Visiting Vancouver in summer 2009, by land?

March 25, 2009

in Canada, The environment, Travel

In the past, this blog has featured some discussion of trans- and inter-continental travel by means other than aircraft. This summer, I am thinking about actually giving it a try, going from Ottawa to Vancouver by train. If I could take two consecutive weeks off work, the three-day journey in each direction wouldn’t be excessively long in comparison with my time in Vancouver. It would also give me the chance to see quite a bit of Canada from ground level.

Given that wireless internet access is available on the trains, and I am actually quite good at working while on them, the time need not even be terribly unproductive. The biggest drawback of the train is the outrageous expense of the sleeper cars. Going in a two-berth room with a stranger would cost more than $3000, round-trip. By contrast, traveling in an ordinary seat would probably be under $700, with the Sierra Youth Coalition 40% discount. While I definitely cannot shell out three grand for the trip, I am also not sure whether I could tolerate three days of trying to sleep in a semi-reclining chair, eating whatever I brought along with me, and hunting for laptop-charging electrical outlets in cars designated for richer people.

While the train would be aesthetically appealing, I am not opposed to considering other lower-carbon options. Some kind of ride-share, for instance, could be interesting as well. It would also probably be a lot cheaper, though it would probably take significantly more than three days each way.

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{ 299 comments… read them below or add one }

Litty March 25, 2009 at 6:11 pm

Greyhound is cheap but unpleasant.

A round-trip fare from Ottawa to Vancouver and back seems to be $230, if purchased 14 days in advance.

It takes right around three days: between 2d, 21h, 35m and 3d, 1h, 30m.

Tristan March 25, 2009 at 6:14 pm

Uh,

out of 14 days, 6 days is quite a lot. any way you cut it. It’s almost half.

Tristan March 25, 2009 at 6:18 pm

I feel the need to point out that the trip is 3 days from Toronto to Vancouver, there would be another 4-5 hour connection to Ottawa.

Emily March 25, 2009 at 6:40 pm

ViaRail usually has outlets at every seat, I think.

I’m interested to see how this unfolds. I’ll keep scouting around for deals. :)

R.K. March 25, 2009 at 7:00 pm

How much are travel days worth to you, and how much is sending a message on climate change worth?

One option is to fly and spend several hundred dollars buying gold standard carbon offsets. The environmental impact might actually be better than going by land, though it would send a worse message to your many observers.

R.K. March 25, 2009 at 7:02 pm

Taking two weeks off would give you sixteen days off work, if you included three two-day weekends. A suitably placed three-day weekend could extend that a bit further.

Milan March 25, 2009 at 7:11 pm

out of 14 days, 6 days is quite a lot. any way you cut it. It’s almost half.

I thought we agreed that casual travel is a big problem.

I wonder whether it might be possible to take a whole month off work, unpaid. I would still have to pay my Ottawa rent, but that would improve the travel to visit ratio considerably.

ViaRail usually has outlets at every seat, I think.

According to the ‘facilities’ tab on this page, comfort class (economy) does not include an AC outlet.

That being said, I have had electricity on comfort class seats between Ottawa and Montreal, as well as Ottawa and Toronto.

One option is to fly and spend several hundred dollars buying gold standard carbon offsets.

The idea occurred to me. I remain internally divided about carbon credits. On the one hand, it is clear that investment in some areas can yield big returns in reduced emissions. At the same time, they do seem to perpetuate the idea that climate change mitigation need not involve much change in how we live our lives.

Milan March 25, 2009 at 7:14 pm

In a previous discussion, I came up with some emissions estimates for the trip:

Car (medium fuel economy): 1,461kg
Plane: 5,974kg
Train: 986kg
Bus: 1,538kg

Matt March 25, 2009 at 7:21 pm

Milan, can you provide numbers that show that flying is the worst option (for this particular journey) for carbon output? My first inclination would be to think that per carbon output per person moved would be the lowest on an airplane. I’m not arguing, either, I would just be interested in seeing the data.

Matt March 25, 2009 at 7:22 pm

Whoops, bad timing on my post. I see you have.

Milan March 25, 2009 at 7:24 pm

Matt,

The Native Energy figure quoted immediately above is much higher than those produced by most carbon calculators. The link in my previous comment goes to a discussion of their methodology.

By comparison, Atmosfair estimates the flight emissions at 1,900kg.

Matt March 25, 2009 at 7:30 pm

I didn’t really like the way they estimated the carbon output for the airplane, seemed like there were more assumptions made than had to be made. I’ll see if I can get my friend who’s an A320 first officer to provide the total fuel burn for a Toronto (or Ottawa) to Vancouver trip, and then I’ll calculate a few different CO2 outputs per person based on different load levels (ie 50% 80% 100% full). I think (provided I can get the info) it’s going to come out less than what’s shown above.

Milan March 25, 2009 at 7:31 pm

Some real data would be very welcome.

Milan March 25, 2009 at 7:35 pm

I should also try to estimate my total annual CO2 emissions, in order to put the travel numbers in a bit of perspective.

Sarah March 25, 2009 at 8:56 pm

You might be able to combine the train & Greyhound and/or a car-share so as to give you a night in a cheap hotel somewhere en route (thus you wouldn’t have successive nights of poor sleep) and a bit of variety in the unpleasantness.

Matt March 25, 2009 at 10:17 pm

Milan, I’ve done the calculations in excel using an average molecule of C12H24 for kerosene, and fuel burn numbers for both an A320 and 767 west and eastbound. The CO2 output numbers I got for the plane are much less than what are mentioned above. I’ve linked it here. If anyone finds an error I’ll be happy to fix it, but this did take a while to do so I hope it’s not dismissed outright.

Milan March 25, 2009 at 10:20 pm

What do you think about this part of the NativeEnergy methodology?

“In addition, we apply an RFI (radiative forcing index) of 2.0 to the direct CO 2 emissions from air travel, resulting in total CO 2 equivalent emission factors of 1.28, 0.88 or 0.8 for short, medium and long haul flight segments. By doubling the direct CO 2 emissions, our goal is to account for the overall global warming impact of air travel for all air emissions – not just the CO 2 – such as the warming effect of contrails. In its 1999 Special Report on Aviation in the Global Atmosphere, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated the RFI from air travel in 1990 to be between 2 and 4, averaging 2.7 times the carbon impact alone. More recently, the TRADEOFF project of The Fifth Framework Programme of the European Commission of the EU, suggested an RFI of 1.9. The Climate Neutral Network recommends use of a 2.0 times factor on the short haul rate for all flight miles.”

Matt March 25, 2009 at 10:22 pm

Apologies if this is a double post, the first doesn’t appear to have shown up. I did the CO2 calculations for both a 767 and A320 trip west and east bound YYZ-YVR. The fuel burns were provided by my pilot friend and air actual burns from engine start to engine stop. I did the calculation in excel and have posted a screen cap of the results here. If anyone sees errors I’d be happy to correct them, but as this took a long time to put together, I hope the results aren’t dismissed outright. As you can see, they are much lower than what is talked about above.

Milan March 25, 2009 at 10:23 pm

For the sake of certainty in future data access, I copied your JPEG to:

http://www.sindark.com/photo/CO2_plane.jpg

Matt March 26, 2009 at 12:49 am

I have just completed the second set of calculations, this time using a car. I used the fuel economy of my own car as a basis, and the distance from Toronto to Vancouver airports. I changed the fuel from kerosene to octane in the spreadsheet to reflect the difference between jet fuel and gasoline used by planes/cars. Also, I assumed a fuel temperature of 10 deg Celsius to give a 0.711 kg / L density. The screenshot of that spreadsheet is here.

Tristan March 26, 2009 at 1:29 am

This might be a bit outside the current discussion stream. But yes, Milan, I agree that casual travel is a big problem. I think taking the train is a fantastic idea, personally. I love trains, have since I was a young child.

If someone told me that if I gave up school right now I could somehow become a train engineer, it would be a difficult proposition, even now, to turn down.

But that is really beside the point. My positive contribution here is something like, isn’t all this efficiency talk beside the point? I agree, reservedly, that your worry about carbon credits is appropriate. But doesn’t that mean that the solution is to not make the trip at all? That seems wrong as well, because it de facto values your own happiness less than the happiness of others who choose not to act according to our duties vis a vis climate change – and it’s unclear why your happiness should be less valuable.

Personally, I take the “fly as much as possible while its dirt cheap” approach. If someone could show me why I had a duty not to act on this maxim, I’d be very pleased to change it. But, it’s hard to find any moral realists in this town, let alone ones that will deal with particular maxims.

BuddyRich March 26, 2009 at 7:21 am

Tristan, your argument sounds a lot like:

“I know something is wrong, but because everyone else is doing it, I am going to do it too because it makes me happy”…

Now I am not saying that Milan is that person, but until people start acting against their own narrow self-interest, how will things ever change following that first philosophy? I suppose a groundswell of opinion would have to bubble up to the top and things would have to be regulated for things to change if everyone lived by that motto. Perhaps that is the only realistic way for things to change?

Tristan March 26, 2009 at 8:12 am

Wait, so is BuddyRich advocating value-change? Do you think acting-against our selfish interest is a value that needs to be thought to be adopted? Where was he when everyone was ridiculing me for asserting non-implementable solutions?

J. March 26, 2009 at 8:33 am

Hi

I’m actually taking the train from Ottawa – Vancouver in May 2009.

Ottawa – Toronto and then Toronto – Vancouver. Toronto to Vancouver takes three morning (leave tues at 10pm – arrive sat at 10am).

IF you decide to go, take the Sliver and Blue package. I’m not to sure what the cost is (I won this trip) from what I can see it’s worth it.

You get a nice bedroom (bunk beds or double bed), shower and all your meals paid (no alcohol). If you look at the menu it’s $12.00 for a regular bacon and eggs breakfast… so you see where I’m going here.

Good luck with planning your trip. I will be blogging about my adventures taking the train, so stay tuned.

Milan March 26, 2009 at 9:04 am

Personally, I take the “fly as much as possible while its dirt cheap” approach. If someone could show me why I had a duty not to act on this maxim, I’d be very pleased to change it.

If the fact that flying harms defenceless members of future generations isn’t cause enough to restrain yourself, I am not sure what could convince you.

Milan March 26, 2009 at 9:44 am

This reminds me of a passage from Rousseau:

“Even if it were true that commiseration were an obscure feeling that puts us in the place of the sufferer, a feeling obscure and strong in the savage, developed but weak in civilized man, what effect could that idea have on the truth of what I am saying except to strengthen it? Indeed, commiseration would be all the more energetic in proportion as the spectator animal identifies [s’identifie] more intimately with the suffering animal. Now it is clear that this identification must have been infinitely closer in the state of nature than in that of reason. It is reason that engenders selfishness [l’amour-propre], and it is reflection that fortifies it, that turns man back upon himself, that detaches him from all that troubles and distresses him; it is philosophy that isolates him, it is through philosophy that he says in secret at the sight of a sufferer: perish, if you like, I am safe.”

There does seem to be a degree to which more knowledge about moral philosophy gives us more tools to rationalize inappropriate actions.

Bloix March 26, 2009 at 10:01 am

“If the fact that flying harms defenceless members of future generations isn’t cause enough to restrain yourself, I am not sure what could convince you.”

Milan, that plane is going whether or not you’re on it. If there were a collective movement of people who refused to fly that actually led to flight cancellations, that would be one thing, but individual action in this context has nothing but symbolic effect. As long as you don’t drive, your trip will not actually contribute anything to atmospheric CO2. There’s nothing wrong with symbolism, of course, but let’s not get carried away, here.

oleh March 26, 2009 at 10:47 am

Milan,

For my strictly selfish reasons, I would be very happy to see you in Vancouver this summer, the longer the better. Flying allows for that. I would be prepared to take my car off the road for three months as a type of carbon offset to your flight if that helps in your decision.

Milan March 26, 2009 at 11:23 am

Milan, that plane is going whether or not you’re on it.

A previous discussion bears upon this issue:

Air travel and looting

R.K. March 26, 2009 at 12:13 pm

In a previous discussion, I think it was concluded that it is the distance traveled that matters most, with mode of transport being less important.

If so, there may be no more way to visit Vancouver under your moral code – certainly not for just a few days.

Matt March 26, 2009 at 7:53 pm

Milan, I read your air travel and looting article just now, and I understand what you are saying. However, I wonder why you target air travel specifically? It seems to me that of all the current options available to you for your upcoming trip, air travel pollutes the least. Well, at least it has the least carbon output. Even when you use the correction factor of 2.0 that was suggested above, it still comes out favorably compared to the train.

Milan March 26, 2009 at 8:06 pm

Perhaps there is no environmentally responsible way to make this journey.

Milan March 26, 2009 at 9:38 pm

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BuddyRich March 26, 2009 at 10:30 pm

Sadly, I fell into Hume’s old is-ought trap…

Realistically most people will look out for their own narrow, rational self interest, but I don’t think that is how it ought to be (at least where smaller individual but larger combined negative externalities are concerned)… and that was my point, without people aspiring to be something better (be the change as Obama would say) nothing will change. Ultimately I do think it will take regulation, and the politicians will only enact them when there is enough groundswell of public support calling for them.

But by your maxim, how would you answer Milan’s prior posting about ethical considerations for future generations? Would you have any? Probably moreso if you want/plan to have kids, but if you know you don’t there is no self-interest reason to care about future generations…

Milan March 27, 2009 at 5:40 pm

Matt,

What do you think the likely proportion of full seats would be on a mid-summer flight?

Also, would it be possible to produce a comparable analysis for the train? Would we just require a fuel-usage figure for a cross-country run?

Matt March 27, 2009 at 5:49 pm

I might be able to get a typical load factor from my friend, but that’s probably not information that’s easy for him to get. For the fuel burn he only had to look it up on the company’s employee website. My guess, though that 80% – 100% would be reasonable to assume.

The method I used to make the car and plane calculations only looked at total fuel burn and fuel type (you need to know the average hydrocarbon molecule) to get CO2 output and divided by passengers to get per passenger. So for the train calculation again, all I need is total fuel burn and the number of passengers on it (I could do a range for that).

Milan March 27, 2009 at 5:56 pm

Out of curiosity, is there any physical process through which I could personally extract several tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in a form that would be stable indefinitely? (Personal net carbon removal)

I suppose I could grind up some ultramafic rock.

That being said, spending the money required on high-quality offsets may well do more good…

Milan March 27, 2009 at 5:57 pm

As for the train calculation, I could try calling VIA rail on Monday.

It may be posssible to get either:

(a) the total fuel use for an Ottawa to Vancouver run or
(b) the fuel use per kilometre, as well as the on-track length of that journey.

Matt March 27, 2009 at 6:09 pm

The easiest thing that comes to mind is that you could plant a tree.

Tristan March 27, 2009 at 6:24 pm

Do we think that comparing the C02 emissions of various ways of travel is appropriate? Wouldn’t it make more sense to look at our total personal carbon emissions, and compare that with what a sustainable level of personal carbon emissions would be?

Matt March 27, 2009 at 6:43 pm

I think that would make sense, except that it may totally preclude a trip at all based on currently available options (unless Milan is willing to bike to Vancouver). If that is indeed the case (although I don’t know if it is because we haven’t defined the sustainable level of emissions) then then only other thing he could do besides not make the trip is choose the least impacting currently available option.

Milan March 27, 2009 at 7:31 pm

The easiest thing that comes to mind is that you could plant a tree.

The carbon from a tree will be back in the atmosphere within a few hundred years, at most. A much more durable form of sequestration would be necessary, before you could justifiably claim to have negated your emissions.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to look at our total personal carbon emissions, and compare that with what a sustainable level of personal carbon emissions would be?

The only sustainable level of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions is zero. With anything else, they will just keep on building up in the atmosphere.

Getting there will require a huge mitigation effort, in the first place, and probably a second effort to draw atmospheric concentrations back to a safe level, through mechanisms like burning biomass and burying the CO2.

Obviously, we cannot jump instantly to a sustainable level, since the infrastructure is not in place. A decent medium-term target (say, for the next few decades) is to cut per-capita emissions to about 0.75 tonnes per year, while stabilizing population.

The average Canadian emits 23 tonnes now.

Milan March 27, 2009 at 7:32 pm

For the medium term, the Stern Review cites a figure of five gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent as the quantity that can be emitted by humanity each year. Given the present population of 6.6 billion people, that means our fair share is about 750kg of emissions each, per year.

R.K. March 27, 2009 at 7:51 pm

What about a home efficiency upgrade that will prevent the same quantity of emissions, over a relatively short period of time?

Assuming the building stays up for five more years isn’t a huge leap.

Magictofu March 27, 2009 at 11:36 pm

I think the idea with decent carbon offset schemes is not really to offset someone’s carbon emissions but to accelerate the transition to a carbon neutral society. If we look a wider level, they do have the potential to reduce total emissions even though other societal trends have much more weight in the equation.

While you might not like the fact that some people use offsets to avoid the guilt they would otherwise feel does not mean that the idea should be rejected outright. In many ways, it seems you are doing just that by trying to chose the least polluting option. I think it is always better to look at these things at the societal level rather than the personal level… in that sense, maybe giving to an advocacy group that you like might have more beneficial effects than anything else.

That being said, bike touring is by far the best way to travel I know… too bad its not an option given the distance and your time limitations.

Matt March 28, 2009 at 1:01 am

“I think it is always better to look at these things at the societal level rather than the personal level…”

While societal adoption of carbon neutral transportation would be ideal and one person’s actions are just a drop in the ocean, it is people like Milan who make the case for society to change. So while probably very few of us reading the blog would go to the lengths that he does to avoid carbon dioxide emission, I feel that he should be proud to be a leader in this field. I think the job of convincing the masses is a big hurdle, but we always need individuals like Milan to elicit change, otherwise there wouldn’t be much pressure (until we literally run out of oil or obliterate ourselves ecologically) to change before those things happen. I know that I’m more aware of how I can make changes in my life to reduce my carbon consumption, and some of that awareness has come from this blog.

Speaking of reducing my carbon consumption I have recently been buying only ethanol blended gasoline from Mohawk. I realize there’s some irony in this statement because driving a car at all pollutes a lot, but I was wondering what you think, Milan, of ethanol derived fuel? I’m operating under the theory that that 10% is renewable. Do you think that 10% ethanol gasoline from Mohawk makes any difference? What do you think of E85 “gasoline”?

Tristan March 28, 2009 at 11:21 am

Ethanol fuel might be renewable in some quantities, depending on how many people we want to be able to feed. Right now, it seems pretty clear that buying Ethanol blended fuel means someone, somewhere else, has to starve.

Milan March 28, 2009 at 11:30 am

Ethanol has a lot of problems.

The way we grow corn is very fossil fuel intensive, which makes it somewhat dubious that the fuel is renewable. That becomes even more of a concern when you consider the energy return on investment (EROI). It may well be the case that we would have been better off using oil to power cars, rather than gas to make fertilizers and oil to drive mechanized farming equipment. There are further doubts about the economics.

And there are additional concerns about using food for fuel, such as the effect it has on the very poor. The politics of ethanol are also somewhat murky.

It may eventually be possible to make ethanol efficiently from non-fuel crops, but there are doubts about that as well.

Finally, ethanol is apparently a fairly problematic fuel, just in terms of its performance in pipelines and vehicles.

Quebec has rejected corn ethanol entirely; Brazil uses a different process, with sugarcane as a raw material, and gets a much better EROI.

Milan March 28, 2009 at 11:31 am

I like the idea of a home efficiency upgrade. It is a direct personal action that could demonstrably offset travel emissions.

I wonder how I could determine whether there are any cost-effective options my landlord would sign off on.

Magictofu March 28, 2009 at 11:40 am

Matt, I totally agree with you. At the same time, I think we ought to recognize that offsets activities can have a huge impact and that they should not be ignored base on abstract principles. In the absence of fuel cell airplanes or other greener means of transportation I think they can be a reasonable solution.

Milan March 30, 2009 at 4:11 pm

Oliver Morton’s blog has some interesting coverage on forms of carbon storage that may not prove durable in the long-term, such as biochar:

My biggest worry about the technology is that its strengths could have within them a fatal flaw. The soil is an easily reached reservoir, and provides a multiplier effect that’s crucial to the efficacy of biochar: the carbon stored in biochar schemes is not just the carbon in the charcoal, it’s the increased organic carbon in the rest of the soil. But easily reached is also easily breached, and multipliers can work two ways. If people use biochar to store a lot of carbon in soil, but not enough to forestall significant warming (which is a not unlikely scenario in the world biochar enthusiasts imagine) then they’ll have provided an extra bolus of soil carbon to be respired back into the atmosphere by the warmer, and thus harder working, soil bacteria; they will have effectively traded emissions now for emissions later. So the carbon could quickly come right back out. If the microbial priming effect kicks in in this scenario — with the easily mobilised carbon providing enough energy for the bacteria to tackle more refractory carbon they would normally ignore – you might end up with not just with the carbon you stored away leaking out, but also some of the carbon that was already there. This is a subject on which I’d like to see more research before squirelling away the odd gigatonne of carbon.

