11 February 2007

Carbon Emissions On High

Time Magazine reports that carbon emissions from jet travel are uniquely polluting, as the carbon that jets emit at high levels appears to have a greater warming effect than the same amount of carbon released on the ground. Unfortunately, there also isn't much that can be done to improve fuel efficiency in jets and it's likely that the technology won't change for decades. Although right now airline contribution to greenhouse gases is just 1.6%, the annual number of airline passengers is increasing rapidly and will double by 2025.

One of my favorite round-trip flights, New York to Tokyo, a trip I've taken twice and hope to take many times more, emits 5,200 pounds of carbon per passenger. What's an environment-loving eastcoast American Japanophile to do?

Yanks In Yukata2
me (left) and Lynn at Naruko Onsen, Japan

It's possible to pay for carbon offsets, services which either reduce greenhouse gas emissions or increase carbon absorption in another area. The most commonly known service is tree planting. This offset creates a mental image of restoring natural forests, but critics say it can actually include planting trees in tree farms meant for logging, or in places where the effect is negligible. Other types of offsets include funding renewable energy.

I'm not sure how I feel about offsets. The cynical side of me thinks it's just a way for citizens of industrialized societies to assuage our guilt while we continue our high-consumption ways of life. But next time I fly to Japan I'd rather give carbon offsetting a try than do nothing at all.

Added 2/12: Ru Hartwell from treeflights.com left a comment on this post with a link to the Treeflights web site. This small company in Wales which plants trees for air travelers takes a long (and realistic) view about tree planting as a carbon offset. The FAQ page of the site is well worth reading for a clear overview of the tree planting process and the issues involved.


Anonymous said...


Nice Picture!

I'll be following you, start to finish, in this new inspiration/woodblocking project.

Annie too

Kris Shanks said...

I'm so glad to see you taking on the topic of global warming! Carbon offsets are difficult, particularly when it comes to planting trees. One aspect of global carbon cycling that's still being debated is the role of decomposition in forests. When dead leaves, etc. are decomposed, they release carbon dioxide. More worrying is the prospect of arctic permafrost melting and starting to decompose releasing methane. Positive feedbacks (decomposition and melting ice increase warming which increases decomposition and warming. repeat) have the potential to radically increase rates of global warming. The funny thing about airline travel is the contrails actually reflect sunlight, and the effect is not small as some researchers were able to show after 9/11. I think political action is the most useful place to address carbon emissions right now.

Annie B said...

Thanks, Annie.
Kris, you just confirmed the direction I'm headed in this print; thanks for your input.

Ru said...

Please take a good look at our site at www.treeflights.com. We are trying hard to address some of the points you make.
Thanks, Ru.

tom said...

Hi Annie,

My carbon offset scheme is to buy art from my sister who is a vegetarian. Perhaps you are already earning carbon credits by refraining from overeating?

Annie B said...

Hi Tom,
I'm earning carbon credits by holding my breath as I wait for the Bush II presidency to end.
I know, all this trying to fix something so huge and out of control can seem ridiculous. Or hopeless. And maybe it is hopeless for individuals to try to turn the tide when we're up against huge corporations and governments with no incentives to change.
This is a dense topic to explore.
And thanks for noticing that I refrain from overeating. :)

Kris Shanks said...

The funny thing is, a number of corporations have recently been calling for legislation to address climate change article here
Of course, it's in their own best interest to get the US to lay down the carbon trading ground rules sooner than later, but I think the last election really shook some things loose.
I occilate between thinking that taking individual actions to improve energy efficiency and advocating for renewable power will make a sufficient difference and being grateful I don't have children to inherit the mess we're leaving behind.