The last time I was on an airplane flight was in 2008. That was international—we went to México. In a couple of weeks I’m getting on a plane for a trip to the Big Island—Hawai’i. It’s a domestic flight of course but it doesn’t feel like it. It’s almost 2400 miles from the airport in San Francisco to the one in Kona. That’s about two hundred miles less than the distance from San Francisco to JFK airport in New York City. But the flight to Hawai’i is entirely over the Pacific Ocean!
Jet travel changed the world forever. Cargo ships take five days to cover the SF to Oahu route with extra days needed for the outer islands. Our 737 will make the trip in less than six hours. And a regular middle class guy like me can actually afford the fares!
When you search for fares on Google you get stuff like this:
This is not our flight, just the result of a MFR-KOA (Medford, Oregon to Kona, Hawai’i) entry in the search box. And I clicked on the circle-i “information” icon under the 664 kg CO2 to get the pop-up.
Average fuel consumption over the entire flight of a 737 (takeoffs and landings take a lot, cruising not so much) is about 2400 kg per hour. For a six-hour flight that’s 14,400 kg or about 18,000 liters (4800 gallons). A 737 can carry over 6000 gallons of fuel and fly over 3000 miles without refueling.
Using the graphic above I’m going to estimate that a six-hour flight makes 600 kg of C02. (I’m splitting the difference between 556 and 664.) That’s 100 kg/hour. PER PASSENGER! Here’s a link to how Google comes up with these numbers.
There are about 180 seats on the Boeing 737 we’ll be flying. 600 kg times 180 is 108,000 kg of CO2! How is that possible? We are only burning 14,400 kg of fuel! But fuel does not burn by itself. It requires oxygen. A modern jet engine consumes over 400 kg of air per second. That’s how it is possible to produce so much exhaust.
Let’s put it all in perspective. Our friends at Our World in Data (a remarkable site) say aviation accounts for about 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. Here in the States, we account for about 16% of all emissions from domestic flights. (Calculating the contributions of international flights is a little trickier and I’m flying domestic so I’m sticking with these numbers.)
The U.S. retains its familiar role as world leader. We make the most airplane exhaust!
It seems the only way the world will get a handle on global air pollution and the climate impacts of greenhouse gases is by some sort of carbon pricing. Whether it is cap-and-trade, a carbon tax, or some other scheme, we have to start including the externalities that our activities produce. Nothing is for free. If flying makes a goddamn mess, then we have to bear the cost of the cleanup. And we all know the best way to keep things clean is not to make a mess in the first place!
I’ll be polluting my way over to Hawai’i in a couple of weeks, like I mentioned. We will fly to Kona but will stay in Hilo. I’m really excited about being on the windward side of the Big Island where it is rainy and wet. I live in a near-desert so I need a break from sere, arid landscapes. We are going to watch some baseball at the University and then have a week of adventures. I’m going to buy a really nice Aloha shirt and some groovy board shorts. I’ve been given so many recommendations of places to go and things to do that I figure no matter what we actually do it will all be really fun. I’m a pretty relaxed, happy-go-lucky traveler. If I’m in new place I enjoy myself just kicking around and living life. And drinking beer, of course. My first selfie will probably be at the Hilo Brewing Company. I’ll bet that Mauna Kea Pale Ale is mighty tasty!