From what I have read, ground-up ultramafic rocks are much more likely to be enduring carbon stores.

Milan March 30, 2009 at 4:21 pm

Native Energy estimates the following emissions for a return trip from Ottawa to Vancouver:

Rail: 0.509 tons (0.461 tonnes)
Bus: 0.228 tons (0.206 tonnes)

Admittedly, companies that sell carbon offsets have a strong incentive to inflate these figures.

Matt’s calculation for the flight suggests emissions from flying would be:

100% loading, no x2 multiplication for emissions at altitude: 0.526 tonnes
80% loading, , no x2 multiplication for emissions at altitude: 0.657 tonnes
100% loading, x2 multiplication for emissions at altitude: 1.053 tonnes
80% loading, , x2 multiplication for emissions at altitude: 1.315 tonnes

I averaged the figures for the 767 and the A320 aircraft.

Milan March 30, 2009 at 5:37 pm

I would be prepared to take my car off the road for three months as a type of carbon offset to your flight if that helps in your decision.

I appreciate your generous offer, though it may not be the best route to take.

For the sake of quantitative comparison, how many kilometres do you estimate the vehicle would otherwise travel during three months? Also, what is its fuel efficiency? Finally, to what extent do you think you would compensate by driving the other car more often?

Tristan March 30, 2009 at 6:53 pm

The bus is only 200 kilos of carbon, for a return trip? That seems pretty impressive to me, considering how far it has to travel.

How much less carbon do you think was produced by the heating of your house than would have been should it have been kept at a legal temperature? It seems to me you quite clearly have the carbon right to a legally heated space – and if you gave up some of that right, then you should have the right to emit the difference of carbon in a trip, no?

The more I think about heating and carbon, the more I think I have a duty to insulate.

Milan March 30, 2009 at 6:58 pm

I just realized that I only calculated the rail and bus figures one-way. Corrected, they are:

Rail: 0.922 tonnes
Bus: 0.412 tonnes

It seems to me you quite clearly have the carbon right to a legally heated space

I don’t think ‘rights’ are a good way to think about this. I choose to live alone in a cold city. Does that mean I am less deserving of this ‘right’ than someone who shared a house somewhere that’s naturally habitable?

I also don’t think it makes much sense to assign people rights that quite possibly cannot be fulfilled in the long run. In the long run, we can’t keep emitting the quantity of emissions associated with building heating now.

Milan March 30, 2009 at 7:04 pm

As I argued before:

In the above, ‘rights’ are simply shorthand for rules that generally produce the best possible outcome.

Absolute rights are a useless mechanism for adjudicating moral claims. Do future generations have the ‘right’ to a world not wrecked by climate change? If so, how do we balance that ‘right’ against rights that I might claim, such as the ‘right’ to food or education?

The only sensible way to reconcile them is to think about the consequences of different choices.

Milan March 30, 2009 at 7:23 pm

The bus is only 200 kilos of carbon, for a return trip?

Also, remember: Carbon v. CO2

Tristan March 30, 2009 at 7:35 pm

“The only sensible way to reconcile them is to think about the consequences of different choices.”

Just consequences aren’t enough – you have no way of knowing what the consequences of any action will be entirely. So, you need to go on something like the extent to which consequences can be pre-grasped by actors.

But then, there seems to be something like a duty to pre-grasp consequences in the appropriate way, i.e. a duty to know about the issues and the consequences of my actions on others. But, my duties are others’ rights. So, I have a right to live in a state where other people take up their duties. These rights are not ‘absolute’, they need to be fought for. Rights always correspond with duties – my right to live in a rational state corresponds with my duty to make my state rational. My right to liberty corresponds with my duty not to allow others to infringe on my liberty, i.e. I have a positive duty not to allow myself, to the extent to which it can be avoided, to be enslaved.

Don’t you think? This seems to me the only sensible way to think about consequences, is within a non-absolutist framework of rights and duties.

If, taking for granted, we think consequences are of importance.

Matt April 3, 2009 at 6:47 pm
tristan April 4, 2009 at 5:13 pm

Whichever mode of travel you choose, the chance that you taking this trip will actually cause any meaningful amount of carbon to be released, seems infinitesimal.

Circulating propeganda explaining the dangers of air, bus, and train travel, would almost certainly have a greater effect.

Milan April 4, 2009 at 5:20 pm

Actually, I think choosing not to travel would have a much stronger propaganda effect than passing out some brochures.

That said, it would mean not seeing Emily for the better part of five months.

tristan April 4, 2009 at 8:29 pm

I think you should visit Emily.

Milan April 5, 2009 at 12:45 am

The precedent is also important. If I am going to avoid flying from now on, people I care about will need to know that I will not fly to see them.

Tristan April 5, 2009 at 3:08 pm

i.e. people you care about will think you don’t care about them.

Magictofu April 5, 2009 at 3:09 pm

Milan, if you are not going to fly, what is the likelihood that your friends and family decide to fly instead?

I might be justifying my own failings (it would not be the first time) but I do see a great injustice in having the committed few, who already make great effort, paying the price of not seeing friends and family while others are happily jet-skying avery weekend and flying everywhere even when other reasonable alternatives exist.

Tristan April 5, 2009 at 3:09 pm

Sorry, I misread your previous statement, obviously people will know you care about them if you take the trouble of making a 6 day train or bus journey. I thought you said “travel at all” rather than “fly at all”.

Milan April 5, 2009 at 3:14 pm

Ideally, they might think that the ethics of fighting global warming are of such overwhelming importance that they can legitimately require the avoidance of visits.

R.K. April 5, 2009 at 3:15 pm

In order to be consistent in your stance, you should refuse to see people who fly in order to visit you.

Milan April 5, 2009 at 3:16 pm

[O]bviously people will know you care about them if you take the trouble of making a 6 day train or bus journey. I thought you said “travel at all” rather than “fly at all”.

From the calculations above, it seems that non-plane travel is still quite emissions intensive. It may be that all inter- and trans-continental travel must be minimized and used only when the importance of being somewhere is overwhelming.

Tristan April 5, 2009 at 4:13 pm

People will interpret, and correctly so, that your decision not to travel means your commitment to global warming ethics is greater than your commitment to them.

We have many obligations on us, all the time. Some of them are placed on us by being human at all (i.e. obligations that apply to everyone, like these global warming obligations), and some by particular projects and relations we take up (i.e. obligations we have not to plagiarize, to finish work on time, to take care of our loved ones). Sometimes duties are placed into conflict with each other. The extent to which we take a duty to be important is the extent to which we act on it rather than other duties which conflict with it.

Rousseau already understood this quite well in the 18th century. Zizek has a good explanation of his position here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJPhA9TGRls

Milan April 5, 2009 at 5:31 pm

People will interpret, and correctly so, that your decision not to travel means your commitment to global warming ethics is greater than your commitment to them.

Would you want people who cared about you to do things they considered immoral in order to see you?

Would you do things you considered immoral in order to see them?

Granted, there may be cases where both are acceptable (people dying, perhaps people getting married), but it is conceivable that visits just for the same of visiting are insufficient cause.

Milan April 5, 2009 at 5:36 pm

In order to be consistent in your stance, you should refuse to see people who fly in order to visit you.

There is some logic there, but it’s an even trickier issue than whether I should fly or travel myself.

For instance, I choose to be a vegetarian, partly for moral reasons. Refusing to eat with non-vegetarians is a much more imposing choice.

Tristan April 5, 2009 at 6:43 pm

“Would you want people who cared about you to do things they considered immoral in order to see you?”

You’ve made a category mistake here. Seeing people you care about IS ITSELF a morally relevant issue. The easiest way of expressing this issue is in terms of values: you value climate change mitigation, and you value seeing the people you care about. Values that you hold to trump others win in cases where values conflict, i.e. what we are talking about here is a case of value conflict between valuing climate change mitigation and valuing seeing someone you care about. Both are moral obligations, or “values” if you wish.

The only way you can keep the problem in the terms you seem to want is to argue that “seeing people I care about” is simply not a moral issue, i.e. does not concern what it means to be a proper or good human being. That position seems totally untenable.

“Would you do things you considered immoral in order to see them?”

Everytime we act on any value in a situation where values come into a contradiction, we do something immoral. For example, if we choose the climate change mitigation value, then we do something immoral by not seeing people we care about, and if we choose seeing people we care about, we do something immoral because we don’t mitigate climate change in that action.

Many action that are moral, if you have an at all varied life, will also be immoral based on some other value you hold which everyone will agree also puts a sort of obligation on you – the very fact you decide that this obligation is more essential than that one, is the decision not only that one act is more moral than another, but that another act is less immoral than another – because the compromising of one value is lesser.

But, I think I can re-phrase your question in better terms, not:

“Would you do things you considered immoral in order to see them?””

But:

“Would you act on obligations you have a lesser duty towards when that prevents you from fulfilling a greater obligation?”

Tristan April 6, 2009 at 10:13 am

“The carbon from a tree will be back in the atmosphere within a few hundred years, at most. ”

This seems deeply flawed. On the one hand – evergreen trees live far more than “a few hundred years”, and on the other, if you increase the size of the forest, the average carbon sequestered in it goes up. So, perhaps planting one tree might not do much good, but any kind of carbon credits plan that increases the size of a forest would be a valid way to increase carbon storage.

I’ve been thinking about something – where did the carbon come from, which rotted as vegetation and turned into oil? Was there a time in the deep past when all the carbon we are extracting was also on the surface or in the atmosphere, before oil was formed?

Milan April 6, 2009 at 10:30 am

If you could guarantee that a previously unforested area would remain forest forever, it would be a much more significant offset than planting a tree. That being said, neither property rights nor the character of the climate lets you do that. For instance, enough warming would probably turn much of the Amazon into savannah.

The leading theory on the origin of fossil fuels is that the oil came from ancient plankton that settled on the bottom of the sea or lakes, in conditions where little oxygen was present. Coal is similarly the product of terrestrial plants. As such, all the carbon in them was in the atmosphere at some point or another in the past.

There have certainly been spans within geologic time when the Earth’s climate has been dramatically different (both much warmer and much cooler). There have also been previous crises (such as the P-T Event), where massive and possibly abrupt changes in the composition of the atmosphere took place, with a major impact on all forms of life.

Milan April 6, 2009 at 10:41 am

The fact that there have been periods in the past when atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses have been much higher than now is one reason for believing that Earth cannot experience the kind of runaway greenhouse effect that happened on Venus.

More on Venus:

Runaway tipping points of no return

Lessons from Venus

Milan April 6, 2009 at 11:15 am

As for the lifetimes of trees, it is worth bearing in mind that the reaction of carbon dioxide with CaCO3 takes around 5,000 years to cut atmospheric concentrations by 1/3 and it takes 400,000 years for reactions with igneous rocks to do the rest.

See: The atmospheric longevity of carbon dioxide

Milan April 24, 2009 at 11:20 am

I’ve been thinking about something – where did the carbon come from, which rotted as vegetation and turned into oil? Was there a time in the deep past when all the carbon we are extracting was also on the surface or in the atmosphere, before oil was formed?

A recent post on the Climate Progress blog speaks to this question:

What Chu should have explained is that the climate changes when it is forced to change. Past warming were driven by natural forcings, including massive releases of greenhouse gases. But now humans are dwarfing the natural cycles and natural forcings by pumping out greenhouse gases at a much higher rate than ever occurred in the past — see Humans boosting CO2 14,000 times faster than nature, overwhelming slow negative feedbacks. The result, as Wonk Room explains:

“During the Triassic, the entire planet was indeed a hothouse and entirely deglaciated. The carbon dioxide (CO2) content in the atmosphere was at its highest ever levels, spiking from 1000 parts per million to 3000 ppm. The end of the Triassic period was marked by one of the largest mass-extinction events in Earth’s history.

Habitable conditions for humanity, hundreds of millions of years later, are very different. Carbon dioxide levels, which had been below 300 ppm for the last 650,000 years and was stable at 280 ppm during the rise of human civilization, have skyrocketed since 1800 because of our burning of coal, oil, and natural gas to 388 ppm, a nearly 40 percent rise.”

Indeed, many fear that a huge methane release is what happened during the Permian-Triassic extinction event. And we are clearly risking that again here on our current emissions path — see Arctic Research Center: The underwater permafrost is thawing and releasing methane and Tundra Part 4: Permafrost loss linked to Arctic sea ice loss.

The last time the planet was as warm as during the Triassic, it was largely ice free, which would yield sea level rise of some 80 meters (260 feet).

Milan April 24, 2009 at 11:22 am

Also, I am engaged in a discussion about travel, ethics, and climate change on ‘A Few Things Ill Considered.’

R.K. May 15, 2009 at 11:37 am

Have you made any decisions about this?

Milan May 15, 2009 at 11:48 am

The train is an unappealing option for several major reasons:

Time: It takes about three days and seventeen hours each way, for a total travel time of 178 hours. That is more than twenty times as long as flying.

Other consequences of time are also bad. Sleeper cars are absurdly expensive, so I would be spending the better part of eight days sitting upright. I would also either need to bring a large amount of food with me or spend a fair bit of money on train food that is unlikely to be very good.

Of course, a long travel time would also cut into the time I could spend in Vancouver. If I take two weeks off work, I would have sixteen days, including weekends. Eight hours of flying would be 2% of that time, whereas 178 hours on the train would be 46% of the total.

Dates: The train doesn’t depart every day, and several of the plausible travel days are fully booked. This would likely mean even less time in Vancouver.

Cost: Taking the train from Ottawa to Toronto to Vancouver and back would cost about $750, after the 40% Sierra Youth discount, but before any spending on food. Flying would be about $600 with Westjet. Traveling by comfort on the train would be far more costly: $2049 round-trip.

Emissions: From what we have worked out above, it doesn’t actually seem like the train is hugely better than flying. The issue is the distance being traveled, more than the mode.

If not visiting Vancouver didn’t mean not seeing Emily for 4-5 months, I wouldn’t even be considering the trip.

Milan May 15, 2009 at 12:04 pm

Basically, by either train or plane, it seems like round-trip emissions to Vancouver are around one tonne of CO2 equivalent.

Is there anything concrete I could do to reduce emissions by a tonne?

One possibility is electricity. Looking back through my electrical bills, I see that I use an average of 13.06 kilowatt-hours of electricity per day: 4768 per year.

According to the EIA, burning coal produces about 2.1 pounds of carbon dioxide per kWh (0.95kg). Gas produces about 1.3 pounds (0.59kg). In Ontario, about 19% of electricity comes from coal, while 15% comes from gas, 23% comes from hydro and renewables, and 41% comes from nuclear.

If we assume that my electricity use comes from the same mix of sources, on average, that would equate to about 860kg/year of emissions from coal and 421kg/year of emissions from gas. In total, it is about 1,282kg.

Switching to Bullfrog power for a year would thus be arguably similar in impact to taking one round-trip flight to Vancouver. Bullfrog estimates that their electricity costs about a dollar more per day (at 8.9 cents per kilowatt hour). I am paying 5.6 cents from Hydro Ottawa. As such, switching would raise my annual electricity bill from about $267 to about $424, about 59%.

. May 15, 2009 at 12:10 pm
Milan May 15, 2009 at 12:16 pm

According to the Bullfrog methodology and calculator, my 4.77 annual mWh generate 1.02 tonnes of ‘footprint’ emissions and 3.22 tonnes of ‘system’ emissions.

The ‘system’ reduction is based on average emissions from a mWh of generation at the margin of the Ontario electricity system, whereas the ‘footprint’ figure is based on an average mWh of generation.

On the whole personal responsibility/individual actions debate, Bullfrog does seem like a good option. That is because it is a means of promoting the kind of change we really need: the deployment of an energy system based around renewables.

Electricity is not an insignificant part of either my emissions of those of the Ontario/Canadian economy, and the deployment of renewables remains hampered by the unaddressed externalities of fossil fuel production.

Tristan May 15, 2009 at 1:24 pm

I’m a bit worried about Bullfrog power. They advocate small hydro projects, which do less absolute damage than big ones. But it’s very unclear to me whether they do less damage per watt of energy produced. It might literally be like building many small coal plants rather than one large one.

And, it’s a bit misleading to think that by buying power from a provider that only uses clean energy somehow reduces your emissions. In reality, if more bullfrog customers buy energy from these projects, that means less energy from those projects is being bought by non-bullfrog customers. But that power has to come from somewhere, right? Presumably the marginal power is something nasty. If you take the universalizing route – what would happen if everyone switched to bullfrog? Well, it would create a need to build more green power, and more wind power would be good. But, I’m not sure more of these small hydro projects would be – anytime you flood land there is some co2 released.

. May 15, 2009 at 1:30 pm

Ontario Home FAQs

How do I know that the volume of green electricity I purchase is really being delivered to the grid?

All of Bullfrog Power’s suppliers are required by the Environmental Choice Program EcoLogoM standard to guarantee that they produce at least as much EcoLogoM electricity as they sell. Additionally, Bullfrog Power has retained Deloitte to verify and audit our green power production levels on an annual basis. To review the most recent audit, click here.

Could Bullfrog Power handle a sudden, large increase in demand? Could you run out of power?

Bullfrog Power has secure and flexible arrangements with a number of suppliers to ensure we can meet the current and future requirements of our customers. Additionally, Bullfrog Power is investing in bringing more renewable power online. In this regard, two new wind turbines were commissioned in the fall of 2006 at the Sky Generation wind farm site on the Bruce Peninsula to service Bullfrog Power customer demand. In early 2007, in partnership with Schneider Power, Bullfrog announced the commissioning of two more new turbines on Manitoulin Island. In the fall of 2007, a new wind farm in Ravenswood was announced in partnership with Sky Generation. As our customer base grows, we will continue to help bring more new renewable power online. In the unlikely event that we should ever face a situation in which demand exceeds the supply we have available, we would temporarily refrain from signing on any new customers until we had addressed the supply deficit by commissioning new renewable power generation projects.

Milan May 15, 2009 at 1:36 pm

On emissions from dams, we did some calculations before and it seems like they are not a major concern in the Canadian context.

On other harm caused by dams, I think it is both less than that associated with most other forms of power, and far less than the damage climate change would cause. Even losing all the species from all of Canada’s rivers would be a significantly smaller effect than what can be expected from business-as-usual emissions.

Bullfrog’s hydro projects also adhere to the CCD-003: Electricity – Renewable Low-impact standard, under the EcoLogo program.

“To be authorized to carry the EcoLogo, electricity must:

* Be generated in such a manner that all steps of the generation process meet the requirements established by applicable laws and regulations;

* Be accompanied by evidence that appropriate consultation with communities and stakeholders has occurred, and when applicable reasonable mitigation of negative impacts has been addressed;

* Be accompanied by evidence that the project will not result in land conflict, biodiversity loss, or degradation of the heritage, cultural, recreational or touristic values; and

* Be generated in a manner that does not adversely impact species designated as endangered or threatened.

Water-powered electricity must:

* Not operate under authorization that allow the harmful alteration or disruption of fish habitat, unless the alteration does not affect the limiting factor controlling productive capacity, and loss of the affected habitat is compensated by the creation of similar habitat;

* Operations are coordinated with other water-control facilities to mitigate impacts;

* Operate such that:
o Reduced water flows in the bypassed reaches are not detrimental to indigenous inhabiting species,
o Instream flows downstream are adequate to support indigenous inhabiting species, and
o Water quality is comparable to unaltered bodies within the local watershed, including ensuring water temperature changes are not detrimental to indigenous inhabiting species; and

* Provide measures to minimize fish mortality that would result from impingement and entrainment, and ensure fish passage exists where man-made structures are placed where no natural barriers exist.”

Milan May 15, 2009 at 1:45 pm

A list of EcoLogo certified projects is online.

Wind and hydro facilities in Ontario include:

Eganville Generating Station (0.85 MW)
Trent Severn River System, ON (5.7 MW)
High Falls GS (2.7 MW)
Francis H. Clergue (52.2 MW)
Misema River Site (3 MW)
Andrews (42 MW)
Moose Rapids Hydroelectric Plant (1.3 MW)
Hollingsworth (23 MW)
Bracebridge Falls Generating Station (0.8 MW)
Hogg (18 MW)
Bancroft Light and Power Company (2000) Ltd. (25 MW)

Etc, etc.

The list also includes the electrical station immediately between my home and work:

Chaudiere #2 (8 MW)
Chaudiere #4 (8 MW)

Milan May 15, 2009 at 1:59 pm

At this stage, I see these as my options:

  1. Do not make the trip, take no further personal mitigation actions, buy no offsets
  2. Do not make the trip, take further personal actions, or buy offsets
  3. Take the train and take no further personal mitigation actions, buy no offsets
  4. Take the train and take further personal mitigation actions to reduce my annual emissions
  5. Take the train and buy offsets for the emissions
  6. Fly and take no further personal mitigation actions, buy no offsets
  7. Fly and take further personal mitigation actions to reduce my annual emissions
  8. Fly and buy offsets for the emissions

I am not sure if there are many more big personal reductions I could secure, aside from switching to renewable electricity. I cannot make major renovations to my apartment, I already travel by public transit exclusively, I am already a vegetarian, etc.

