirty Eastern European power plants) but they're contributing to global climate change (well, not the nuclear plants), too.

There's a convincing argument to be made that US citizens need to reduce their consumption of EVERYTHING by 50% to sustain the planet in the long run. I have no idea what the comparable figures for Australia and Europe would be (obviously less, because we're the gluttons). I'm not arguing against that. I'm just saying that these cheap airfares aren't a symptom of the problem you're worried about.

(Sorry for the lecture: Calder's an environmental economist and my dad used to work for Northwest. I've held up my end of some fairly geeky dinner conversations over the last 20 years.)

Jody, that's fascinating. Please feel free to add information at any time (environmental economics is something which interests me but I can't claim to have a grip on.)
But surely the cheap fares do encourage more flying, even if they aren't a symptom of petrol/oil prices?
And more flights undoubtedly cause more global warming, as per
That site (there's no date on it but I think it's fairly recent as they have John Prescott as British deputy pm) has info at the end showing how much CO2 is produced by plane, train and ferry journey from London to Amsterdam (equivalent to our flights to Dublin) and planes are much higher.

Jody - part of your analysis depends on the comparative tax take on both vehicular fuels and air traffic fuels, and the carbon costs per person per kilometre. I'd be surprised if either are equal. But air travel taxes are probably higher in Europe than the US.

Having said that, it seems odd for a person flying from Australia to Europe to complain about the carbon costs of a 1 hour flight between London and Dublin :)

Competition in rail travel has been a complete failure in the UK, unsurprising given the state of the system pre-privatisation and indirect competition from roads and air.

Ah, Morgan, you got me on that :-)
It had crossed my mind that this was a minor thing to be complaining about(and I'm not really complaining) compared to that 21 hours in the air from here to there.
I suppose I've been following the news about the vast increase in short-haul flights right around Europe and noticing that my friends there all seem to jump on a plane for incredibly low prices at the drop of a hat. To the point that they buy holiday houses in other countries. It seems to have been a change in attitude fuelling a big change in behaviour.
Don't worry, I'm expecting to make fewer and fewer long-haul flights as the years go on.

I don't have time to look at the links now, but I certainly will. I take your point, absolutely, about cheap fares increasing flights (and in fact, the cheap fares are on flights that didn't even exist before) and about train/electricity producing less CO2 than each individual plane engine. I would say that the mechanics of global climate change (which IS happening and which DOES represent a catastrophe) are unbelievably tricky. The effects cascade all over the place and are incredibly hard to parse. Makes for fascinating work, when one isn't overcome by despair.

Interestingly/oddly enough (I know, here I vere into Bushist territory), airplane contrails produce enough cloud cover to lower the average earth temperature by about 1.5 degrees F (so about 1/2 degree C), or so it's estimated. I have absolutely no idea what mitigating effect that has on the CO2 production of air travel (it would depend on which model one uses to track CO2 production against temperature increases, which is a devilishly hard thing to figure -- in Europe, of course, the great unknown is the slowing-down of the gulf stream, Calder says most models of Europe in 200 years show the northern half looking like modern Greenland and the southern half looking like Algeria, which isn't a pretty picture at all) but I throw it out there for fun. Sort of fun, anyway.

The contrails argument has been out there for years but was only able to be tested with data once. If this were a US blog I'd leave that as a question and see if you could figure out when, but since it's not, I'll tell you: September 11-14th, 2001, when there was no commercial/private air travel over the entire USA. Too limited a data point to mean much, but as it turns out, the data showed what the scientists expected: temperatures were about 1.5 degrees farenheit higher than average.

Oh, and finally: I _think_ the greatest "effort" a train expends is in takeoff/landing, so a short-hop flight (which consists mostly of ascent/descent) will be less efficient per minute than a long-haul flight. But it's true, the 21-hour flight is your issue there, no? Bring back the tramp steamers! LOL.

Uh, planes during takeoff/landing. Planes! :-)

With regard to travel costs, I recall being very surprised when I was visiting England back in 1983 to buy a one way train ticket and later found that it would have been cheaper to buy a return ticket.

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