This is how clean, safe and efficient aircraft may look in the future — and not a very distant future, if this is what we want. Image: NASA / Wikimedia

The railway boom is a side track

Anders Bolling
May 24 · 9 min read

The case for traveling by air — after all

Trains can never substitute airplanes on long-haul flights, air traffic is crucial for global integration and there is no point in knocking out aviation anyway — its share of the world’s CO2 emissions is too small. If all the billions that are invested in trains instead were to be invested in clean aviation, we would soon have it.

Practically every vision of the future before the era of mass aviation contained some kind of flying means of transportation, from Metropolis via The Jetsons to Blade Runner. Flying cars were legion, and you do not have to go to fiction to find engineer blueprints for those (a newly built skyscraper in Miami has already prepared a landing deck for flying cars on the roof, despite the fact they do not yet exist, other than as prototypes).

Not to mention the ubiquitous images of the most advanced means of transportation we can envision: space ships that are run on clean and inexhaustible energy

Traveling above the ground has, quite simply, been a human dream since Leonardo da Vinci. It is not hard to understand why. On Mother Earth’s surface the space is limited. Not only humans are in the way but also a great amount of nature, and these days also quite a lot of infrastructure.

Even so, a growing number of people with a basically benevolent and sound engagement to protect coming generations from a feared climate disaster have become obsessed with the emissions from aviation and are now adamant that we need to disregard 120 years of development. Aviation must be scrapped and substituted by rail traffic, they say — often as simplified as that. The debate does not encourage thinking multiple thoughts at the same time.

Is the problem with flying really so acute that we have to stop, and will trains be able to replace planes as the engines of global integration? My answer to both of those questions is no, and I will explain why.

There is much talk about what each one of us, as citizens, can do for the climate. It is true that for a Western individual there is no more efficient way to mitigate her climate footprint than to cut down on flying. But should each and everyone of us do all we can in our day-to-day life to diminish our specific, individual CO2 contribution? Is it wise to think that way? I am not so sure.

What is most important is how the things we buy are produced and how the means of transportation we use to get to work and vacation are brought about, not primarily that we buy those things or use those means of transportation (which does not mean it is without significance).

It may be wiser to waive ten percent of your income to projects that develop fossil-free alternatives, vote for politicians who promise fast and smart measures and join organizations that fight climate change than to bend over backwards to maximize your own climate smartness. But if we, for the sake of argument, focus on individual responsibility, it is pretty clear that out of all the energy-devouring sectors most of us utilize, aviation is not the worst culprit.

To understand the impact of aviation on the climate it is imperative to know that its share of global emissions is small. This factor is not entirely unknown among aviation-bashers, but it is generally dismissed on account of the individual responsibility mentioned above. In my view, the factor has to be inculcated and cannot be downplayed.

Had aviation accounted for half the greenhouse gas emissions from human activities this issue would have been in a different ballpark, no question about it. Had it accounted for ten percent I probably would not have written this piece. But it doesn’t. Aviation accounts for between two and three percent (somewhat more if you take into account the vapor formed at high altitudes). This means that if every airplane were to be parked on the ground tonight and never again allowed to take off it is doubtful if it would have any effect on the climate worth mentioning.

For those who want to alleviate their personal CO2 conscience there are a number of other measures that stand out as more sensible: Quit meat. Sell the car. Refuse teak wood and palm oil. Here is an enlightening piece of statistics: The decrease in deforestation that Brazil managed to achieve between the years 2016 and 2017, in one year only, spared the atmosphere 780 million tons of carbon dioxide. In rounded figures, that is the same amount as the world’s combined commercial air traffic emits every year (860 million tons). Please read those numbers one more time and consider what they tell us about the quality of the aviation debate today. Which measure to improve the world would have less negative side effects; to ban flying or to convince the economically diversified Brazil to curb its deforestation?

Unfortunately, the answer to that question weighs very lightly as long as aviation is portrayed as the morally worst emission source. Why? Because rich people fly the most. Before morality, facts have to give way. Indonesia is another tree-cutting giant. Its forestry sector has at times accounted for more emissions than the sum total of global aviation. But denouncing Indonesia does not strike home as much on the culture pages as denouncing spoilt Europeans’ shameless way of living.

Besides, flying is one of the most important functions needed to achieving the global integration that is crucial for us to take on the climate challenge. If we are to solve this very first truly all-encompassing human problem we need to strengthen the sense of coherence and unity.

One argument I am personally not fond of displaying since it is passive, but which is still relevant, is the following: A sharp decrease in air traffic from today’s levels will never happen, because no matter how much environmentally conscious North Americans and Europeans boycott flying, the number of air passengers is expected to double in the next 20 years because tens of millions of Asians are beginning to afford to travel above ground. And soon enough also Africans.