I remain uncertain about whether carbon offsets are a good idea, as well as whether they actually meaningfully ‘offset’ choices such as flying. I remain incapable of actually personally removing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere…

How would readers rank the listed options?

R.K. May 15, 2009 at 7:13 pm

If you would not otherwise have switched, moving to Bullfrog for a year seems like a pretty meaningful way to offset a flight.

Matt May 15, 2009 at 7:59 pm

Have you considered the remarkably large offset the murder of even a single fellow human would create? Moreso if it was a young child…

Betula May 16, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Such tough decisions.

First, realize the train is leaving whether your on it or not……you won’t save a polar bear by not going.

Second, realize the plane will leave whether your on it or not…..you won’t prevent flooding in Bangladesh by not going.

Third, someone needs to figure out the amount of CO2 that was used
trying to figure out how much CO2 would be used…….including all the comments associated with it.

Put me down for 90 seconds of computer time.

Tristan May 16, 2009 at 3:10 pm

The dams produce a set amount of power, whether or not you buy your power from bullfrog or not. If bullfrog could handle a sudden large increase in purchasers, that’s only because they can buy power from already existent low-impact power production. Only the movement of money changes – not emissions.

Now, Bullfrog can have some positive effect only insofar as they increase low-impact capacity. But, if all you want to do is increase low impact capacity, it makes far more sense to buy carbon credits from organizations that invest in the production of low-carbon electricity production capacity, i.e. wind or hydro.

Also, it’s a bit strange how we never seem to mention fish when it comes to hydro. Any hydro installation destroys a river insofar as fish runs are concerned. Any hydro that creates a lake destroys further life in the river by creating a dead spot where organic matter settles to the bottom.

Milan May 16, 2009 at 3:21 pm

Compared to climate change, fish are trivial.

Matt May 16, 2009 at 10:47 pm

First, realize the train is leaving whether your on it or not……you won’t save a polar bear by not going.

Second, realize the plane will leave whether your on it or not…..you won’t prevent flooding in Bangladesh by not going.

This was not only A) covered above, but B) not fully true.

Airlines, and I assume VIA rail as well determine frequency and capacity based on demand. Milan is lowering demand by choosing not to buy a ticket.

Third, someone needs to figure out the amount of CO2 that was used
trying to figure out how much CO2 would be used…….including all the comments associated with it.

Put me down for 90 seconds of computer time.

Link me to the post where you did any figuring.

Tristan May 17, 2009 at 11:22 am

Would reducing Via rail ridership really reduce Co2 output? The less ridership, the less trains, the more expensive to ride, the less convenient, the more people will find other alternatives. Other alternatives which, in almost every case, are less pleasant and more CO2 intensive.

Milan May 17, 2009 at 11:43 am

Based on the figures above, it isn’t clear that flying actually produces more emissions than taking the train. The distance traveled seems to be a more important factor than the mode (absurd options like going alone by giant SUV aside).

Betula May 17, 2009 at 4:53 pm

“Link me to the post where you did any figuring.”

Matt,

I have no idea how much time was spent plugged into an outlet researching and calculating the CO2 emissions resulting from the different transportation options available to make such a trip.

Perhaps Milan should require that all comments include a “plugged in time” that would include the reading , research, calculations and typing times associated with each response.

Without those times, I would have to figure CO2 usage based on best guess estimates, which would result in speculation on my part.

In addition, I would have to consider how to quantify all the complexities and uncertainties involved with each comment.
Was desk lighting being used? What type of light bulb ? What type of computer, size of monitor etc. How much CO2 was emitted in the manufacturing and transportation of all the computer components, desk lamp, bulbs etc…..and the life expectancy of these items. A percentage of the manufacturing and transportation CO2 usage would then have to be applied to each comment.

By coming up with a mean number based on all comments, I could then use that number to predict the hypothetical future impact of those comments on, well, pretty much everything……

The only drawback is that some people may be skeptical of the accuracy of the numbers, the methods used, the possible biases or hidden agendas of the people providing the information and/or the predictability of the future and the way in which the information is presented. Even worse, there could be some outright deniers…….unless we reach a consensus, then the debate would be over and we could create a site called “how to talk to a CO2 emitting comment denier.

Put me down for 8 minutes.

Tristan May 17, 2009 at 7:24 pm

I think it’s obvious that self-CO2 calculation is useful only insofar as one does not become a complete anorak about it. Reducing one’s C02 output is at base a moral choice – which means it needs to be considered on a level with other duty bound or charitable actions. So, as in any moral choices, there is to some extent a duty to know the impact of your actions – but that duty is not absolute, there is a reasonable limit to how much one is duty bound to know the effects of one’s actions.

Betula May 18, 2009 at 7:43 am

Tristan said…….
“Reducing one’s C02 output is at base a moral choice – which means it needs to be considered on a level with other duty bound or charitable actions.”

Tristan, I’m surprised you didn’t respond to this brilliant comment by Matt……

“Have you considered the remarkably large offset the murder of even a single fellow human would create? Moreso if it was a young child…”

Does this fit into the catagory of…… “considered on a level with other duty bound or charitable actions.”?

Perhaps you two need to talk.

Tristan May 18, 2009 at 9:53 am

Ya, too bad moral systems can’t tell us what’s right and wrong.

Betula May 18, 2009 at 10:59 am

“Ya, too bad moral systems can’t tell us what’s right and wrong.”

So by believing you’re right, this, in a sense, automatically makes you wrong.

Does this apply to climate change alarmists?

Emily May 18, 2009 at 3:22 pm

You know what I love about the internet? Is that if you disagree vehemently with a concept or an idea or say.. a blog.. you can just skip it when you’re doing your internet trawling.

Betula, speaking as someone who respects Milan’s beliefs and his efforts to create a space for thoughtful discussion on a number of topics, (not always climate change, by the way), I wish you would not be so quick to take the well-worn, low n’ dirty political scrap n’ tussle approach of pulling quotes out of context to strengthen your own position superficially. On every post.

I certainly value opposing view points, and take them into consideration – if they seem well thought-out and credible. Your seemingly hardening stance of climate change denial, under the umbrella of ‘possible political agendas’ of the ‘climate alarmists’ (the pleasures of being derided, disbelieved, and worrying for the future of mankind continually are too seductive to pass up), is decreasingly valuable to me as you become more defensive, unreasonable, and vicious.

Would it not be to your benefit to start a blog with your own research, with which ‘climate-alarmists’ could be proven wrong?

To which, perhaps, some of us bloggers could visit and discuss things your way?

Milan May 18, 2009 at 3:28 pm

At this stage, are people in universal agreement that the best (most moral?) option among those listed above is #1: “Do not make the trip, take no further personal mitigation actions, buy no offsets?”

What ranked order would you put the other options in?

Emily May 18, 2009 at 3:46 pm

Well, Tristan made the point that fighting climate change is a moral duty, and if you are ranking it ‘morally’ then you put it in the realm of other moral duties.

You have moral duties to your family, and to your loved ones, no less than you have moral duties to strangers.

So I vote: offsets, and trip by plane.

Betula May 18, 2009 at 3:50 pm

“I wish you would not be so quick to take the well-worn, low n’ dirty political scrap n’ tussle approach of pulling quotes out of context to strengthen your own position superficially.”

Emily,
Please explain to me how I took the following quote out of context….

“Have you considered the remarkably large offset the murder of even a single fellow human would create? Moreso if it was a young child…”

Respectfully submitted,

Betula.

Milan May 18, 2009 at 4:07 pm

Do you mean buying offsets, signing up for Bullfrog, or trying to reduce my own emissions in some other way?

Emily May 18, 2009 at 4:24 pm

Whichever you think is the most effective. I would be happy to either:

1. Contribute to buying offsets
2. Try to match your energy usage decrease, or carbon offset of a different kind, with my own.

I’ll also knit you a neck warmer. And maybe a hot-water bottle cover. That will help you save on energy in the winter.

Or, needlepoint a message for Stephen Harper and frame it: “Come on, man. Seriously. WTH?” in an elegant font. With little melting ice-caps, floating coyly about the fabric.

Milan May 18, 2009 at 8:19 pm

Betula,

The comment was probably intended to be satirical.

Is your plan to keep coming back here, taking offence at whatever others say, and starting pointless arguments with people? Perhaps you could be using your time in better ways.

It’s wonderful to have discussion on this site, but it really ought to be polite and meaningful, not mean-spirited and poorly justified.

Milan May 18, 2009 at 8:28 pm

Emily,

I do see appeal in the option of flying and switching to Bullfrog to partially compensate. Driving the Canadian economy in the direction of using more renewable power is one of the key tasks that must be undertaken to deal with climate change.

At least some carbon offsets are more dubious, particularly those tied to the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol. A major challenge is assessing what action firms and individuals would have taken without the offset, so as to assess how much additional effect it had over a hypothetical case where it didn’t exist.

Matt May 18, 2009 at 10:28 pm

Emily,
Please explain to me how I took the following quote out of context….

Allow me (the poster of the comment) to explain instead: My post was intended as morbid/graveyard humour; ie. outrageous, cynical and OBVIOUS SATIRE. In fact I’m surprised anyone was able to take it ‘out of context,’ but you have managed.

I agree with Emily’s post regarding opposing views. I would absolutely welcome them and give them due consideration if they were in anyway based on fact. However your posts lack any backing up, or creative ideas or opinions. They’re merely repetition of talking points.

Would reducing Via rail ridership really reduce Co2 output?

I was more referring to Milan’s case where the reduced demand would be replaced by the more efficient option or possibly even not going at all.

Tristan May 18, 2009 at 11:10 pm

“Now, Bullfrog can have some positive effect only insofar as they increase low-impact capacity. But, if all you want to do is increase low impact capacity, it makes far more sense to buy carbon credits from organizations that invest in the production of low-carbon electricity production capacity, i.e. wind or hydro.”

It’s quite possible that no carbon credits exist that fulfill the requirement I set out here. Alternatively, however, you could invest in corporation that are building sustainable power infrastructure. Since new infrastructure is always built with capital, and companies can only devote a portion of their profits to capital. Certainly, more business means more potential investors, but why not just use the money to become an investor yourself?

. May 19, 2009 at 11:10 am

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They committed to make Greensburg the greenest town in America.

In his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Obama said, “Greensburg … is being rebuilt by its residents as a global example of how clean energy can power an entire community – how it can bring jobs and businesses to a place where piles of bricks and rubble once lay. ‘The tragedy was terrible,’ said one of the men who helped them rebuild. ‘But the folks here know that it also provided an incredible opportunity.’”

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This new wind energy project is being developed with critical upfront financing from NativeEnergy, whose funding is made possible by the collective, community support of our clients, partners and individual supporters.

Milan May 19, 2009 at 11:12 am

Certainly, more business means more potential investors, but why not just use the money to become an investor yourself?

Investing in a renewable energy company means you expect a return. It seems logical that giving a grant to such a company would increase their profits and future investments by a greater amount, since they would have no future obligation to you.

Milan May 19, 2009 at 7:28 pm

It may be that making this trip for a non-essential reason is ethically unacceptable.

If so, am I ethically obligated to eliminate other non-essential emissions?

Tristan May 19, 2009 at 11:40 pm

Previously I’ve made arguments that sounded like “You can’t not fly, because if everyone in a like position to yours did that, we wouldn’t have airlines”. But, it’s not a contradiction that we not have airlines. We should get rid of airlines. But now it looks like the ethical act isn’t just to not fly (most others will continue to fly), but to destroy the airline industry.

Wouldn’t it be better to fly, if that somehow could damage the airline industry, bring it to a halt? I continually come to the conclusion that the immediate content of our acts has no significance – what counts is what changes they bring about. Of course, that means they still matter because they relate to the effects they bring about, but not in a simple copy-cat manner, at least not in all cases.

Milan May 20, 2009 at 9:09 am

The end of the airlines as they exist now is precisely what we do need, provided a sustainable form of flying doesn’t emerge.

The end of casual flights might be the only way to cut down the emissions from that sector, in line with the society-wide reductions we need.

I think the most system-influencing thing I could do would be to refuse to fly, even with offsets, unless there is some overwhelmingly important reason to do so. Of course, that would make for a lonely summer.

Betula May 20, 2009 at 12:13 pm

Matt,

I apologize, I guess I missed that your ” post was intended as morbid/graveyard humour; ie. outrageous, cynical and OBVIOUS SATIRE. ”

Dopey me.

Even Milan picked up on the fact that the ” comment was probably intended to be satirical”, and unlike my comments, could be considered “polite and meaningful, not mean-spirited and poorly justified.”

Now that I think about it, the thought of killing a small child is kind of funny, in a carbon saving sort of way.

By the way, that comment was meant to be satirical, I would be surprised if “anyone was able to take it ‘out of context”.

Betula May 20, 2009 at 12:23 pm

“The end of the airlines as they exist now is precisely what we do need, provided a sustainable form of flying doesn’t emerge.”

“The end of casual flights might be the only way to cut down the emissions from that sector”

This is all starting to sound eerily familiar……from my comments on “climate change denial”……..

“If someone believes that CO2 output has the potential to destroy life as we know it, wouldn’t they be more concerned about policies eliminating all forms of unecessary CO2 output such as those related to leisure, vacations, recreation and entertainment.”

Milan, don’t fly.

And when you ask yourself…….”am I ethically obligated to eliminate other non-essential emissions?”, consider my other comments from the “climate change denial ” post….

“Why am I tuning on TV and seeing NASCAR or Motorcross? How can we have the XGames or Baseball or Soccer or Football? Why am I seeing Hollywood award progams ? Why are the Broadway lights on? Why do we have Broadway shows and plays or carnivals or fairs or Disney theme parks or cruise liners or Air shows or snowmobiles or ski lifts or horse races or casinos or movie theaters etc. etc and on and on.”

“These things serve no purpose except to destroy the poor nations and eventually destroy us all, yet we let them exist even though we are running out of time.”

It seems to me, the idea here is to achieve certain destruction of entire industries and economies, in order to possibly prevent the uncertain destruction of entire industries and economies.

And create loneliness in the process.

Betula May 20, 2009 at 12:24 pm

“Wouldn’t it be better to fly, if that somehow could damage the airline industry, bring it to a halt? ”

What exactly does that mean?

Milan May 20, 2009 at 12:49 pm

It seems to me, the idea here is to achieve certain destruction of entire industries and economies, in order to possibly prevent the uncertain destruction of entire industries and economies.

We take action against uncertain risks all the time. After all, why stock antivirals for flu pandemics? Why have armed forces? Why build structures that are resilient to earthquakes?

With climate impacts, there are two key uncertainties: (a) how much of an impact will arise from any particular temperature change, and (b) how much total temperature change we will produce.

A key sub-element of (a) concerns feedbacks and thresholds. It is certainly the case that releasing greenhouse gasses produces positive feedbacks that generate additional warming. What isn’t certain is how strong those feedbacks will be for any particular level of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

The key determinant of (b) is how much humanity changes the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gasses, by burning fossil fuels and altering land use (cutting down forests, etc).

Reducing uncertainty about both (a) and (b) is a key task for climate scientists, whereas those making climate policy have the primary role of reducing (b) to the point where dangerous interference in the climate system is avoided, while also making preparations for dealing with the (a) impacts at whatever level of warming ultimately results.

Also, ‘industries and economies’ aren’t the key thing we should be worried about. Industries and economies are valuable insofar as they serve human welfare. It is the needs of human beings (and the integrity of natural systems) that must be our primary concern here.

Milan May 20, 2009 at 12:53 pm

A world where greenhouse gas emissions are not problematic would be far preferable to the one in which we find ourselves. We certainly have enough problems to deal with as it is, with disease, poverty, conflict, etc.

That being said, the threat posed by climate change is real and severe. We need to take actions to mitigate that threat, including some that are deeply unwelcome for particular individuals and groups. That being said, climate change does provide an opportunity to build a better and more sustainable society: critically, it will be one based on sources of energy that are cleaner than those we use today, have no need to be imported from halfway across the world, and can never be exhausted.

. May 20, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Related prior posts:

Economics >> Risk

Sociological and philosophical issues >> Ethics

Technology >> Air travel

Technology >> Ground transportation

Hierarchy of climate change uncertainty

Big picture uncertainty

Climate ethics and uncertainty

Uncertainty and morality

Emily May 20, 2009 at 1:56 pm

“I think the most system-influencing thing I could do would be to refuse to fly, even with offsets, unless there is some overwhelmingly important reason to do so. Of course, that would make for a lonely summer.”

This depends on your version of ‘overwhelmingly important’ reasons. We all place things in different hierarchies.

For me, reconnecting with family is overwhelmingly important. Though, I understand that you can put any action under the umbrella of ‘wanting to do good for family’ and it excuses almost anything.

Visiting me is not a good excuse for breaking your no-fly rule. But spending much-needed time with family (after 2 years of no flying), and having a spiritual re-charge at home is, in my eyes, overwhelmingly important.

It seems to me that your stance is less fly when ‘overwhelmingly important’ and fly ‘only in case of death or dire emergency’. Which is admirable, but you hold responsibilities to people you love when they are alive, too.

When we leave move away we make an active decision not only in our own lives, but in the lives of everyone who loves us, too.

Is it possible that you need to make a sacrifice for them, alongside your sacrifices for climate change?

Emily May 20, 2009 at 2:00 pm

“When we leave OR move away”

Milan May 20, 2009 at 2:02 pm

Given how much they travel, I actually see my family pretty regularly. Sasha is in Montreal during the school year, my father visits Toronto often, and my mother and Mica have both visited me here. Indeed, the frequency and distance with which my family members travel sometimes make me feel frustrated, due to the contrast with the constraints imposed on me by the choice to avoid flying.

Of course, meeting your family is another story – as are seeing some Vancouver-based friends, the mountains, etc.

I don’t want to entrench flying as an ordinary part of my life, but it is hard to avoid with a country this big. The sensible long-term approach seems to be to pick one region (Vancouver or Ottawa-Toronto-Montreal) and stick with it. Vancouver is the most appealing, as a city. Ottawa offers the best immediate job prospects, and Montreal and Toronto would both be good places to live.

Milan May 20, 2009 at 2:05 pm

Another consideration is this: at some point in my life, I really would like to be able to see more of Africa, visit Asia, and so forth. If I am going to do any flying for reasons other than ‘ in case of death or dire emergency,’ perhaps I should save it for then. Intercontinental travel by ship is even slower than crossing Canada by train.

A question related to the above is the acceptability of flying specifically in order to do work relating to climate change. There, I think the answer is easier. If it seems likely that going somewhere will eventually produce more emissions reductions than are required to make the trip, doing so is probably acceptable.

Milan May 20, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Your desire to see your grandfather is one of the most ethically justifiable forms of discretionary travel I can think of. That is because he doesn’t have the option of traveling to you, and because there is urgency in spending time with him in the present, rather than a few months or years away.

. May 20, 2009 at 2:13 pm

The trouble with jets
August 18, 2007

“Imagining a world stabilized at 500 ppm, with reasonably similar per-capita emissions for all states, it seems quite impossible that there can be air travel at anything like contemporary levels. It is possible that some miracle technology will allow high-speed flights to occur without significant greenhouse gas consequences, but no such technology is even within the realm of imagination today.

As someone who has long aspired to travel the world, this is a very difficult conclusion to reach. It now seems possible that air travel bears some moral similarities to slavery. Before people become overly agitated about the comparison, allow me to explain. Just as slavery was once a critical component of some economies, air travel is essential to the present world economy. Of course, economic dependency does not equate to moral acceptability. If our use of air travel imperils future generations – and we are capable of anticipating that harm – then flying falls into the general moral category of intentional harm directed against the defenceless. After all, future generations are the very definition of helplessness, in comparison to us. We can worsen their prospects by fouling the air and turning the seas to acid, but they will never be able to retaliate in any way.

While I personally fervently hope that some solution will be found that can make continued air travel compatible with the ethical treatment of the planet, nature, and future generations, I must also acknowledge the possibility that people in fifty or one hundred years will look upon us as sharing some moral similarities with plantation owners in the United States, prior to the civil war.”

R.K. May 20, 2009 at 2:21 pm

As with carbon pricing, the sensible approach here is to make the least painful cuts first.

Given that you can basically cut your emissions by one tonne per year by changing your electricity provider, and that doing so is affordable, that seems like a much better option than abandoning travel to a place you value.

That being said, the refusal to travel makes a much stronger public statement than switching to Bullfrog Power would.

Matt May 20, 2009 at 2:26 pm

Intercontinental travel by ship is even slower than crossing Canada by train.

