Just Plane Wrong

I love to fly.

No surprise, given my upbringing as a "global nomad" or a "third culture kid" who grew up in a half-dozen countries, attending 7 different schools from K-12. In fact, one of the books I'm reading now is a fascinating exploration of what that our lives feel like (since it is not as rare as you might think): The Global Soul, in which skilled scribe Pico Iyers chronicles his visits to people and places, seeing them afresh as if the entire world is a foreign land.

However, flying in today's world faces a problem: It is a relatively intense fossil energy user, and therefore carbon emitter, and its emissions are growing rapidly. That's why the Select Committee on Global Warming and Energy Independence asked me to testify at a hearing about this sector cleverly named "From the Wright Brothers to the Right Solutions: Curbing Soaring Aviation Emissions."

In my testimony, I walk through demand-side issues, including the fact that -- unlike our cars and trucks -- aviation has done a pretty good job of increasing fuel economy of air travel, increasing it by some 70 percent in 40 years. This is in part due to higher efficiency of aircraft and operations. However, the trend of saving energy has slowed in recent years, so there's definitely room for further improvement. For example, we need more planes like Boeing's brand-new 787 which will consume 20 percent less fuel than comparable planes, and air traffic control is in desperate need of overhaul to reap the fuel-savings from more efficient routing thanks to satellite-based navigation. And there is also room for a shift from planes to trains for short-haul trips, which will ease congestion at airports and on the sector generally and provide a much needed boost for rail in this country.

But the big problem is with supply of energy for this sector. The Air Force is driving hard to get a liquid coal industry off the ground, to provide a substitute for increasingly costly conventional-oil-derived jet fuel. But liquefying coal, as I've written about before, is a bad bargain: It may slake our thirst for transportation fuel, but at tremendous cost and environmental consequences. Just for starters, it is about twice as carbon-intensive as conventional fuel.

On top of the substantive problems, as a practical matter the Air Force is responsible for less that two percent of the total market, and as a report commissioned by the Department of Defense (DoD) itself found, "DoD is not a sufficiently large customer to drive the domestic market for demand and consumption of fossil fuel alternatives..."

There are better approaches to aviation as we enter carbon-constrained airspace, some of which are covered by my friend Tom Collina in a recent op ed which also explains why global warming is a national security concern. As Tom writes, low-carbon substitutes such as sustainable biofuels are a better alternative.

Better still is driving down the energy intensity of the sector further through more efficient technology and air traffic management, shifting some goods and people movement to oil-efficient rail, and freeing up energy for aviation by moving the rest of the transportation sector -- which after all consumes nearly 90 percent of the fuel -- beyond oil via more efficiency and low-carbon substitutes. EPA can help steer the course toward good outcomes such as these, and in fact NRDC and others have petitioned the Administrator to take action to cut global warming pollution from aviation.

And then we can all rest easier when we board a plane, knowing aviation has a smart flight plan for a carbon-constrained world.