Environmental impacts of air travel

Air travel has been an integral part of our professional lives since the 1960s. When time permitted, we traveled by car or train to destinations in the U.S. and Canada. In Europe and Japan, convenient train and bus travel limited air and car trips. Since we were aware of the adverse energy and environmental impacts of air travel, our interest in energy efficiency and renewable energy kept the issues in the back of our minds.

An occasional article from England made us aware that expanded air travel has become an important global issue. After a few phone conversations and meetings with Jim Starry, the designer of a more efficient airport, we decided to take a closer look at the energy, environmental and health issues related to increased air travel.

As with many other aspects of modern living, few passengers give thought to the environmental impacts of air travel. Airlines are one of the most polluting forms of travel. With more than 16,000 commercial jets in service, it is estimated air travel accounts for 4 percent of global warming. In 1996, there were about 600 million international travelers. By 2020, the number is expected to nearly triple. By 2050, increased air travel could account for 15 percent of global warming. Although the fuel efficiency of passenger jets continues to improve, increased passenger numbers far exceed efficiency gains.

Europeans are concerned about the links between air travel and climate change, and have called for reductions in airplane emissions. While North America accounts for 40 percent of world air travel, the issue receives scant public attention. One exception is the legal challenge by residents adversely affected by the largest airport expansion in the nation’s history at O’Hare. Hundreds of homes and businesses will be destroyed and 1,300 graves relocated to accommodate the growth.

A report from the Natural Resources Defense Council points to noise, water pollution and air pollution as the major local adverse impacts of air travel. Airport air pollution releases are similar to those generated by fossil fuel power plants and oil refineries, which are subject to governmental controls. In contrast, pollutants from planes idling, taxiing, taking off and landing are virtually uncontrolled.

According to the NRDC, one 747 arriving at an airport produces as much smog as a car driven 5,600 miles and as much nitrogen oxides as a car driven 26,500 miles. In the Chicago area, cars undergo emission inspections as a means to reduce pollutants while airplanes are not subject to similar restrictions.

With air travel increasing at twice the rate of car travel, government policies continue to stimulate the growth of air travel. In the face of human contributions to climate change and uncertain and costly energy supplies, this massive federal effort is peculiar at best.

While air travel will not disappear, some of our travel needs could be better met with improved train and bus service. Much of it could be replaced by teleconferencing. For example, the Illinois Renewable Energy Association holds teleconferences for board meetings and exchanges e-mails to fill in the gaps. It saves time, money and fuel by not having people from various parts of the state drive to specific locations.

Jim Starry believes his simple but revolutionary airport design could dramatically reduce cost, pollution and land consumption characteristic of current airport design: “The Starrport, (sic) is built on 1/3 the land for 1/2 the cost and earns four times the revenue of conventionally designed airports.” Our next column will cover the design.

From the April 12-18, 2006, issue

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