I am absolutely convinced that traveling by ship would be one of the worst ways to mitigate CO2. For one thing, the turbine engines that many of them use are functionally similar, and in some cases nearly identical to aircraft engines. In fact the General Electric CF6, an engine choice on the 767, 747, DC-10, A300 and others, has been used in a modified format in shipping. Add to that the duration they have to run compared to on an airplane to travel the same distance, and I think the airplane/ship tradeoff is perhaps the worst one you could make.

Milan May 20, 2009 at 2:48 pm

Matt,

We did consider ships before, when contemplating whether I should attend my Oxford graduation. Big ships may be even worse than planes.

Is there any sustainable or morally acceptable way to travel inter-continental distances?

The point that all long-distance travel may be immoral has been raised by others here, before.

Indeed, this topic has now been covered a considerable number of times:

Modes of transport and distances travelled
November 26, 2008

Is it ethical to fly?
July 18, 2008

Almost nothing is sustainable
June 3, 2008

Air travel and the end of oil
April 19, 2008

Air travel and looting
April 8, 2008

Climate change and sacrifice
February 15, 2008

Westjet v. The Canadian
February 12, 2008

The trouble with jets
August 18th, 2007

EasyJet, the new speakeasy?
June 18, 2007

Another long discussion

The conclusion we seem to have reached is that air travel is morally problematic (it may or may not be indefensible) and that no good alternative exists for long-distance travel.

Tristan May 20, 2009 at 4:54 pm

Milan,

I think you have rightfully concluded that jet travel cannot be morally justified. So, if you want to stand on a moral principle, if you want to be “right”, then you shouldn’t fly. I think a lot of people agree with this, especially those who fly. I think they fly because they would rather be happy than right – something you’ve said in a different context, and with a different sense of “right”, but there is some truth in the equivocation. We are moral beings, and that means we can choose to do the right thing. If we knew there was a God who would punish us, then moral action might be impossible since we’d act morally out of fear rather than freely out of a desire for rightness.

But, we also know that asserting any moral principle and following it out to the end can result in perverse consequences. This has come up on the blog before in the question of whether it is possible at all to live a moral life in contemporary society, or does complicitness in that society constitute immorality? It seems pretty clear that if the standard is “don’t steal” then every facet of our life is stealing from the future right now, we are not leaving “as much and as good left over” for them. We can try to mitigate this by limiting the standard, trying to create a human standard, one which is possible for us to meet. And we should do this, because otherwise we might end up with the perverse conclusion that suicide is moral because its nonviolent (it quite clearly isn’t moral, or nonviolent, however). We need to make the standards we live by appropriate for us, human, relevant to our own lives. Likewise, we need to make our own lives relevant to those standards.

Anyway, I just want to make the point that choosing to ignore the standard all together and fly despite knowing its stealing is not morally right, but it is a way of humanizing the standard (simply saying “it doesn’t apply here). Now, it’s obviously not the most admirable way of solving the contradiction between imperfect humanity and perfect law, but my point is only it is a way. And there is at least some justification for it, even if that justification is not sufficient.

Life requires a balance between law (restriction) and flourishing. Unrestricted flourishing would burn itself out, and unrestricted law can be an oubliette. How we work out this balance is not only a question of mathematical calculation, but also comparison of incommensurable duties, and happiness. But how can happiness be compared, balanced, with duty?

Milan May 20, 2009 at 5:00 pm

The situation would be simpler if there really was a much lower carbon mode of transport, even if it took much longer.

The fact that such a thing does not yet exist means we don’t have the option of making a minor sacrifice (such as six days on a bumpy train) rather than a major one (not seeing Vancouver, family, Emily, friends).

Presumably, it will eventually be possible to cross Canada in a low carbon way: possibly electric vehicles, possibly good biofuels, possibly something else. The alternatives are unrestricted climate change or the end of Canada as a meaningfully cohesive entity. Is it ethically important that we live in the span between when the problem of climate change has been clearly identified and the time when low-carbon options for some tasks exist?

Milan May 20, 2009 at 5:02 pm

Another issue is the ‘personal choice’ versus ‘spreading the word’ balance. It is moral to criticize other people for flying? Is it ethically laudable to encourage people not to do so, where you have the ability?

Emily May 20, 2009 at 5:06 pm

Of course, meeting your family is another story – as are seeing some Vancouver-based friends, the mountains, etc.

You are, technically, still a mystery man to my family since none of them have met you. For all they know you are just an elaborate fictional character I’ve created.

Is there a special clause for ‘meeting your partner’s dad after you have lived together for X amount of time’?

We live in the 21st century and everything, but I’m sure my father would be very interested in meeting you.

R.K. May 20, 2009 at 5:14 pm

The situation would be simpler if there really was a much lower carbon mode of transport, even if it took much longer.

Do you have a figure for the train that is as accurate as those for planes above?

How much better would the train need to be, to make it morally acceptable?

Tristan May 20, 2009 at 5:32 pm

The situation would be simpler only because it would look like, in this case, there were a moral action which is also desirable. But, even if there were a harmony in this case, there would remain chasms between the moral choice and the desired choice in other aspects of life.

The point I was trying to make is, how do we live between ethics and life? What is the appropriate relationship to Right, if complete adherence to it turns against life, leads to depression, turns against sociability, etc..

oleh May 21, 2009 at 1:04 am

I would also very much like to see you in Vancouver.

I am prepared to reduce my carbon emissions by reducing driving my car for three months. I average 360 kilometers of usage a month.

I am prepared to reduce that to 120 kilometers per month for three months for a carbon emission saving of 240 kms. I would still like to be able to use the car for some uses such as carting the family groceries. It is our 1990 Dodge Caravan. I will let you do the calculations on the carbon emission savings.

I could start on June 1.

Does that help?

Peter May 21, 2009 at 2:28 am

Betula,
“It seems to me, the idea here is to achieve certain destruction of entire industries and economies, in order to possibly prevent the uncertain destruction of entire industries and economies.
And create loneliness in the process.”
A lot of other people have kicked you around for comments you’ve made on the site. I’m not going to do that; I will consider this comment seriously. Isn’t it possible, that in response, you’ve somewhat exaggerated your opinion, because the above quote seems to caricature serious propositions for a sustainable economy. Please don’t cut and paste some absurd comment someone else made, because (1) I speak only for myself, (2) I’m just as likely to agree it is absurd and isn’t a “serious” proposition, and (3) am only trying to point out that a specific class of ideas exist.

When I talk about things like double-skinned buildings, or designing homes to maximize sunlight and solar heating, it only seems like we would need to balance (what I consider to be) a minor loss in aesthetics for functionality. When I talk about things like community based geothermal heating and cooling being installed when new suburbs are put up (drastically reducing the price each homeowner would need to pay – which I view as the largest drawback), it seems like I am talking about new products, and new industries. Even ideas that put pressure on the established order, like increasing required MPG don’t seem to necessitate the destruction of an entire industry. I’ll spare the historic analysis about GM betting heavily on Hummer, because the actual history isn’t terribly important to the point, which is:

There seems to be a class of propositions that are simply about better ways of doing things.

One might even share your scepticism about the degree of risk, and by extension, the necessity of these actions, but it seems to me that the really good ideas will aid sustainability without compromising or severely compromising lifestyles. I can understand your apprehension of drastic actions that you fear are going to forced upon you, but I am not sure we haven’t been able to find any common ground about sustainability at least being a conceptually good idea, or as a desirable vector of consideration among others.

We haven’t even covered solutions that are likely to increase the individual quality of life. How is a strong public transit system, a well-designed city, living in a walkable community, lots of trees, perhaps a return to athletics as popular form of entertainment, going to create loneliness? It seems like the intense interest some people have in social arrangement might also translate into a sense of community or love of social activities that are not necessarily damaging or bad. Although, out of fairness, I do realize the statement has a particular reference in mind.

Planting gardens, cycling to work, composting, reducing fad purchases, buying local produce – I just can’t see how these things are designed specifically to destroy entire industries.

Milan,

“The situation would be simpler if there really was a much lower carbon mode of transport, even if it took much longer.”

True, but that is the wish of a pale individual. If it were easy, then the choice would have very little significance. This way we get to really see the strength of your commitment.

Milan May 21, 2009 at 12:25 pm

The debate now seems to be about two things: the viability of offsetting, and the question of whether other moral claims override the impetus not to fly.

On the first point, I am unsure. Certainly, there is no benefit to be had in buying offsets of dubious quality, such as those related to forestry projects. That being said, much more accountable and defensibly additional options exist, whether in the form of Bullfrog power or personal actions on the part of myself, Emily, my father, and perhaps others.

Related to this point is the question of example. As Peter says, the “strength of your commitment” can be partially judged by whether I am willing to use evasions like offsetting to make up for flying.

That being said, if the moral imperative is to reduce all unnecessary emissions, it’s not clear why I am not morally bound to switch to Bullfrog even if I don’t fly, and possibly take other actions as well.

On the second point, there are certainly some competing moral claims. First among them is the importance of meeting Emily’s family. Both her grandfather’s age and the difficulty of finding a future time when we will both be in Vancouver elevates the moral importance of doing so this summer, rather than at a later time.

. May 21, 2009 at 5:18 pm

Tips for flying to the Copenhagen climate conference

So you’re going to Copenhagen to help save the planet. Splendid! This December the city will host the United Nations Climate Change Conference, where international delegates will negotiate a post-Kyoto Protocol global climate plan. That’s the hope, anyway. Earlier we posted some tips and ideas for finding lodging the in Danish capital, but what about getting there?

Jet travel emits a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide, of course. And for non-European attendees, it’s pretty much the only option. So what’s a delegate/activist/NGO rep/journalist/gadfly to do?

Erik Nelson of environmental travel site Better World Club offered this insider tip: You pretty much have to fly. But! If you have the time, ships might be a low-impact alternative. See The Cruise People LTD for leads on both cruise and commercial ships. Even Nelson, whose site is sort of a green AAA, hadn’t heard of many folks doing this. But it’s possible.

. May 22, 2009 at 9:57 am

Ethics and Global Climate Change
A Survey Article by Stephen M. Gardiner

Arguably, then, there is a strong presumption that moral philosophers should be taking climate change seriously. So, why the neglect? In my view, the most plausible explanation is that study of climate change is necessarily interdisciplinary, crossing boundaries between (at least) science, economics, law, and international relations.

This fact not only creates an obstacle to philosophical work (since amassing the relevant information is both time-consuming and intellectually demanding) but also makes it tempting to assume that climate change is essentially an issue for others to resolve. Both factors contribute to the current malaise—and not just within philosophy, but in the wider community too.

My aims in this survey, then, will be twofold. First, I will try to overcome the interdisciplinary obstacle to some extent, by making the climate change issue more accessible to both philosophers and nonphilosophers alike. Second, by drawing attention to the ethical dimensions of the climate change problem, I will make the case that the temptation to defer to experts in other disciplines should be resisted. Climate change is fundamentally an ethical issue. As such, it should be of serious concern to both moral philosophers and humanity at large.

. May 22, 2009 at 9:59 am
Milan May 22, 2009 at 10:11 am

Two things Henry Shue has said about climate change seem relevant to this discussion.

The first concerns the moral impulse to undertake mitigation action. He argues convincingly that inaction on climate change (failing to mitigate) falls into the special moral category of “the infliction of harm upon the defenceless.” Future generations are vulnerable to us, while we are invulnerable to them. Ignoring their welfare for the sake of being able to make more immediately enjoyable personal choices is not acceptable.

The second cuts in two directions. Shue argues that, even in an emergency, you sell the jewellery before the blankets. Taken one way, this stresses the obligation of the rich states to act first. It borders on the absurd for the United States (GDP per capita US$46,859) to demand that India (GDP per capita US$1,016, US$2,762 at PPP) to take equivalent mitigation action immediately. States not still struggling with extreme poverty really ought to be the ones moving first, not least because they have contributed most of the problem so far.

Applied to individuals, however, the logic of selling jewellery before blankets has a different character. We cannot expect people to make unlimited sacrifices for the sake of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, demanding that people drive themselves to the point of starvation is too much to ask, as well as not being a pragmatic route forward. Individuals, then, are called upon to prioritize their mitigation, making changes and sometimes sacrifices in the areas that are most acceptable first. I have already done a fair bit of this: I have chosen to work on this problem, rather than something else; I have chosen not to use private vehicles; I have chosen not to eat meat; etc. Based on my current situation, it can be argued that I have already sold a fair bit of the ‘jewellery’ and that, within what remains, travel to Vancouver in order to see family, friends, and meet Emily’s family is closer to a ‘blanket’ issue.

That seems especially true when there is jewellery on the table to be eliminated, in the form of my electricity emissions, as well as actions offered by Emily and my father. On that basis, it does not seem impossible to make a moral case that flying to Vancouver is morally permissible (though not praiseworthy), particularly if emission reductions of other kinds are spurred by that choice.

Peter May 22, 2009 at 12:05 pm

I’m not telling that you shouldn’t go see your girlfriend and meet her family. I’m not even revealing my beliefs about whether such an action would be moral or immoral, but I have to point out you’ve slipped into self-indulgent justification.

As a point of logic, you’re not consistent with your early positions. You and I have engaged over considerable debate because I felt that your claim that small or trivial reductions are harmful was not accurate. I wanted you to acknowledge that any reduction, regardless of size is a still a reduction, and that even if small reductions tend to foster an attitude that leads to greater liberties or inaction on further measures that need to be taken (which you have argued is the case on several occasions), that you properly put the blame on the attitude and not small quantity of the reduction. The nature of our past disagreement is not important, but your claims are: Trivial reductions lead people to believe the problem is solved, and leads to inaction on the hard, but necessary changes. (I’ve paraphrased, so please feel free to object if you feel that I’ve done violence to your words.)

Additionally, earlier in this conversation you at least acknowledged the theoretical possibility that it might be the case that any unnecessary flight may not be morally justifiable. Moving to this new moral evaluative framework you’ve proposed seems to fly in the face of your claims on productive actions, and doesn’t leave open the above conclusion (even as a theoretical possibility). The valuable insight of ultimate unjustifiably as a potential outcome is the revelation that to avoid the conclusion one would have to quantify a specific amount, or pace of reduction, which I then assume would be attached to some form of “ought implies can” moral proviso to secure moral permissibility. You’re last post doesn’t really set up that framework. It also doesn’t seem to spell out specifics, since it only briefly mutters something about the moral obligation maybe being less than absolute; it simply seems to allege that you’re entitled because you’ve done some other things that are good (or in the worse case scenario for you – less bad).

Remember – I’m just making an observation about consistency. I’m not telling him not to see his girl friend, her family, or his family. *** I’m hoping that if I repeat this enough it will form a flame resistant barrier.

Milan May 22, 2009 at 12:10 pm

If consistency is your sole aim, there is no point to discussion.

If you remain perfectly consistent, you will just repeat yourself endlessly.

Also, if I had no desire to engage with others and/or the logic of my previous positions, there would be no reason to put any thoughts in a public place.

Milan May 22, 2009 at 12:12 pm

Additionally, earlier in this conversation you at least acknowledged the theoretical possibility that it might be the case that any unnecessary flight may not be morally justifiable.

I continue to believe it might be, hence: “On that basis, it does not seem impossible to make a moral case that flying to Vancouver is morally permissible (though not praiseworthy), particularly if emission reductions of other kinds are spurred by that choice.”

These two statements are not in conflict.

Milan May 22, 2009 at 12:16 pm

Additionally, earlier in this conversation you at least acknowledged the theoretical possibility that it might be the case that any unnecessary flight may not be morally justifiable.

Has anyone reading this come to the personal conclusion that unnecessary long-distance travel (not just flights, remember), is morally unacceptable? And are they ready to respond to that by personally swearing it off forever?

I know Tristan is planning to fly to Vancouver this summer.

If readers have not taken on a personal obligation to not fly, is it because they have what they think is a convincing counterargument to why it is morally unacceptable, or is it because they are willing to do morally unacceptable things?

Emily May 22, 2009 at 2:10 pm

“I’m not even revealing my beliefs about whether such an action would be moral or immoral, but I have to point out you’ve slipped into self-indulgent justification.”

At what point are justifications not self indulgent? Is it self indulgent to use energy to take a shower every day? Or is it self-indulgent to take the bus to work, so you don’t have to walk 5 km?

Is it self-indulgent to be using a computer for anything else other than checking work-related emails?

I recognize that that is all self-indulgent. (You could shower once every 3 days and get away with it). But because the standard is that it falls below ‘needs’, it is not considered self-indulgent at all.

If we’re looking to a precedent, or an authority to tell us what is ‘necessary’ and what is not, then you could simply turn to any psychologist/psychiatrist/GP and ask them whether people ‘need’ to see the people they love to continue a normal, healthy life. Then ask whether the above questions, casually dismissed as ‘needs’ are needs at all.

Socializing with the people you love is life-sustaining. What you could not say about spending hours a day on a computer, or taking showers, or taking a bus.

I do not think that it is a ‘self-indulgent’ justification to argue for visiting friends and family after 2 years. As well as meet your partner’s parents, in one fell swoop.

Especially if you’re trapped in Canada’s Crappy Bureaucrat capital 365 days a year, working hard on trying to work hard on climate change.

Peter May 23, 2009 at 7:08 am

Flame shield failed.

Emily,

Allow me to clarify, he is giving a self-indulgent justification for whether an activity might be moral or not – ‘I want to do it so it must be moral’, rather than a self-interested justification for an action instead of moral standing – ‘I was hungry so I stole the last cookie before anyone else had a change.’ I can give many other self-indulgent justifications for a wide class of actions, but it doesn’t change the underlying status of the action as moral or immoral. The problem isn’t that one might derive benefit from a potentially moral action, but that the desirable benefits of the action seem to have taken a prominent role in the analysis of whether the action is moral. While there is no problem in engaging in self-serving moral actions, the analysis of self-interest and moral justification must be kept separate. Furthermore, for this very reason, there are moral obligations that don’t coincide with personal interest, and there is a class of actions you might undertake where your explanation for doing so will not be self-indulgent. Additionally, because the thread was an analysis of whether the action was moral or not, one possible conclusion with out the conceptual confusion is that self-interested motives might compel an individual to knowingly engage in an immoral action, but the self-interest shouldn’t be allow to change the moral standing of the action.

I’ll even go further and reveal that I don’t think there is an imperative to reduce all non-essential emissions, so the shower example doesn’t apply. Although I recognize this was the strongest possible position explored in the thread, it was not entailed by my objection. The point of my previous post was that a very detailed discussion of competing moral obligations, evaluating harms, the ability to offset harms (and whether the very nature of the trip was immoral because it serves as an example, or is acclimation to an ultimately unsustainable lifestyle), and to what degree intent matters, etc, has been reduced into an appeal to other moral (or less immoral) actions one has undertaken as a justification for something he wants to do. The conversation, which has been a decent consideration of moral obligations to this point has degenerated into a form of vice buying. Consider what it has slipped into in the last round of replies, a (not quite a) tu quoque, “I know Tristan is planning to fly to Vancouver this summer.” and a populist appeal, “Has anyone reading this come to the personal conclusion that unnecessary long-distance travel (not just flights, remember), is morally unacceptable?”, immediately followed by the category mistake (tu quoque – proper) that refusing to do the following, “And are they ready to respond to that by personally swearing it off forever?” would somehow change the moral standing of the problem, rather than reveal a common weakness of the will. I think it is a lamentable turn in the analysis, but everyone is welcome to his or her own opinion, but I think I’m on fairly stable ground by the example of the reply.

Milan,

I wasn’t promoting an absurdist conclusion. Naturally, you are free to change your mind. As you’ve suggested, you’ve put your entire thought process out there for us to examine, which is definitely brave and potentially admirable. It makes sense that you’ve put some positions out there solely for consideration, that your thought process is going to develop over time and that when you finally reach a conclusion you will have affirmed and rejected many of the previous arguments, positions, etc.

However, there are still three considerations:

(1) I like changes to be above the board. So I would accept a reply that said you considered and rejected the positions that unnecessary flight can never be morally justified and that one has a moral obligation to eliminate all non-essential emissions. That would be consistent.

Which brings me to (2) I still defend consistency as an evaluative criteria. You’re free to change your mind, but one would hope that you remain logically consistent in whatever set of beliefs you currently hold. If you don’t think that you need to hold consistent beliefs then there is really no point in having this conversation or any other with you, because you can just P and ~P your way into any conclusion and out of any criticism.

(3) The consistency I was (probably very poorly) referring to was derived from my interpretation of your previous positions. The reference to your disgust over trivial action seemed to be a rejection of vice trading, since the problem was that small actions serve as justification and thus buy the larger immoral lifestyle, or that inaction on larger necessary actions would occur as a result of individuals not understanding the situation (and presumably their moral obligations) properly. You’re correct that the sentence expressing the potentiality for a moral defence doesn’t contradict the possibility that all unnecessary flight might be immoral, however, I was more concerned with your methodology. You can’t really separate the two interrelated halves of my criticism in the manner in which you’ve chosen to reply. The other debate reference shows your tendency to drive towards a standard of strong moral obligations whereby small actions don’t purchase indulgences and your ability to act, or resist acting is the primary consideration on actions of consequences. Has your opinion changed on this? Do you now find trivial actions beneficial? Do making the small cosmetic changes in your life satisfy the moral obligation?