None of this means that nothing should be done to develop clean aviation, on the contrary. And things are being done.

For short distances and with small aircraft electric propulsion is already in the works. In the near future, taxi planes will be able to transport people 300 kilometers in one hour on batteries. Siemens is talking about hybrid aircraft (using renewable fuel) that in ten years can fly 100 passengers 1 000 kilometers. For intercontinental distances and with larger aircraft an array of biofuels is being developed (that road is still long, however, unless someone soon starts investing gigantic sums in new fuel plants). The aviation sector’s general ambition is to halve emissions from the 2005 level before 2050.

If all of the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been pumped into high-speed trains and other rail projects (the figure has passed 400 billion dollars only in China including the latest massive staking) instead had been invested in clean aviation, chances are we would have been close to the goal by now.

For the sake of argument: Let us say it is impossible to develop climate neutral aircraft within the foreseeable future (it seems unreal to even write that). Should we not then — given that we agree that we are in a hurry — first take the action we know we can take now and we know have an effect on emissions without hurting the economy or global integration? As you know, there are still myriad measures of that kind to be taken, and large parts of the energy transition to renewable sources entail welfare benefits. A ban on flying does not.

So, what is wrong with trains? There is nothing wrong with trains. It is an excellent means of transportation on short and medium range distances. In populous countries it is probably a good idea to build networks of high-speed rail. Japan is the shining example. China is now expanding fast, which may turn out to be wise, even if, as mentioned, large chunks of land is being blocked. But trains do not do the trick if we are to visit one another efficiently across larger distances.

The railway was invented in the 19th century to connect towns that were not very far apart. The steam engines puffed ahead at thirty to forty kilometers an hour, and nobody planned for international direct traffic on a large scale. Hence, rail traffic was developed nationally (in the beginning actually locally and regionally), which today creates an enormous amount of hassle. In Europe alone there are 30 different and incompatible signaling systems, at least four different track widths, different power systems and a number of national regulations. It all amounts to a mess that could give a train buff grey hair in no time. Furthermore, there is no common booking system like there is for air traffic.

Traveling above the ground is an improvement in so many more ways than the only aspect that is being zoomed in on right now. It would be an act of charity for Earth if no more human transports burdened her soil. For hundreds of years we have dreamt of flying, cleanly and safely. Why should we give up on that vision and rush back instead of taking on the challenge and do everything we can to truly fulfill that dream? Cramming hundreds of millions more passengers into wagons on tracks of steel and concrete that break their way through wood and land cannot really be the future.

As far as I know, the only ground-based transportation system that might be able to fully compete with aviation is Elon Musk’s vacuum-driven Hyperloop. It is meant to reach flight speed, and the passengers will be encapsulated in tin-plate pods, much like — you guessed it — planes. Hyperloop will take many years yet to develop and construct. Perhaps we will see a rudimentary net of this human tube mail by the time the first climate neutral intercontinental flight takes off.

I have to be honest: Most aviation critics do not want an outright ban on flying, they only want to restrict it harshly. I personally have no objections against raising taxes on air traffic (the tax exemption on aviation fuel is absurd), and I certainly do not advocate that those who can afford it frivolously fly from one hemisphere to the other because they are bored or feel like playing golf. Such behavior is sloppy and lazy, just as it is sloppy and lazy not to recycle even though the local authorities have placed tidy sorting containers in your neighborhood. But the bored millionaires must come to that conclusion by themselves. It is not possible to forbid them to fly without limiting the possibilities of global travel for everybody.

As mentioned: The need for integration can not be emphasized enough when global difficulties are to be overcome. Those who really mean that flying is the work of the devil ought to mean that nobody should fly. As soon as they open up for allowing some people to fly they end up in tricky considerations (politicians? administrators? UN types?). For instance, what would their position be if refugees suddenly were allowed to fly again? Refugee activists describe air transportation as the most humane way of migrating over large distances, and it is hard not to agree. The alternative is the inhumane way: in oxygen-poor trucks and on rickety boats.

Failing to see a societal/cultural feature in its entirety is all too common, like the widespread ignorance about how war, democracy and poverty have changed for the better over long periods of time. The only reliable way to understand how the world is developing is to meticulously follow trends and averages. Only that. Never to use anecdotal evidence. In the climate debate it is often, wisely, pointed out that it is important to look at the long trends, the whole picture. But the entirety is also its parts, and for many debaters it is apparently difficult to see the parts clearly. The narrative about the impact of aviation on the climate is, I think, muddled by a desire to use moral ammunition.

Anders Bolling

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Journalist. Humanist. Globalist.