If you’ve honestly changed evaluative metrics, that is fine, but without the explicit account, as well as some sort of explanation for the change, the conclusion is going to manifest itself (as it did) as weakness of the will. As I’ve said, one of the great virtues of the conversation was that you were dealing with specifics, developing methodologies, asking specific questions about offsets, how much change we could expect from people, optimal strategies for change, etc. The last post represent a change in methodologies, whereby you went from a mode where good actions didn’t purchase indulgences (at least that is how it appeared to me), to a new method, without any of the specifics you’ve been so good at giving up to this point, i.e., you’re justified because this rate of change is required, etc. It looks like you’ve just said, “well, I’ve done these other good things so not only am I going to fly, doing so is going to be moral (before you slip in the), but not optimal.

In the end you’ll choose to go see your girlfriend or not. I’m just a sucker for right reason in moral analysis.

Milan May 25, 2009 at 6:53 pm

As described in this post of mine, these chapters of David MacKay’s book bear upon this discussion:

Air travelTechnical chapter

tristan May 26, 2009 at 10:26 am

Is it self-indulgent to take a shower? Whether it is or not seems aside from the moral question – is it right to take a shower? One test is universalizability, what would happen if everyone washed themselves? Well, that’s a world I’d like to live in. What about the opposite, what would happen if everyone washed themselves as little as possible? Not so pleasant. Similar trick for taking the bus. What if everyone who reasonably could took the bus? More funding for buses, the decline of the private car, etc… But what about flying, what if everyone who reasonably could stopped flying? The destruction of the airline industry – and that, unlike the destruction of cleanliness or the bus system, seems like a moral institutional change.

Milan May 26, 2009 at 11:19 am

Some relevant points from the MacKay chapter:

“Flying once per year has an energy cost slightly bigger than leaving a 1 kW electric fire on, non-stop, 24 hours a day, all year.”

Are these two activities equally wrong? Say using the electric fire makes your home significantly more comfortable, but it is tolerably warm without it. Of course, the electric fire could be any other emitting activity, for this purpose. For instance, driving a car an average of 50km per day uses 1/3 more energy per year than taking a trans- or inter-continental flight.

“Flying creates other greenhouse gases in addition to CO2, such as water and ozone, and indirect greenhouse gases, such as nitrous oxides. If you want to estimate your carbon footprint in tons of CO2-equivalent, then you should take the actual CO2 emissions of your flights and bump them up two- or three-fold.”

If we bump Matt’s emission figures threefold, the train starts to look a bit better. The 767 at 80% capacity emits about 698kg of carbon dioxide alone. Tripled, that is more than twice the NativeEnergy estimate for a train journey.

R.K. May 26, 2009 at 11:41 am

If the train emits half as much, it seems to accomplish all of your goals:

1) You take a highly visible stand against flying

2) You emit less than you otherwise would, for the journey

3) You travel in a way that is not ‘casual.’

4) You get the chance to see Emily, her family, your family, your friends, the mountains, etc.

. May 26, 2009 at 11:54 am

MacKay p. 276:

So whereas lowering speed-limits for cars would reduce the energy consumed per distance travelled, there is no point in considering speed-limits for planes. Planes that are up in the air have optimal speeds, different for each plane, depending on its weight, and they already go at their optimal speeds. If you ordered a plane to go slower, its energy consumption would increase. The only way to make a plane consume fuel more efficiently is to put it on the ground and stop it. Planes have been fantastically optimized, and there is no prospect of significant improvements in plane efficiency. (See pages 37 and 132 for further discussion of the notion that new super- jumbos are “far more efficient” than old jumbos; and p35 for discussion of the notion that turboprops are “far more efficient” than jets.)

Matt May 26, 2009 at 1:14 pm

If the train emits half as much, it seems to accomplish all of your goals:

1) You take a highly visible stand against flying

2) You emit less than you otherwise would, for the journey

3) You travel in a way that is not ‘casual.’

4) You get the chance to see Emily, her family, your family, your friends, the mountains, etc.

This isn’t directed at you personally R.K. so don’t take it as an attack. I disagree with all but point 4, though.

1) A train also emits water (a by product of combustion, like CO2) to the same ratio of fuel burned that a plane does. Diesel and jet fuel are very similar fuels. Trains also produce NOx. I have still yet to see any scientific explanation of why the plane gets this ‘multiplication factor’ that other transport doesn’t. If it’s altitude based why? I have still not seen any hard evidence this factor is anything but arbitrary.

2) The native energy calculations, in my opinion, shouldn’t be compared to my calculations of above; perhaps they use a different method, and their plane numbers were certainly a lot different than my own. I feel as though their train numbers would be as well (if I could get fuel burn data for the train). I also feel like their site is heavily biased against flying for reasons unclear to me, and that they have potentially skewed the numbers for this reason.

3) A trip’s a trip. Just because it’s more inconvenient to take the train (ie. not casual) does not make any less impact on the environment. I still think the airplane has favorable fuel burn/CO2 figures compared to the train.

I’m no climate change denier. I definitely know it’s happening. I’m concerned about how anti-aviation this site is, because transportation in general is the problem, not one specific type of it. If, in fact, the plane is the least polluting method (and I think it is) and if the trip is going to be made one way or another, I vote for the airplane. When Milan mentioned the possibility of taking a ship for intercontinental travel and I rebelled at the idea, it was implied I was taking the conversation in circles. Why was the possibility of the ship even mentioned, then, if we have decided it’s not a good one?

Planes have been fantastically optimized, and there is no prospect of significant improvements in plane efficiency.

Absolute non-sense. Efficiency gains of a few percent, which occur commonly with every generation of aircraft, are significant. If they were not significant, airlines and manufacturers would not pursue them.

. May 26, 2009 at 2:00 pm

“For a time, I thought that the way to solve the long-distance-transport problem was to revert to the way it was done before planes: ocean liners. Then I looked at the numbers. The sad truth is that ocean liners use more energy per passenger-km than jumbo jets. The QE2 uses four times as much energy per passenger-km as a jumbo. OK, it’s a luxury vessel; can we do better with slower tourist-class liners? From 1952 to 1968, the economical way to cross the Atlantic was in two Dutch-built liners known as “The Economy Twins,” the Maasdam and the Rijnsdam. These travelled at 16.5 knots (30.5 km/h), so the crossing from Britain to New York took eight days. Their energy consumption, if they carried a full load of 893 passengers, was 103 kWh per 100 p-km. At a typical 85% occupancy, the energy consumption was 121 kWh per 100 pkm – more than twice that of the jumbo jet. To be fair to the boats, they are not only providing trans- portation: they also provide the passengers and crew with hot air, hot water, light, and entertainment for several days; but the energy saved back home from being cooped up on the boat is dwarfed by the boat’s energy consumption, which, in the case of the QE2, is about 3000 kWh per day per passenger.”

. May 26, 2009 at 2:02 pm

p.35:

Planes unavoidably have to use energy for two reasons: they have to throw air down in order to stay up, and they need energy to overcome air resistance. No redesign of a plane
is going to radically improve its efficiency. A 10% improvement? Yes, possible. A doubling of efficiency? I’d eat my complimentary socks.

Can planes be improved?

If engine efficiency can be boosted only a tiny bit by technological progress, and if the shape of the plane has already been essentially perfected, then there is little that can be done about the dimensionless quantity. The transport efficiency is close to its physical limit. The aerodynamics community say that the shape of planes could be improved a little by a switch to blended-wing bodies, and that the drag coefficient could be reduced a little by laminar flow control, a technology that reduces the growth of turbulence over a wing by sucking a little air through small perforations in the surface (Braslow, 1999). Adding laminar flow control to existing planes would deliver a 15% improvement in drag coefficient, and the change of shape to blended-wing bodies is predicted to improve the drag coefficient by about 18% (Green, 2006). And equation (C.26) says that the transport cost is proportional to the square root of the drag coefficient, so improvements of cd by 15% or 18% would improve transport cost by 7.5% and 9% respectively.

This gross transport cost is the energy cost of moving weight around, including the weight of the plane itself. To estimate the energy required to move freight by plane, per unit weight of freight, we need to divide by the fraction that is cargo. For example, if a full 747 freighter is about 1/3 cargo, then its transport cost is

0.45 g,

or roughly 1.2 kWh/ton-km. This is just a little bigger than the transport cost of a truck, which is 1 kWh/ton-km.

Milan May 26, 2009 at 2:09 pm

Matt,

I very much appreciate your factual approach to the issue, and I think it is fair to say that this blog has been overly critical of air travel, when compared to other forms of fossil-fuel driven transport. The problem is long-distance, fossil-fuel-fired travel, not air travel. That being said, the way most people travel long distances is by air.

It would be good to get a better figure for train emissions, taking into consideration non-CO2 emissions. It would also be good to learn if there is any other reason (such as altitude or contrails) for which aircraft emissions are unusually significant.

As clarified above, MacKay’s position on improving airline efficiency is that it can be done, but that large improvements (say, doubling efficiency) are not possible, given the fundamental physics involved.

As a side note, MacKay’s analysis of airships is relatively positive. A 400m blimp could apparently carry cargo at 80km/h about as efficiently as rail does now (0.06 kWh/t-km). By contrast, his estimate for a 747 is 1.2 kWh/ton-km. Of course, the 747 is much faster.

Matt May 26, 2009 at 2:14 pm

At a typical 85% occupancy, the energy consumption was 121 kWh per 100 pkm – more than twice that of the jumbo jet.

Sounds excellent, but it’s not a current option. Also, I take issue mixing specific and non specific examples.
Dutch built Maasdam and Rijnsdam: specific.
Jumbo-jet: not specific.

A 777-300ER would be a vast improvement in efficiency, possibly approaching double, of a 747-200. Both you might describe as a ‘jumbo-jet.’

A casual approach to numbers is not a good way to make a point. I really think the climate change issue is an important one. On the other hand, if one is making dishonest claims to make their point, which I think is happening here to an extent, it doesn’t help the cause at all. I think arguments that stand up to scrutiny are the best ways to convince nay-sayers. For instance Milan did an excellent job of this in the climate change denial thread, when making detailed counter-arguments to Betula. But, if you try to convince a skeptic with a bad argument, you’re just going to make them even more skeptical.

Milan May 26, 2009 at 2:20 pm

On the other hand, if one is making dishonest claims to make their point, which I think is happening here to an extent, it doesn’t help the cause at all.

What dishonest claims do you think are being made here? That aircraft cannot be made much more efficient?

Matt May 26, 2009 at 2:27 pm

I’m going to refute myself, here, actually, for the sake of honesty. In looking it up the increase from the 747-200 and 777-300ER of my above example was about 25% less fuel per passenger mile, not 50%.

Planes unavoidably have to use energy for two reasons: they have to throw air down in order to stay up, and they need energy to overcome air resistance. No redesign of a plane
is going to radically improve its efficiency. A 10% improvement? Yes, possible. A doubling of efficiency? I’d eat my complimentary socks.

I can agree with this, we will doubtfully see a doubling in efficiency from here on out. Still, 10% is significant. On the other hand a 10% improvement does not yield zero, which is really how much fossil-fuel they need to burn. I would like to argue that saying a plane has to use fuel to create lift doesn’t sway me much. That’s just how planes work. Trains have to burn fuel to overcome rolling resistance, but planes don’t.

Matt May 26, 2009 at 2:31 pm

What dishonest claims do you think are being made here? That aircraft cannot be made much more efficient?

To be honest, I think MacKay’s book is full of them. While I realize he’s trying to appeal to the casual reader, he still makes use of numbers to prove his point, a lot of which he’s fudging. I can provide specific example later, when I’m not at work.

Milan May 26, 2009 at 2:31 pm

The lesson I take from this is that, while they are certainly worthwhile, improvements in aircraft design and engines cannot address the overall incompatibility between air travel and greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

To do that, they need to run on something other than fossil fuels.

Milan May 26, 2009 at 2:47 pm

On the moral side, the big remaining question seems to be whether one of the two following arguments can be expressed in a convincing way:

  • Other duties served by visiting Vancouver, such as obligations to family, generate a stronger moral case for going than for not going.
  • The emissions associated with going to Vancouver can be meaningfully offset by changing a different emission-generating behaviour.

If nobody can provide a convincing expression of one of these arguments, it seems as though none of us will be able to fly travel long distances on fossil power while continuing to claim that we are ethical people.

Another question that hasn’t yet received a satisfactory answer is whether there is a special duty to reduce travel emissions, specifically, or whether we are equally morally bound to reduce them in all areas. Does the blankets/jewellery concept have any applicability here?

R.K. May 26, 2009 at 3:01 pm

If nobody can provide a convincing expression of one of these arguments, it seems as though none of us will be able to… travel long distances on fossil powerwhile continuing to claim that we are ethical people.

This should be expressed in a more generic form:

* Other duties served by traveling, such as obligations to family, generate a stronger moral case for going than for not going.
* The emissions associated with travel can be meaningfully offset by changing a different emission-generating behaviour.

R.K. May 26, 2009 at 3:04 pm

One other possible justification is the ‘I already do more than most people, so I have satisfied my moral obligations’ approach.

Matt,

My apologies. You are right to question why the multiplier should only be applied to aircraft emissions. Also, we are still waiting for train emission figures comparable to those you cooked up for different planes.

I do think the inconvenience of the train has a certain importance, however. If it took everyone six days (round trip) to go between Toronto and Vancouver (or other similarly spaced cities), people would definitely do it less. They certainly wouldn’t do it often for one day conferences, or single business meetings.

Peter May 26, 2009 at 5:09 pm

This is pure rehash, but I think many of the previous questions were never decisively settled.

I think the answer to the second question depends on the characterization of moral obligation. As I’ve suggested before, I am still unaware of whether you believe there is an obligation to reduce all non-essential emissions. (as you sometime suggest) If yes, then what defines essential activities? If no (I am assuming you have selected this moderate position), then a specific level of emission, or a required rate of change, should be specified.

The jewellery/blanket concept will be resolved depending on the answers to the above questions. If you have a duty to reduce all non-essential emissions, then the lack of alternative means of transportation cannot alter the moral imperative not to travel long distances, especially since the pragmatics of emission reduction flow in the opposite direction – this is a one-aspect change that has a huge impact. Granted, it probably won’t be the easiest life-style change. Conversely, the qualification of the moral imperative will also reveal whether substitution is permissible, i.e., if the moral requirement is to reduce to x, or reduce by y over z years, then you may temper your emissions in other ways.

Offsets require special attention, as you’ve noted, because they might fail if one believed moral actions must be universalizable. Universalization should also play a prominent role in deciding what emission level is acceptable, should the moral obligation be less than absolute. Lastly there might be additional value, or moral responsibility in explicitly rejecting long distance travel.

Milan May 26, 2009 at 5:27 pm

It is interesting to me that nobody else (with the partial exception of Emily) has stepped up to provide a clear justification for their own travel. Tristan wrote this, but it doesn’t seem to lay out a clear personal justification.

If others were to travel a long distance for a reason that isn’t obviously essential (say, to get an organ transplant) how would they justify it? Alternatively, is anyone willing to pledge to forego all fossil fuel powered long-distance travel?

Milan May 26, 2009 at 5:33 pm

This chart provides a neat summary of vehicle speed (in km/h) versus energy consumption (in kWh per 100 passenger kilometres).

In keeping with the discussion above, aircraft are quite good on both speed and efficiency per passenger-km. That said, they do facilitate a lot of long-distance transport. Note how badly ocean liners do – on efficiency, they are in the same territory as executive jets carrying eight passengers. BMW’s hydrogen car is also a terrible option, from an efficiency standpoint.

Milan May 26, 2009 at 5:45 pm

This is pure rehash, but I think many of the previous questions were never decisively settled.

Which, specifically?

As I’ve suggested before, I am still unaware of whether you believe there is an obligation to reduce all non-essential emissions.

It is hard to come up with a good moral framework on this. What really matters is the outcome: how much gets emitted and what consequences it has for humans and the natural world. In some cases, people having a feeling of obligation can advance that – say, when they go vegetarian due to concern about the climate. In other cases, only societal-level changes can really accomplish the transition we need, as with replacing the electricity system with a zero-carbon one.

Even if we have a duty to reduce non-essential emissions (because such a duty is an important mechanism for achieving a zero-carbon society), it doesn’t follow that we have an obligation to reduce all non-essential emissions to the greatest possible extent. If that is true, it seems sensible to allow people to choose where they direct their non-essential emissions, freeing them to sacrifice less valuable things before more valuable ones.

Complicating things further is the fact that some essential emissions (say, heating in an Ottawa winter) can be achieved much more efficiently than at present. If you have a house that is so poorly insulated that you are emitting more for heating than for travel, does your obligation to insulate take precedence over the impetus to not travel?

It also needs to be sorted out whether inducing emissions reductions somewhere else can be used as an alternative to cutting non-essential emissions (and at what point in the process of cutting them towards zero). If I could actually personally remove GHGs from the atmosphere, I would be pretty satisfied that I had offset the consequences of flying. Should I be equally confident if I spend my money on a project that is (a) highly likely to reduce future emissions and (b) highly likely to do so in addition to what would have happened without it?

Matt May 26, 2009 at 7:49 pm

It is interesting to me that nobody else (with the partial exception of Emily) has stepped up to provide a clear justification for their own travel.

I can’t speak for others, but for myself, I think the way the original question was phrased, in terms of morality, makes it hard to answer. Morality is pretty abstract, or at the very least pretty subjective. Some things are easy to define by morality; murder for example. However to contribute a fraction of a fraction of a percent to climate change through a single trip, while still acknowledging one’s deep concern for climate change, is hard to reckon in terms of morality.

Also, we are still waiting for train emission figures comparable to those you cooked up for different planes.

I’d love to calculate this, I’m very interested myself. I was only able to do it for the car and plane trip so far, though, because I could get fuel burn numbers for them. If anyone is privy to actual fuel burn numbers for the Ottawa to Vancouver (or Toronto, or something similar) journey by rail, and hopefully passenger loads as well, please post them.

oleh May 26, 2009 at 8:32 pm

My sense is that some (not many) entries in this discussion are an excercise in navel gazing or in particular to look into the navels of others.

I do travel long distances, drive a car, and eat meat. I met my life partner in England, have kept in touch with family with cross country trips and seen India, Kenya and Peru. Long distance travel has contributed to my personal enrichment.

However many sources have contributed to my increased awareness of the adverse effects of consumerism and carbon emissions which are related. Through that awareness I believe I am trying to and do consume and travel less.

And for me that is sufficient. Let he who has no sin, cast the first stone.

Or put more simply perhaps put , let us consider stop judging others by standards or moral consistency or otherwise that we do not live by.

PS Milan, if I reduce my personal driving by two thirds for three months this summer or 750 km overall, I think that will mean 84 liters of gas being burned.

Emily May 27, 2009 at 2:28 am

is anyone willing to pledge to forego all fossil fuel powered long-distance travel?

The answer to this, I assume, is no. I think the majority of us have spread our friends and our family and our favorite destinations across the world, unreachable without the aide of fossil fuel powered long-distance travel.

I’m not a philosophy student, so my perceptions of morality may be overly simplistic, but I have not run across any strict code of ethics that applies beneficially in every situation.

I think it is wise to be pragmatic and take each new situation on its own merit.

I understand that part of the concern here is that you are providing example, but.. need that example be ‘Do not fly/travel by fossil-fuel consuming vehicle at any cost’? Possibly the more valuable example is your own struggle with the moral-personal vs. moral-public costs of flying/fossil-fuel powered travel.

Which you have amply demonstrated.

And, if you choose to set the no-fly example – do you want that example to be ‘not traveling = terrible personal cost’? When it could a possibly more persuasive example: ‘travel conscientiously and with ample discretion and consideration’?

Of course, there is the actual CO2 output associated with the long-distance trip. But Oleh and I would decrease our CO2 emissions in response. Which in tandem with your possible switch to Bullfrog power, no matter how you cut it, is more than one person decreasing theirs in a more regular, habitual manner. Which trumps a single passive boycotting of a flight, I think.

If you and I both contribute to carbon off-sets, then that’s also investment in sustainable energy alternatives.

But, Oleh and I will not be able to muster the morale if we can’t hug you in person.

Also, if you intend to continue courting me with any semblance of chivalry you have to meet my father. Who keeps forgetting your name.

Emily May 27, 2009 at 5:18 am

I think it is wise to be pragmatic and take each new situation on its own merit.

I see this comment causing some trouble. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t have a code of ethics that serves as a guide or a moral compass, but I also think that there needs to be some reasonable flexibility in that code.

Emily May 27, 2009 at 5:24 am

And, if you choose to set the no-fly example – do you want that example to be ‘not traveling = terrible personal cost’? When it could a possibly more persuasive example: ‘travel conscientiously and with ample discretion and consideration’?

Also, this did not come out like I wanted it to. It’s more like the hideous, undesired child of my coalescing thoughts.

So, I’ll just strike that one from the record, if that’s okay.

(I’m anticipating some dismantling of my arguments.. and would rather not endure the consequences of leaving that one out in the wind).

R.K. May 27, 2009 at 8:58 am

A sound moral argument is not invalidated if the person who dreamed it up fails to follow it. That being said, failing to adhere personally to a moral position does undermine your ability to legitimately criticize others who stray.

tristan May 27, 2009 at 10:36 am

““Flying once per year has an energy cost slightly bigger than leaving a 1 kW electric fire on, non-stop, 24 hours a day, all year.””

I’m sorry Milan, but I’m very dissapointed that this was published in a book. It’s another one of these comments written by people who don’t know the first thing about how a furnace works. This thought experiment fails for the same reason that replacing your lightbulbs is deceiving. The fact is, if your house is heated and the furnace is controlled by a thermostat – leaving this fire on will simply reduce the amount of work the furnace has to do by 1000 watts (a not insignificant amount of power). One kilowatt, at say, 5 cents a kilowatt hour, is 36 dollars per month. Since you don’t have your furnace on in the summer time, (making this thought experiment even more absurd), why don’t we say 72 dollars a month for the 6 months the furnace is operating. Now, what is an average heating bill now?

Assuming you had an electric force air furnace to start with, this electric fire would do nothing but make your house unpleasantly warm in one area (and probably cold in others, because that’s what tricking thermostats does). It would not increase your heating bill significantly.

If we run the thought experiment the other way, and assume somehow your furnace stays constant while the electric fire runs, and we run it only half the year at twice the power, the electric fire would make your house very intolerably warm. 1000watts is not an insignificant amount of power – as we’ve shown it costs 36$ a month to run it, so it’s the equivalent of turning your heating up 30% if your heating bill was 100$ a month.

Please think of energy as a system. You will save yourself myriad errors.

tristan May 27, 2009 at 10:39 am

“there is no point in considering speed-limits for planes.”

Man, this guy loves fetishizing the perfection of technology. Of course planes have been optimized to run at 500mph, but they could be optimized to run slower, and they would burn less fuel. If running slower doesn’t burn less fuel, why did all the airlines that could slow their flights during the period of super high oil costs?

Milan May 27, 2009 at 10:40 am

Tristan,

It’s another one of these comments written by people who don’t know the first thing about how a furnace works.

This objection is a somewhat pointless one. The comparison is meant to illustrate the one-off energy use of flying in the form of a continuous level of use people will be familiar with.

The details of home heating systems are not relevant to this usage.

Milan May 27, 2009 at 10:44 am

I would much rather see you respond to this than continue to nitpick about aircraft technology:

If others were to travel a long distance for a reason that isn’t obviously essential (say, to get an organ transplant) how would they justify it? Alternatively, is anyone willing to pledge to forego all fossil fuel powered long-distance travel?

Milan May 27, 2009 at 10:50 am

R.K.,

A sound moral argument is not invalidated if the person who dreamed it up fails to follow it.

I agree. The fact that someone who argues or concludes that long-distance travel is morally unacceptable, and then goes on to do it, does not automatically invalidate their argument. It just means they made a selfish or pragmatic choice rather than an ethical one.

That being said, failing to adhere personally to a moral position does undermine your ability to legitimately criticize others who stray.

This also seems plausible, though relatively unimportant. What matters is total emissions, not who gets to scold who.

tristan May 27, 2009 at 10:51 am

““It seems to me, the idea here is to achieve certain destruction of entire industries and economies, in order to possibly prevent the uncertain destruction of entire industries and economies.
And create loneliness in the process.””

Why should it create loneliness? Maybe for the first five minutes – but were people lonely before the internet, before jet travel, before cars, before rail? No. They just knew people who lived close by. We’re better off – we don’t need to get rid of all travel, and we can still have the interwebs.

This “loneliness” is a product only of our jet set lives, where we find it normal to move around huge distances in only a few hours. If the only way to get from Ottawa to Vancouver was by ship or pack horse, no one would expect Milan to visit for two weeks – the trip would take more than 2 weeks in each direction. Of course the destruction of the airline industry will cause short term dislocation and distress, but so does the dismantling of any immoral institution – you can take slavery as an example of this if you want. Let’s see if we can reformulate the original phrase in a kind of woeful language about the demise of that -

“”“It seems to me, the idea here is to achieve certain destruction of entire industries and economies, in order to uphold the equal dignity of entire cultures and races.
And create povery in the process.””

tristan May 27, 2009 at 10:54 am

“This objection is a somewhat pointless one. The comparison is meant to illustrate the one-off energy use of flying in the form of a continuous level of use people will be familiar with.”

No it isn’t! It’s totally unrealistic! It’s literally impossible to do it, in the context he specifies. You could say, leave the 2 of the electric furnace on in your unheated garage, 24/7, six months a year. That would make the garage comfortable in the winter. But who would heat their garage to the tune of 72 dollars a month, and call that easily justified? It’s absurd!

tristan May 27, 2009 at 10:56 am

If you think this guys thought experiment is so great, then phrase it as it should have been done in the first place. Which has got to be something like heat your house to 27 degrees year round rather than 18. Whatever the result in temperature would be to increasing the average energy output of your furnace by 70%. This is not an incremental change! It would be easy to criticize yourself for using too much energy!

tristan May 27, 2009 at 11:07 am

“The comparison is meant to illustrate the one-off energy use of flying in the form of a continuous level of use people will be familiar with.”

It isn’t comparable. And that has some moral import – if someone were asked would they rather give up 70% of their home heating, or make one trip, it’s obvious which one they would take. If someone were asked to give up the right to drive 50km a week, or fly, it’s obvious which one they would pick. The energy used close to home is more essential to people’s lives than it is to make long trips.

About organ donations, ok fine, what’s wrong with flying to save life? The whole point of not flying is to save life. Of course there are these kinds of contradictions – but we’re talking about the general not the absolute universal.

Milan May 27, 2009 at 11:11 am

Dad,

Responding to your comment:

The moral question of whether it is acceptable to fly doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the specific behaviours of the people discussing it. In theory, a group of frequent fliers could discuss it more intelligently and successfully than a group of total abstainers.

What is necessary, if long-distance travel is to be permissible in any specific situation, is an argument for why the harm the emissions will cause to defenceless members of future generations is an acceptable consequence. One possible such argument is that, while you are adding to the harm through travel, you are creating an equivalent reduction in the harm through some other activity.

Since one litre of gasoline weighs about 711g, your 84L of gasoline weigh about 60kg. Using Matt’s automobile figures above, it seems that would generate about 260kg of CO2.

Milan May 27, 2009 at 11:13 am

Tristan,

And that has some moral import – if someone were asked would they rather give up 70% of their home heating, or make one trip, it’s obvious which one they would take. If someone were asked to give up the right to drive 50km a week, or fly, it’s obvious which one they would pick.

Why is it so obvious? I would rather visit Vancouver every two years than drive. Likewise, I would accept 35% less heating per year in order to have the right to fly. Seeing friends and family is more important than being able to sleep without a toque on, or wear shorts inside in December.

Milan May 27, 2009 at 11:20 am

Emily,

Responding to your comments: one, two, three

That fact that other readers may not be willing to give up long distance travel doesn’t mean it’s morally acceptable. To go back to the slavery analogy, it is quite possible that most people in a slave-owning society would refuse to give them up, even if they couldn’t field a strong moral argument for keeping them.

I don’t think just struggling with the ethics of the situation counts as a useful example, especially if it results in flying without a very sturdy argument for doing so. The value of the discussion lies in producing a valuable chain of reasoning, not in simply talking.

Of course, there is the actual CO2 output associated with the long-distance trip. But Oleh and I would decrease our CO2 emissions in response. Which in tandem with your possible switch to Bullfrog power, no matter how you cut it, is more than one person decreasing theirs in a more regular, habitual manner. Which trumps a single passive boycotting of a flight, I think.

I am open to the possibility that such concrete actions can meaningfully offset the emissions associated with a flight. That is a topic that should be considered at greater length here.

Also, if you intend to continue courting me with any semblance of chivalry you have to meet my father. Who keeps forgetting your name.

Chivalry frequently comes into conflict with elements of the modern world (say, feminism). While I would definitely want to meet your family – and already consider it the strongest argument for visiting Vancouver – I am not yet satisfied that it can be done in an acceptable way.

Matt May 27, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Also, if you intend to continue courting me with any semblance of chivalry you have to meet my father. Who keeps forgetting your name.

Wow, this father meeting event is really built up. Nervous?

Emily May 27, 2009 at 1:03 pm

Chivalry frequently comes into conflict with elements of the modern world (say, feminism).

Please. As if I was serious about the chivalry.

Milan May 27, 2009 at 1:12 pm

Chivalry aside, meeting your family is something that has considerable importance.

Life would be a lot easier if I lived in a smaller country.

tristan May 27, 2009 at 2:09 pm

Milan,

You simply don’t understand how much 1kw of heating is, or, to make the thought experiment have any sense, 2kw but for winter only. 2kw more or less heat is 70$ more or less a month at 5cents per kilowatt hour. I wouldn’t be surprised if that is more than the amount of energy it takes to heat your apartment. Check your heating bill – I would be surprised if your apartment consumes much more than 720kw/hrs per month. If it turns out your apartment consumes less than this, then the thought experiment requires you to not heat your house at all just in order to make one flight. That seems like an absurd trade off.

tristan May 27, 2009 at 2:14 pm

“Likewise, I would accept 35% less heating per year in order to have the right to fly. ”

You simply would not in fact accept this choice. Aside from the fact your apartment is already illegally cold in winter, if it were heated only 30% as much as it is now, it would be below zero much of the time. This would make cooking quite difficult. You could probably survive by buying a winter grade sleeping bag, but life would be pretty intolerable.

Milan May 27, 2009 at 2:22 pm

My apartment is usually around 12°C to 13°C in the winter. That minus 35% (because it is one flight per two years) is 7.8°C to 8.5°C – pretty chilly, but not below zero. If my apartment was kept at the legal temperature (which I think is 17°C), a 35% reduction would leave me at 11°C – not much worse than what I already have.

In addition to this, the sensible approach to reducing heating energy use would involve installing better insulation as well (my kitchen is terribly insulated and I could cover my windows with foam blocks during winter months).

In any case, this is an evasion of the general question being asked. Specifically, can you come up with any arguments for why long-distance travel is a morally permissible thing to do?

Milan May 27, 2009 at 2:30 pm

One big problem is that we don’t have an overall moral framework here.

This approach seems faulty:

  1. You want to do X.
  2. X emits Y tonnes of GHGs
  3. Therefore, if you cut Y tonnes from somewhere else, you can do X.

This is a deeply unsophisticated approach. For one thing, it totally ignores your current level of emissions. If someone with 500kg of emissions per year wanted to do any particular thing, they would need to make much greater sacrifices than someone emitting the average Canadian 22000kg, or so.

That seems backwards, no?

tristan May 27, 2009 at 2:57 pm

I agree the assumed moral framework of the calculations we have all been doing seems backwards. I don’t have a better one, and that is a mediocre to bad reason to keep using this one.

Largely, I think a better moral framework is one that gets away from our actions as individuals and moves towards thinking primarily in terms of collective action. The unions are not entirely wrong when they say “nothing could be weaker than the feeble strength of one”.

Sarah May 27, 2009 at 4:05 pm

Okay, so it sounds as though we’ve rejected the simplistic offset approach. Might a different sort of offset in terms of long term behavioural change be the solution? Thus a current flight might be exchanged for changes (at an individual or group level) that will have a) much greater impact over time than a single flight, b) establish good habits / ongoing practices (i.e. a new baseline with lower CO2 emissions), and c) thus contribute to ongoing longterm reductions in the CO2 usage of those involved. If yourself, your family & friends were prepared to commit to CO2 equivalent reductions twice the scale of the flight’s CO2 emissions over the next two years AND ongoing behavioural changes (e.g. establishing a policy for their whole future to exchange some of their driving for transit use or walking) would that suffice?

However, I agree with Emily that the discussion itself is productive, not least because it acts as peer pressure on other people (myself included) not to take flights that we find ourselves incapable of justifying. Peer pressure is an incredibly powerful motivator – hence my suggestion of a Don’t Fly This Year activism group – and its use to reduce the number of flights taken by rich Westerners seems like a useful contribution to climate change mitigation. I hope the discussion & peer pressure continues after this summer’s trip is taken or not taken…

R.K. May 27, 2009 at 5:50 pm

No heating isn’t really 0˚C. It’s living at whatever the temperature outside is.

That being said, living below 0˚C isn’t really possible in a house with plumbing, so it is a sensible absolute bare minimum level.

Just be glad we aren’t working in Kelvin. Cutting your 285.15˚C temperature down 35% would put you at a chilly 185˚K (-88˚C)!

R.K. May 27, 2009 at 5:51 pm

Also, the amount of energy it takes to be X ˚C warmer than the outdoors increases in a non-linear way as X does.

As such, your first ten degrees of warming above ambient (such as-10˚C to 0˚C) are less costly in climate and energy terms than the next ten, and the next ten after that.

tristan May 27, 2009 at 8:32 pm

Ok, I’m sorry to keep harping on about this. But my calculation of a reduction of 35% for a flight every two years presumed a consumption of 100$ a month worth of electricity a month, at 5cents a kw/hr. Now, I realize that this kind of simplistic calculation hasn’t been morally justified – but ignoring that for a second, I don’t think Milan’s base level energy consumption is anywhere near 100$ a month at 5 cents per kw/hr.

The reason I’m continuing to harp on about this is my basic point is this guy’s thought experiment is based upon an amount of energy which is simply huge, and which doesn’t get consumed without being noticed anywhere. To drive 1kw/hr per hour for an entire year is 8700kw/hr per year, which is just a lot of power. Maybe someone who knows more about electric cars than me could figure out how many kms you could drive on 8700kw/hrs.

Peter May 27, 2009 at 9:24 pm

Milan,

“Which, specifically?”

The ones I went on to list immediately following that opening statement.

“Even if we have a duty to reduce non-essential emissions (because such a duty is an important mechanism for achieving a zero-carbon society), it doesn’t follow that we have an obligation to reduce all non-essential emissions to the greatest possible extent.”

Right. Notice the word “all” in my formulation, or the possible alternatives that involve stipulating an acceptable level of emission or rate of personal reduction.

“It is hard…”

Yes, but these questions have to be decisively answered one way or another if you are serious about getting past the ambiguity the quasi-analysis has opened up.

“If you have a house that is so poorly insulated that you are emitting more for heating than for travel, does your obligation to insulate take precedence over the impetus to not travel?”

This is impossible to qualify until the base level questions are resolved. If one has an obligation to reduce all, then one has an obligation to do both. If one only has an obligation to emit less than some amount, which could be met with either, or neither, then there is an obligation to do one, or no obligation at all, respectively. Continued…

“If that is true, it seems sensible to allow people to choose where they direct their non-essential emissions…”

If the moral obligation is to reduce emissions to a certain amount, or meet a rate of change, than I agree that you are free to choose which way you will meet those obligations, but you haven’t explicitly taken a stance on the depth of the moral obligation. You merely, stripped “all” from the proper formulation and returned a bland statement most (if not all) participants will agree with. One possible difference that might arise between your example and the trip, even utilizing the extreme moral standard of reducing all non-essential emissions, is one’s ability to act. You are able to mitigate your moral obligation to reduce emissions from household heating due to lack of knowledge, or poverty, although this might lead to a reformulation as an obligation to save X per year to insulate your house. However, the examples are asymmetric, because the emission reduction of the trip rests on your decision, costs you money, and is easily avoided. This doesn’t automatically make it immoral, but we won’t make progress on that point until you’ve decided some of the key questions.

On a somewhat tangential note, we are using competing frameworks. Any consideration of universalizability is deontological, whereby the basic framework to establish climate change as a moral issue (harm to future generations) is utilitarian. On several occasions, I think you’ve displayed a tendency to favour the strong form of moral obligation, which would make sense because that is the unconditioned utilitarian line. We have imposed an “ought implies can” proviso (also deontological) overtop of the basic utilitarian argument that might restrict the starting position that any unnecessary action that causes harm is immoral, when we consider to what degree can people be expected to oppose the established social order. I don’t have a problem with that. There are many good questions raised, but you do have to settle your positions on the basic mechanisms. If you accept the proviso, so we have a less than absolute obligation to reduce emissions, then it would be helpful to give the specifics of the moral principle limiting the obligation, as that will lead to specific conditions we can apply to determine what actions are moral or immoral.

“It also needs to be sorted out whether inducing emissions reductions somewhere else can be used as an alternative to cutting non-essential emissions (and at what point in the process of cutting them towards zero).”

Yes, that is what this says: “Conversely, the qualification of the moral imperative will also reveal whether substitution is permissible, i.e., if the moral requirement is to reduce to x, or reduce by y over z years, then you may temper your emissions in other ways.”

“If I could actually personally remove GHGs from the atmosphere”

Yes (if the obligation is less than absolute), but you’ve given an excellent analysis of the problems with offsets – Is there any form of long-term storage? How valid are the claims of companies that sell offsets? Is buying reductions from someone else cheating? – implicit – Can such a practice be universalized? What was lacking was a conclusion. If you personally could remove emissions than it would likely be moral. However, the questions you’ve raised need to be answered.

“One big problem is that we don’t have an overall moral framework here.”

I agree. That is why I’ve pushed for you to make some decisions that would be helpful in constructing a framework.

Is there an absolute obligation to reduce all emissions? If not, what moral principle limits the moral obligations imposed by the basic utilitarian framework associated with climate change? Are emission reductions transferable? Why or why not?

“It is interesting to me that nobody else (with the partial exception of Emily) has stepped up to provide a clear justification for their own travel.”

Perhaps technically true, but I have suggested that I might be willing to accept the travel as unjustified. This is the problem with the distraction (the tu quoque) you keep dropping on us; our willingness to travel great distances doesn’t establish the practice as moral.

Other various points to note: Past air travel can be defended by lack of knowledge, in similar fashion to your reply to Betula. You seem to assume contemporary air travel. This is problematic because you probably have very little knowledge of my recent travels, or lack there of. Continued…

“Alternatively, is anyone willing to pledge to forego all fossil fuel powered long-distance travel?”

Irrelevant. My willingness to engage in an action that is potentially immoral doesn’t change the moral nature of the action. Neither does your pointing out my hypocrisy. Continued…

“If others were to travel a long distance for a reason that isn’t obviously essential (say, to get an organ transplant) how would they justify it?”

Our beliefs differ. This doesn’t change the way the moral analysis functions, or even our ability to debate about the proper moral framework, but differences in things like the degree of harm, or our estimation of the likelihood of the harm, will change the strength and scope of the moral obligation. Even if I can justify travel under my reasoning (which I am not entirely sure of, a fact communicated to you when I admit that I might be willing to bite the bullet and accept the immorality of the behaviour), it won’t matter, because you can’t assimilate my beliefs. I accept your basic framework for climate change, both factual and moral, with the exceptions that I am more optimistic about possible change/aversion, and less pessimistic about the magnitude of harm. Admitting a greater possibility of change to avoid the most severe consequences changes the scope of the moral obligations. The principle at work limiting the moral obligations is the fundamental uncertainty about harm. You seem to be a lot more sure about effects at X,Y,Z ppm than I am. Unfortunately, (1) I’m not even sure this is enough to make the activity moral, and (2) you can’t possibly accept this without changing several of your deep factual beliefs about the nature of climate change. I’ve suggested numerous times that you seem to trend towards a strong form of moral obligation. The result should be that you interpret me as holding incorrect beliefs about the world, which leads to me holding incorrect beliefs about which activities are moral, although it allows for the possibility that my framework for moral evaluation is correct. This entails that you would classify a wider range of activities as immoral. As I will make clear in my reply to Oleh, this conversation is all about squaring your principles. We can contribute to the reasoning, enunciate and make arguments for and against moral principles and frameworks, but if you will still have to plug in your own factual interpretation of the world into them. We can dispute the factual nature of the world, but that is what all the other posts are about.

“The moral question of whether it is acceptable to fly doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the specific behaviours of the people discussing it.”

Thank you for impressing this upon others. R.K’s formulation was great. Unfortunately you still invite this line of reasoning when you offer comments like this:

“If others were to travel a long distance for a reason that isn’t obviously essential (say, to get an organ transplant) how would they justify it? Alternatively, is anyone willing to pledge to forego all fossil fuel powered long-distance travel?”

Even after I pointed that the original comment, of which this was a repetition, was a Tu quoque when I said, “…(tu quoque – proper) that refusing to do the following, “And are they ready to respond to that by personally swearing it off forever?” would somehow change the moral standing of the problem, rather than reveal a common weakness of the will.”

It was pointed out that you were using an invalid form of argument and your reaction was to keep pushing the line. I’m grateful that you’ve since pointed out the error to others, but to some degree you invited that line of reasoning. Additionally, it is unclear as to whether you still think the question you’ve repeated three times is worthwhile. (It isn’t.)

Peter May 27, 2009 at 9:25 pm

Emily,

“The answer to this, I assume, is no.”

You can’t make something moral by pointing out other peoples’ (specifically) my immoral activity. It simply isn’t valid; because the reality might be that everyone is in the wrong.

“…but I have not run across any strict code of ethics that applies beneficially in every situation.”

Ethics is not meant to produce personally beneficial results. I don’t understand why you persistently attribute this feature to moral evaluation. The base utilitarian structure for promoting climate change as a moral issue is centered on harm, and the obligations individuals have to not engage in actions that harm others often works against individual interests and desires.

“I think it is wise to be pragmatic and take each new situation on its own merit.”

Moral particularism is contradictory and quite probably intellectually incoherent. You’re welcome to a different opinion. Edit – You’ve since retracted this statement.

“Possibly the more valuable example is your own struggle with the moral-personal vs. moral-public costs of flying/fossil-fuel powered travel. Which you have amply demonstrated.”

… if you believe words speak louder than actions. If the principles remain unspecified, if a cop out is selected to justify, or if Milan hides in the ambiguous space to justify his flight (one could make a plausible case that it is possible for the action to be moral) then the conversation will appear as lip service. Sarah joins you in finding independent value in this conversation, but I think the final action has the potential to reverse all the positives. What happens if someone so obviously dedicated to climate change can’t produce a moral justification for traveling but does so anyways? One probable effect is that Betula will be non-stop spamming the website every 25 seconds, but more importantly, what does that say about the likelihood of action on climate change. It sends the message that deep down, strong proponents either don’t believe, or don’t care enough. Also, I’ve had a very long debate with Milan over what I consider to be his inaccurate reporting, as I believe any reduction is a reduction. The reduction is what matters. In terms of moral evaluation, it is represented by harm. The reduction in emission or harm is all that matters. As I’ve understood things, that is larger objective of this conversation and blog.

“But Oleh and I would decrease our CO2 emissions in response…. Which trumps a single passive boycotting of a flight, I think.”

Possibly. If the obligation is less than absolute and reductions are transferable, than this is likely to be sufficient. My drive for proper moral reasoning doesn’t mean I am arguing that the action is immoral by default. It means Milan needs to decide on those questions, and then the specifics about the amount of your reductions need to be supplied to be properly weighted against Milan’s emissions.

Peter May 27, 2009 at 9:25 pm

Oleh,

“Let he who has no sin, cast the first stone.”

Tu quoque is an invalid form of argument. The moral nature of the act does not change. Although I promise not to stone Milan if he travels to Vancouver, even if he does so believing it is immoral.

“My sense is that some (not many) entries in this discussion are an excercise (sic) in navel gazing or in particular to look into the navels of others.”

This might very well be true, but without the negative connotation usually associated with the practice. Milan has bravely put his thought process on display. I assumed the purpose was to reflect on the subject and to work towards possible answers, so comments appear to be invited. I don’t think this crosses into the realm of inappropriate attribution of intentions as the repugnant and sadly still too often used late-night-girl-in-short-skirt argument, although I could be wrong. Maybe the intent was simply to put characters on the Internet for some bizarre aesthetic preference, so no one has business commenting on the position.

This is a thread about whether going to Vancouver is moral. No one else can stop Milan from going, and we can’t even stop Milan from concluding that such an action is moral. Whether the action is moral or not, is not dependent on his assessment of it. In the end it is only Milan’s scruples that are going to determine whether what we say here has any effect. When we argue a position we are appealing to shared belief and principle, and he will have to decide whether he accepts that principle, and then he will have to be honest with himself about whether his principles allow him to travel. He could resolve the moral conundrum instantly by defining moral actions as whatever actions Milan takes. Fortunately, I think commonsense and his honesty will prevent this. My point is, I focus on trying to get him to answer question about his moral principles because that is what I think will drive this conversation forward. Additionally, I’m not a stakeholder in this. I’m a philosopher, so I have this (admittedly strange) tendency to get obsessive about proper reasoning, and I will admit that I would be a little disappointed if this excellent moral discussion gets settled by a cop out, or is revealed as just lip service, but in the end Milan’s is going to be the one who is going to have to square his actions with the principles he believes in. There really isn’t any vicarious thrill in prolonging the agonizing over the moral justification, nor is there any if the inescapable conclusion is immoral, the points I make are simply to elucidate the requirements of analysis. Although I will surrender that philosophers’ obsession with right reason often appeals bizarre to others.

I realize that you and Emile are stakeholders, and I think it is great that you want him to come to Vancouver, but I can’t help but note that desire won’t change the moral nature of the act, and often compromises moral evaluation. My comments are meant to point to facts of moral analysis and not intended to be attacks against your desires or wellbeing, but since you guys seem to be taking it personally, I’ll (probably less than gracefully at this point) keep my future moral observations to myself.

tristan May 27, 2009 at 10:50 pm

““I think it is wise to be pragmatic and take each new situation on its own merit.”

Moral particularism is contradictory and quite probably intellectually incoherent. You’re welcome to a different opinion. Edit – You’ve since retracted this statement.”

There are interpretations of moral particularism which are not incoherent. For example, any interpretation of Kantian ethics that takes seriously the claim that there is only one moral law has to say that all the content of morality comes from the situation in which the law is applied (because the very nature of the moral law is for it to have no content, for it to have only the form of law). Also, Aristotle is not incoherent, – his notion of right reason is a form of moral particularism.

Moral particularism is incoherent for cognitivists. Cognitivism is stupid, why would we expect to find morality in the content of the world, even its cognitive content. Everytime I look at the world I just see immorality – what kind of kooky abstraction sees the world and deduces morality on its basis? The law has to come from somewhere else, and since for us, the cognitive comes from the world, it won’t be able to come from anything cognitive. Utilitarianism is the one serious objection to this, however, it isn’t serious. But this isn’t the place to discuss that.

oleh May 28, 2009 at 11:49 am

I have stopped thinking in absolutes in my work and in my life. Through this discussion I have been influenced as Emily says to “travel conscientiously and with ample discretion and consideration”. I expect other participants in the discussion have as well. Consequently the discussion itself has probably serve to reduce carbon emission.

Also I wish to extend an invitation for those who may be in Vancouver and who may be participating in tomorrow’s Critical Mass Bike Ride. It is interesting to read people’s thoughts without meeting the person. However, if any of the other participants to the discussion do wish to meet in person there may be an opportunity tomorrow. I plan to participate in the Critical Mass Bike Ride beginning at the Vancouver Art Gallery tomorrow at 600 pm. I will be wearing a bicycle shirt with Curious George (the childrens book figure) on it and will plan to stand stand next to and on the west side of the Olympic Countdown clock. If anyone happens to be there, I would enjoy meeting you.

R.K. May 28, 2009 at 12:10 pm

I have stopped thinking in absolutes in my work and in my life.

There are lots of moral absolutes most people do accept: don’t kill, don’t rape, etc.

It may well be that the harm caused to innocents by emissions is sufficient cause to put long-distance travel in the same category of unacceptable actions.

The ‘no absolutes’ heuristic has some value in simplifying moral reasoning, but it isn’t a substitute for a comprehensive analysis of an important issue.

Matt May 28, 2009 at 12:21 pm

My apartment is usually around 12°C to 13°C in the winter. That minus 35% (because it is one flight per two years) is 7.8°C to 8.5°C – pretty chilly, but not below zero. If my apartment was kept at the legal temperature (which I think is 17°C), a 35% reduction would leave me at 11°C – not much worse than what I already have.

Okay, okay… I know this isn’t the point of the thread, but this is some bad thermodynamics. You’ve reduced 35% of from a temperature scale with an arbitrary zero… R.K. touched about it when he talked about Kelvin, only rather than using absolute zero, you would have to calculate using outside temperature (what your apartment would be if it wasn’t heated) as your new zero. To infer energy difference, the real crux of the matter, this assumes a linear specific heat of air, which is close enough to the truth. Accurate specific heats are usually given with polynomials, though.

Milan May 28, 2009 at 12:34 pm

Peter and Tristan,

Refutation isn’t a form of argumentation that remains terribly compelling for long. While there is value in criticizing the positions of others, we are trying to find an actual answer here, hence my challenge to you to either justify your flying or stop doing it.

R.K. and Matt,

You are right, of course, that my initial conversion of heat use was faulty. That being said, I agree that 0°C is “a sensible absolute bare minimum level.” My particular situation is also constrained because my thermostat (which I don’t control during the winter) also sets the heat for the apartment of the woman who lives above me.

The general point about heating was simply that the energy use and emissions associated with the flight could well be associated with other things: such as running four 250 watt outdoor lights continuously.

Milan May 28, 2009 at 12:59 pm

To return to constructive argumentation for the moment:

I think that if it were actually physically possible to remove an equivalent amount of greenhouse gas from the atmosphere, traveling to Vancouver would be morally acceptable, insofar as it would not have a net adverse effect on others (particularly future generations).

By extension, I think paying someone else to actually sequester the emissions would make the voyage morally acceptable.

Avoiding emissions that would have happened otherwise is somewhat more problematic than actual physical sequestration. Partly, this is because of uncertainty about what the alternative case would have been. That being said, it is in some ways preferable. The actual process of decarbonization will be dominated by eliminating some high-emission activities, and replacing others with low- and zero-emission alternatives. As such, inducing emissions limitations elsewhere advances us towards the goal of carbon neutrality.

The major reasons for which offsets are problematic is the lack of certainty about their results and the possibility that they will perpetuate business-as-usual behaviours.

The first objection can be addressed by offsetting emissions in a highly certain way: such as by taking measurable personal steps. Behaviours undertaken by Emily, my father, and I are more transparent and computable than those undertaken by a distant third party.

The second objection cannot be so easily addressed. Business-as-usual is living thousands of kilometres from people and still hoping to visit them relatively frequently. Even with significant offsetting activities, the message broadcast by choosing to travel would primarily be that such behaviour is or can be fairly easily made acceptable.

Sarah May 28, 2009 at 1:14 pm

The second objection cannot be so easily addressed. Business-as-usual is living thousands of kilometres from people and still hoping to visit them relatively frequently. Even with significant offsetting activities, the message broadcast by choosing to travel would primarily be that such behaviour is or can be fairly easily made acceptable.
Hence my suggestion that one a) offset considerably more than the emissions of the flight over a fixed timeframe (e.g. 2 years); and b) commit to permanent behavioural changes which move the C02 emissions of those involved to a lower baseline. In essence, it’s a short-term bribe (the flight) in exchange for long-term commitments (one could describe it as longterm costs, but humans are highly adaptable so the behaviour would become habitual and thus stop being perceived as inconvenient fairly quickly).

Tristan May 28, 2009 at 2:02 pm

I’m with Oleh on the “no absolutes” conclusion. I’ve studied a lot of moral philosophy, and the only moral absolutist positions that are coherent are the ones with no neccesary content, i.e. no moral absolutes in the convention sense. i.e.

“There are lots of moral absolutes most people do accept: don’t kill, don’t rape, etc.”

Actually, no one accepts these as absolutes. There are lots of situations where it might be moral, or even legal, to kill. It’s pretty hard to imagine a scenario where rape would be morally right – but the mere fact I can’t imagine one doesn’t mean its absolute. For example, it might be that there were some thing that were liked by everyone who was ever born and ever would be born in the history of the earth – but this would not make that thing “absolutely” likable, because there is always the possibility, since desires are contingent, that someone might stop liking it. The difference here is between an empirical universal and an absolute universal. If all the ducks I see are black, then “all ducks are black” might be an empirical universal to me, but only a fool would think my experience of ducks always being black, alone, would enable me to state “all ducks are black” as an absolute universal, i.e. one that holds necessarily.

“The ‘no absolutes’ heuristic has some value in simplifying moral reasoning, but it isn’t a substitute for a comprehensive analysis of an important issue.”

Actually, the notion of “absolute” is itself a value, which is useful for us. It is useful to think of murder and rape as absolutely condemned. But, at least with murder, it is easy to see situations where that useful posit breaks down.

It may very well be the reason we keep failing to find a propositional justification for an ethically sound cross country trip is that propositions don’t ground moral action. Proposition describe action. The fact that no one other than Aristotle and Kant have given coherent accounts of practical action, and they just happen to be the ones that radically differentiate the practical from the cognitive in the sense of the theoretical, tends to suggest this.

If there is something like an absolute moral law, which holds necessarily and which doesn’t distinguish our empirical from transcendent selves and which doesn’t appeal to some irreducible notion of the good, and which has the form of a law – it has to be nothing other than “You have to live with yourself”. At least, in so far as you are a “self” across time which you have to “live” with. But of course, if time is the eternal now, a conglomeration of future, past, and present, time itself is something like subjectivity in this moral sense.

Emily May 28, 2009 at 2:05 pm

Sarah joins you in finding independent value in this conversation, but I think the final action has the potential to reverse all the positives.

Do debates about morality need a final crescendo of action in order to still maintain value?

The ‘positives’, I think, are largely in the headway gained between a number of thoughtful contributions and in the internalization of the seriousness with which we should be treating the emissions associated with carbon intensive travel. Sarah points out that there is a lot of positives to be associated with the long-term effects of changes in our everyday habits, and I agree.

Placing the burden of some affirmative action to conclude the discussion (to make or break it) seems to be an unnecessarily sensationalist and counterproductive approach to discussions of morality.

If there is a burden of responsibility for Milan to maintain an exemplary moral attitude, then there is a burden on all of us who are actively discussing it. Otherwise, why are we just selecting Milan randomly out of the bunch of us for scrutiny?

Milan May 28, 2009 at 2:17 pm

The ninth chapter of George Mobiot’s book is called ‘Love Miles’ and is about the problem of long-distance travel.

Some of the more interesting sections:

“While it is easy for us to pour scorn on the drivers of sports utility vehicles, whose politics generally differ from ours, it is rather harder to contemplate a world in which our freedoms are curtailed, especially the freedoms that shaped us.” (p. 172 hardcover)

“The overall impact [of aircraft], according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is a warming effect 2.7 times that of the carbon dioxide alone.” (p.173)

“Unless something is done to stop this growth [in emissions from air travel], aviation will overwhelm all the cuts we [the UK] manage to make elsewhere.” (p. 174) Note: he argues that air emissions in the UK nearly doubled between 1990 and 2004, from 20.1 to 39.5 megatonnes.

“Even the British government, which at other times manages to find its way to the conclusions the aviation industry requires, admits that ‘there is no viable alternative currently visible to kerosene as an aviation fuel.’

There is, in other words, no technofix. The growth in aviation and the need to address climate change cannot be reconciled… A 90 per cent cut in emissions requires not only that growth stops, but that most of the planes which are flying today are grounded.” (p. 182)

“There is simply no means of tackling this issue other than to reduce the number, length, and speed of the journeys we make.” (p. 186)

“A 90 per cent cut in emissions… means that journeys around the world must be reserved for visiting the people you love, and that they require both slow travel and the saving up of carbon rations.” (p. 187 – emphasis mine)

“I have sought the means of proving otherwise [than that we need to travel much less], not least because it would make my task of persuading people to adopt the proposals in this book much easier. But it has become plain to me that long-distance travel, high speed, and the curtailment of climate change are not compatible. If you fly, you destroy other people’s lives.” (p. 188)

A few responses:

  • Monbiot seems to think there are slower alternatives that are better than flying.
  • He considers duties to family to have special importance.
  • He accepts that some kind of ration system could allow people to make cuts where they choose.
Tristan May 28, 2009 at 2:32 pm

If you think there is a 2.7 times multiplier to emissions released in the sky (and probably having to do with the water released as well), compared to those on land, of course you would think slower travel was better.

I think electrified rail is a real possibility. I think it could replace all intercity travel. I think high speed (i.e. more than 100mph) is not necessary, but acceptable if we can produce enough green electricity.

About this issue of whether action needs to result from talk. Talk is us – we are mostly talking beings. We are trying (at least I am) to become who we are. Where we want to get to depends on where we’re starting from, and who we meet a long the way. I don’t put the same kind of value on individual action as Milan does, so I’m less likely to follow the conclusions of an argument based on the question “what should I, as an individual, do?” Does that mean this discussion has no value for e? Of course not, these kinds of discussions test our values – we put them out in the open and they are evaluated by others. We have to live with ourselves, when ourselves are on display as we lay out our value and how we work them.

Peter May 28, 2009 at 4:21 pm

I’ve met the challenge. I figured people were entitled to a positive account so I laid out my justification and reasons why you couldn’t use it. It is unfortunate that holding you accountable to your own convictions, and that demanding consistency between your beliefs are not compelling propositions for you. Demanding resolution on basic issue is also the only way to develop a sophisticated framework, whereas tossing out talking points to generate moral ambiguity for your actions is hollow. Pointing out that a bat isn’t a bug might not sway you, but there is there is compelling reason to do so. Although, I may no longer have any compelling reasons to do so. Positions that progresses through self-contradiction and fallacious arguments are not constructive (by any stretch of the imagination). The conversation progressively looks like faux moral anguish to produce the required amount of lip service required.

Milan May 28, 2009 at 4:36 pm

It doesn’t seem to me that you have met the challenge of setting out a positive account of what your moral beliefs are. You called them irrelevant and then said that you are “not entirely sure of” your ability to justify travel. Complaining about my ongoing moral reasoning is not a substitute for providing some of your own.

Milan May 28, 2009 at 4:44 pm

Sarah,

I agree with your assertion that permanent behavioural changes are more meaningful than one-off actions. What sort of commitments do you think would be sufficient to make up for one return flight to Vancouver?

I have argued that meeting Emily’s family is the most compelling reason to go to Vancouver. My own family visits Ottawa relatively often, and my desire to see Vancouver friends and the landscape is the least compelling case for emitting the carbon. Meeting Emily’s grandfather is a time-sensitive issue, given his very advanced age. Does the ethics of the situation change at all if this is a one-off journey to satisfy this primary objective, with secondary objectives also being considered as positives?

Furthermore, is there any way we can overcome the perverse result of treating those who have already restrained themselves more harshly than those who remain profligate? The emissions of the average Canadian are about 23,000kg. Can we consider that someone who is emitting half that has ‘done their share’ in mitigation, given the technologies now available? What about 25% of that level? 10%?

Matt May 28, 2009 at 5:21 pm

…my desire to see Vancouver friends and the landscape is the least compelling case for emitting the carbon.

Harsh.

Milan May 28, 2009 at 5:29 pm

‘Least compelling’ can still be quite compelliing. The worst thing about Ottawa is that I have so few friends here, and the chance to see Vancouver friends would have enormous value for me. That being said, I think the case for meeting Emily’s family is both somewhat stronger and somewhat more urgent.

Meeting up with friends in Vancouver would undoubtedly be one of the most pleasant aspects of visiting, but it probably isn’t one of the reasons that carries the most moral force.

Milan May 28, 2009 at 5:43 pm

It is somewhat relevant to describe the three major reasons for which I do not live in Vancouver now:

  1. Working on climate change policy at a federal level is only really possible in Ottawa.
  2. My current job is a good one, in terms of work conditions and being able to apply my knowledge and interests.
  3. For the foreseeable future, Emily will be living in the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal region

If I could find good, meaningful work in Vancouver, and Emily was also in that vicinity, I would much prefer to live there. It is a more appealing city than Ottawa in every way, except for the work that seems to be available.

R.K. May 28, 2009 at 7:11 pm

What is the best prospect for a future transportation technology that would allow voyages across Canada to occur acceptably quickly and in a zero-carbon way?

My guess would be either biofuel-powered planes or electric cars. Electric trains seem unlikely, given the high cost of new electrical infrastructure for tracks. Planes would certainly be faster, but biofuels have – and may always have – a lot of associated problems. Electric cars are much slower (driving from Toronto to Vancouver is a multi-day proposition, but most of Canada’s electricity is already non-emitting, and more will be when Ontario shuts down its coal plants and more nuclear and renewables come online.

As for the timeline, I think it should be possible to buy an electric vehicle capable of driving several hundred kilometres on a charge within ten years.

Tristan May 28, 2009 at 9:44 pm

“I think it should be possible to buy an electric vehicle capable of driving several hundred kilometres on a charge within ten years.”

It is possible to buy such a vehicle today. And, according to GM’s head of R and D in the late 90s, if GM hadn’t of killed the ev1 development program, you could have been able to buy a plug in hybrid almost ten years ago.

Milan May 28, 2009 at 10:26 pm

In a way, it’s a shame that cars may prove to the the viable form of zero-carbon transport that emerges first. They are loud, dangerous, and take up a lot of space. They make cities into hostile places for pedestrians and cyclists, and they promote urban sprawl.

Overall, I think the end of the private car would be a good thing for most people.

Matt May 29, 2009 at 1:54 am

Overall, I think the end of the private car would be a good thing for most people.

While not trying to be argumentative, it’s easy to say this when one doesn’t drive. I love my car and wish it wasn’t such an environmental liability.

Milan May 29, 2009 at 8:48 am

Eliminating cars without changing our urban design approach significantly would be problematic for many people, but I think car-free communities with good transit and mixed development at walkable distances would be a lot more pleasant than how our communities mostly operate now.

Walking or cycling, there are few things more alienating than a line of cars gunning past you, racing from one red light to the next.

Tristan May 29, 2009 at 12:27 pm

Ironically, the decent electric cars you can buy today (although which are not legal on most Canadian roads, unfortunately), would be slightly better for transportation planning than the gasoline replacement electrics like the Tesla – i.e. they have limited range, which enrourages smaller communities, shorter commutes, etc…

The car is easily the most negative force on livable community planning humanity has ever seen, and by a huge margin.

Milan May 29, 2009 at 12:45 pm

I will spin off a side post about the virtues and vices of private cars in cities, within the next few days.

For now, it seems best to keep this exceedingly long conversation focused on the issue of the ethics of going to Vancouver.

Milan May 31, 2009 at 12:39 pm

The car-specific thread is now online.

Mike Kushnir May 31, 2009 at 9:25 pm

don’t make me drive out there and come get you. i really don’t want to have to chloroform you and dump you in a trunk for all of our benefits.

plus, anyway, at that point, i’ll have driven across the country twice, which would be worse than any option so far presented.

my thoughts (without thoroughly reading the debate as it is quite long): the trouble isn’t with occasional flights. it’s with constant flights. i would suggest flying, determining the value of whatever carbon credit offset programs might cost and then donating that amount to the (social-)environmental group of your choosing.

perhaps political advocacy is a wiser “offset” in these cases.

Milan June 1, 2009 at 3:14 pm

[T]he trouble isn’t with occasional flights. it’s with constant flights.

The trouble is simply emissions, and the harm they will do to defenceless members of future generations. That’s what we need to take into consideration when choosing to undertake any voluntary, emissions-intensive activity.

The point about political offsets is an interesting one. It’s true that we don’t lack the technologies necessary to kick off the transition to a low-carbon economy in a big way. What is most lacking is political will, including a willingness to move aggressively beyond the status quo. Perhaps travel can be more meaningfully offset by promoting action on that front than by seeking to reduce emissions from another source.

Anonymous June 1, 2009 at 5:27 pm

But also: always remember that the moments we have with friends and family, the chances we have to do things that might make a big difference in the world, or even to make a small difference to someone you love — all those wonderful chances that life gives us, life also takes away. It can happen fast, and a whole lot sooner than you think.

Anon June 2, 2009 at 12:59 am

Here is one way to think about it:

Imagine your refusal to fly produces the best possible outcome, from a climatic perspective, and none of your family or close friends ever travels long distances again. If you have five family members and 25 close friends, and they each take two long journeys per year, that is about four tonnes per person times 30 people times eighty years: 9,600 tonnes with very generous assumptions.

By contrast, Canada emits something like 700,000,000 tonnes per year, and Canada is a fairly minor emitter.

If you can work your entire life and do something to reduce global or Canadian emissions by some fraction of a percent, you will do more than if you convince heaps of friends and family members to never travel again. Given that you cannot even achieve the latter, you should think about focusing on fostering political change rather than setting a personal example.

. June 3, 2009 at 10:42 am

The Perils of Pop Philosophy

ThousandStars tips a new piece by Julian Sanchez, the guy who, in case you missed it, brought us a succinct definition of the one-way hash argument (of the type often employed in the US culture wars). This one is about the dangers of a certain kind of oversimplifying, as practiced routinely by journalists and bloggers. “This brings us around to some of my longstanding ambivalence about blogging and journalism more generally. On the one hand, while it’s probably not enormously important whether most people have a handle on the mind-body problem, a democracy can’t make ethics and political philosophy the exclusive province of cloistered academics. On the other hand, I look at the online public sphere and too often tend to find myself thinking: ‘Discourse at this level can’t possibly accomplish anything beyond giving people some simulation of justification for what they wanted to believe in the first place.’ This is, needless to say, not a problem limited to philosophy.”

Milan June 3, 2009 at 12:01 pm

If you can work your entire life and do something to reduce global or Canadian emissions by some fraction of a percent, you will do more than if you convince heaps of friends and family members to never travel again.

This is an interesting point, though it seems like this sort of ‘offset’ is even more uncertain than those available for purchase. It is quite possible that my efforts to fight climate change will have no substantial effect.

. June 3, 2009 at 12:25 pm

Think of the children, or think of your ski trip: Two ways to tell the climate story

Posted 1:12 PM on 2 Jun 2009
by Jonathan Hiskes

Forty-five million people go hungry or undernourished because of droughts and disasters wrought by climate change, according to a recent report by the Global Humanitarian Forum. Climate change leads to 300,000 deaths a year, the organization concludes, a toll that will reach 500,000 by 2030. Many of those who starve will be children. Of course, those numbers don’t begin to convey the human suffering that lies behind them. And so on and so forth.

Also, your family’s ski vacations could be completely ruined by climate change. If your taste leans tropical, your favorite beachside resort—the one with the awesome mojitos and coconut shrimp—could also be imperiled by rising sea levels and fiercer storms caused by climate change.

So which is more likely to prompt you to do something? What’s going to prompt the average American, or the average citizen in the developed world, to demand action?

Ski resorts or starving third-world babies—it’s a blunt and maybe crude way to put the question, but there’s a fundamental tension between these poles for how we tell the story of climate change. Whether they make their decision consciously or not, anyone who must communicate about climate—activists, politicians, journalists, anyone directly affected—must choose whether to appeal to altruism or to self interest.

. June 4, 2009 at 6:48 pm

Exactly the same difficulties attach to flying. It is an elementary principle of aeronautics that the minimum speed needed to keep an aeroplane of a given shape in the air varies as the square root of its length. If its linear dimensions are increased four times, it must fly twice as fast. Now the power needed for the minimum speed increases more rapidly than the weight of the machine. So the larger aeroplane, which weighs sixty-four times as much as the smaller, needs one hundred and twenty-eight times its horsepower to keep up. Applying the same principle to the birds, we find that the limit to their size is soon reached. An angel whose muscles developed no more power weight for weight than those of an eagle or a pigeon would require a breast projecting for about four feet to house the muscles engaged in working its wings, while to economize in weight, its legs would have to be reduced to mere stilts. Actually a large bird such as an eagle or kite does not keep in the air mainly by moving its wings. It is generally to be seen soaring, that is to say balanced on a rising column of air. And even soaring becomes more and more difficult with increasing size. Were this not the case eagles might be as large as tigers and as formidable to man as hostile aeroplanes.

Matt June 4, 2009 at 8:05 pm

It is an elementary principle of aeronautics that the minimum speed needed to keep an aeroplane of a given shape in the air varies as the square root of its length.

What?

I have never ever heard of a principle that the length of an airplane has anything to do with its minimum flying speed. Maybe the author of that quote is talking about Fineness ratio or The Area Rule, but if either is the case the principals have been misapplied. The minimum speed an airplane needs to fly would be by and large impacted by it’s weight and wing area.

I have a good example that illustrates this:

The “Spruce Goose” (Hughes H-4) is roughly the length of a 747, just a touch shorter. On its sole flight though, it took off at only 80MPH, about half that of the 747. It also weighs less than half as much.

Milan June 4, 2009 at 8:34 pm

I guess J. B. S. Haldane got it wrong, back in 1928. His essay is entertaining nonetheless, though not terrible pertinent to this discussion.

. June 5, 2009 at 11:01 pm

Dilemma. This is not just any old awkwardness, it is one with horns, being, properly, a form of argument (the horned syllogism) in which you find yourself committed to accept one of two propositions each of which contradicts your original contention. Thus a dilemma offers the choice between two alternatives, each with equally nasty consequences.

Emily June 6, 2009 at 3:19 pm

This dilemma involves Horns in more ways than one! ;)

Milan June 6, 2009 at 4:41 pm

Indeed. Not Meeting the Horns versus contributing to the suffering and deaths of millions (or billions) of people, a few decades hence.

. June 6, 2009 at 4:53 pm

Riding the rails across Canada

Taking the train allows families time to watch scenery, read and make friends

By James Kosowan, The Ottawa CitizenJune 6, 2009 12:35 PM

Our summer travel plans of a cross-Canada train trip with our two young children did not evoke the kind of response we had anticipated when we shared the news with family and friends.

The reaction was mostly one of suppressed shock.

There were the approving nods and weak smiles of encouragement, of course, but their eyes read more like “Are you out of your mind?” and “What kind of holiday would that be?”

The impetus for our summer trip was to take advantage of Via Rail’s Kids Travel Free program — between June 1 and Sept. 15, with the purchase of an adult ticket, a child 11 years of age or under travels free.

This program can also be used in conjunction with Via Rail’s Canrailpass, whereby an adult can enjoy 12 days of unlimited train travel over a period of 30 days for one set price. Thus, my wife, Sally, and I were able to buy two adult Canrailpasses in comfort class, which provided free passage for our eight-year-old daughter, Claire, and our five-year-old son, Zachary — a veritable two for one.

Tristan June 6, 2009 at 8:09 pm

I think its a mistake to concentrate on doing the least evil, rather than the most good. The path to hell may be paved with good intentions, but the wake of carbon destruction that follows you to Vancouver will be full of good consequences.

Milan June 6, 2009 at 9:06 pm

Perhaps the following analogy can help us grapple with these ethical questions a bit better: living under an unjust regime.

Everyone commenting here is living within a political and economic system that is undermining the welfare of those in future generations, for the sake of fulfilling current preferences. In some ways, this is akin to living under a political and economic structure that sustains itself in other unjust ways, such as persecuting its own members and engaging in acts of aggression against others. (Our current society may do those things, too, but that isn’t relevant to this analogy.)

We were all born into this system, and could not be expected to understand its consequences from the outset. Indeed, it is only because of scientists and the distribution of information that we are able to appreciate it now. No individual child or adult could be expected to realize the link between energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and dangerous climate change on their own. Now that we have been made aware, however, we face the ethical question of how to respond.

Living in such a situation, one has a number of options. (1) Ignore the injustice and live however you want, including in ways that contribute disproportionately to the harm. (2) Try to reform the system in some way that fits within the laws and codes of conduct that are part of it, such as running for office or trying to lobby the government. (3) Try to reform the system by means that exceed the law or other codes of conduct, such as by trying to eliminate the influence of those who maintain it. (4) Do not try to change the system, but work to limit the degree to which you personally sustain it.

For the sake of comparison, think about the ethics of living in Nazi Germany. What is the minimum level of resistance that is compatible with living an ethical life? Conversely, is there any degree to which you can actively collaborate with the regime, while retaining some claim to being ethical. It seems unlikely that you can justify being the commander of a death camp, but can you justify working in a munition factory? What is the most moral thing you can do, living under such a regime. Some would say: overthrow it by whatever means are available to you.

I am sure the analogy is not a perfect fit for the situation we find ourselves in, in a fossil fuel dependent society. At the same time, the analogy has characteristics that might help us analyze the problem better, insofar as it involves how individuals should behave when embedded in something that is both unethical and far larger than themselves.

R.K. June 7, 2009 at 7:02 pm

Does the analogy help at all, when it comes to balancing preferences, duties to family, and obligations to future generations, in the case of flying or not flying this summer?

Arguably, the analogy suggests that working on systemic change is more important than trying to moderate your personal impact.

. June 8, 2009 at 12:14 pm

Analysis Says Planes Might Be Greener Than Trains

New Scientist has an interesting piece up about the calculable energy costs per mile for various forms of transportation. Despite the headline (“Train can be worse for climate than plane”), the study it describes deals with highway-based vehicles, too: the authors attempted to integrate not just the cost at the tailpipe (or equivalent) for each mode of transport, but also the costs of developing and supporting the associated infrastructure, such as rails, highways and airports. Such comparisons are tricky, though; a few years back, a widely circulated report claimed that the Toyota Prius had a higher per-mile lifetime cost than the Hummer (see that earlier Slashdot post for good reason to be skeptical of the methodology and conclusions). I wonder how the present comparison would be affected by a calculation of (for instance) how much it would cost to move by plane the freight currently carried by trains.

. June 8, 2009 at 12:15 pm

Train can be worse for climate than plane

True or false: taking the commuter train across Boston results in lower greenhouse gas emissions than travelling the same distance in a jumbo jet. Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is false.

A new study compares the “full life-cycle” emissions generated by 11 different modes of transportation in the US. Unlike previous studies on transport emissions, Mikhail Chester and Arpad Horvath of the University of California, Berkeley, looked beyond what is emitted by different types of car, train, bus or plane while their engines are running and includes emissions from building and maintaining the vehicles and their infrastructure, as well as generating the fuel to run them. (Table 1 on page 3 has a complete list of components that were considered).

. June 8, 2009 at 2:24 pm

Understanding Climate Change Ethics as a Subset of Global Ethics

Ethics is understood to be the domain of inquiry that examines claims about what is right or wrong, obligatory, or when responsibility attaches to human action. Global ethics is usually understood to be the field of inquiry examining ethical claims that apply universally to all citizens of the Earth. That is, global ethics examines the nature and justification of ethical norms that are argued should obligate all people. (Dower, 2002)

Interest in global ethics has increased recently due to; (a) the increasing pressure of global problems requiring global solutions, (b) the general phenomenon of globalization, (c) revived interest in citizenship, and (d) revived interest in cosmopolitism or global ethics. (Dower, 2002)

Why Global Environmental Problems Entail Ethical Obligations

Ethics is understood to be the domain of inquiry that explores what is right or wrong, obligatory or non-obligatory, or when responsibility attaches to human behavior. Are there features of global environmental problems that call for classifying them as essentially ethical problems with even greater force than some local or regional environmental problems? If so, what are these features?

Why is this important? If some global environmental problems are essentially ethical problems, then some of the excuses that nations often use to justify not reducing their contributions to the global environmental problems are ethically problematic. This is so because ethical obligations entail duties and responsibilities to others with the result that national policies may not be justified on national interests alone. That is, if there are ethical obligations to others to cease causing harm, then policy options must be responsive to these obligations.

. June 9, 2009 at 5:23 pm

AVIATION: Airline industry eyes emissions standards (06/09/2009)

Saqib Rahim, E&E reporter

A group of foreign airlines will propose a plan today to curb the aviation industry’s emissions, hoping to help negotiators reach agreement on one of many friction points in global climate change talks.

The plan suggests a cap-and-trade scheme for the airline sector, requiring airlines from all countries to have permits that cover their emissions.

As in other cap-and-trade policies, airlines that have excess credits could sell them to others. Airlines would also be allowed to buy credits from international carbon markets, such as the European Union’s Emission Trading Scheme.

Damian Ryan, a senior analyst at British nonprofit the Climate Group, said the partners think their plan can break through the impasse between rich and poor countries that has often run climate talks aground.

“It’s one of the few industry-driven proposals,” Ryan said. “You don’t often see a bunch of companies coming together and putting together such quite detailed proposals.”

A group of major international carriers, including Virgin Atlantic and Air France, joined the Climate Group in the proposal. Under three possible scenarios, the industry would have until 2020 to match its 2005 emissions, reduce them by 5 percent, or reduce them by 20 percent.

. June 9, 2009 at 5:30 pm

Scientists should look at their own carbon footprint
Published: Monday, June 8, 2009 – 10:56 in Earth & Climate

Scientists studying the impact of climate change on the Arctic need to consider ways to reduce their own carbon footprints, says a researcher who regularly flies north to study the health of caribou. In the June issue of Arctic, the journal of the University of Calgary’s Arctic Institute of North America, postdoctoral fellow Ryan Brook calls on scientists to show leadership by examining and sharing ways to reduce the impact of working in polar regions.

“The importance of the research is not at question here. It is vital to our understanding of and adapting to climate change. But we need to think about better approaches,” says Brook from the U of C’s faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

“This is an issue for all scientists, though polar researchers often travel particularly long distances using commercial air travel. We also rely extensively on small aircraft, icebreakers, and snowmobiles, all of which produce large amounts of carbon. We know that carbon release by human activity is a key contributor to climate change.”

Brook studies the health and anatomy of caribou herds in Nunavut and Northwest Territories. He collaborates with northern wildlife managers and is also involved in youth education. This work typically takes him north five or six times per year and when he calculated his own carbon footprint, he was not happy with the result.

Anonymous June 11, 2009 at 12:19 pm

Not flying won’t set a positive example, because nobody is willing to copy you. They don’t even seem to find it particularly laudable to make the sacrifice.

People see it as either meaningless, like the Mormon prohibition on coffee, or pointless, like re-arranging those famous Titanic deck chairs.

Anonymous June 11, 2009 at 12:29 pm

Rather than focusing on what various visitors to this site can do to reduce their emissions, you should collectively be focusing on what you can do to change the political situation. You could be writing letters to editors, filing lawsuits, chaining yourselves up outside coal power plants, meeting your MPs, campaigning during elections, etc.

It is political action that will move Canada forward – not the ever-more-frugal lifestyles of those who understand climatic science.

Tristan June 11, 2009 at 12:45 pm

The Nazi analogy does give you access to a lot of work which has been done on precisely this question. There is distinction made between “resistence”, i.e. underground radio station, assasinating nazi officers, etc.. and “resistenz”, saying hello instead of heil hitler, not allowing the state to invade the private sphere.

It seems quite clear that “resistenz” has little or no import to the climate change situation. As such, only “resistence” counts. You could also argue that “resistenz” is a bad idea for 3rd reich analysis anyway, serving only to allow us to send moral approbation to those undeserving of it.

Milan June 11, 2009 at 12:57 pm

It seems plausible that our chief duty in relation to climate change is “resistance” against the system that continued to create it. (Other duties might include helping people who are harmed as the result of past emissions that built our current economic prosperity).

While reducing one’s personal emissions are a form of resistance, they should be seen in the wider context of actions with the potential to change the system. That is where the importance of making an example resides, as well as the importance of public discussion.

Given the strong agreement among readers that not enough is being done on this issue, I do think ramping up advocacy activities we undertake makes sense. I wrote a letter to the Editor of The Globe and Mail this morning, arguing that the cash for clunkers proposal doesn’t make environmental sense.

Perhaps I should try to meet my MP and convince him that the NDP needs to change its position on climate change, and especially on carbon pricing.

Emily June 11, 2009 at 3:23 pm

Perhaps I should try to meet my MP and convince him that the NDP needs to change its position on climate change, and especially on carbon pricing.

Great idea!

Tristan June 11, 2009 at 4:25 pm

What about a cross Canada road trip, meeting with whoever will talk to us along the way, with written on the side of the vehicle: “THIS PARTICULAR VEHICLE IS NOT DESTROYING THE PLANET. IRRESPONSIBLE POLICY IS”

Milan June 11, 2009 at 4:29 pm

Would such a trip be possible this summer?

Milan June 11, 2009 at 5:48 pm

Returning to personal impact for a moment:

Near the end of his book, Peter MacKay suggests that not longer flying is 3.5 times as beneficial as being a vegetarian. Indeed, the only ‘lifestyle’ option that permits an equally large energy use reduction is knocking down an old building and replacing it with a newer and much more efficient one.

Switching to a ground- or air-source heat pump is about as useful as going vegetarian, as are insalling better insulation and double-glazed windows.

. June 11, 2009 at 5:52 pm

Julie Etchingham: Have you thought of perhaps not flying to Barbados for a holiday and not using all those air miles?

Tony Blair: I would, frankly, be reluctant to give up my holidays abroad.

Interviewer: It would send out a clear message though wouldn’t it, if we didn’t see that great big air journey off to the
sunshine? … – a holiday closer to home?

Tony Blair: Yeah – but I personally think these things are a bit impractical actually to expect people to do that. I think that what we need to do is to look at how you make air travel more energy efficient, how you develop the new fuels that will allow us to burn less energy and emit less. How – for example – in the new frames for the aircraft, they are far more energy efficient.

I know everyone always – people probably think the Prime Minister shouldn’t go on holiday at all, but I think if what we do in this area is set people unrealistic targets, you know if we say to people we’re going to cancel all the cheap air travel . . . You know, I’m still waiting for the first politician who’s actually running for office who’s going to come out and say it – and they’re not.

Milan June 11, 2009 at 6:25 pm

I hived off the general discussion of the ‘resistence’ ethic to another thread.

Insofar as it pertains to travel, it should be discussed here, naturally.

. June 18, 2009 at 11:22 pm

“It appears to me that much of the rigid opposition to environmental concerns in the First World nowadays involves values acquired early in life and never again reexamined: ‘the maintenance intact by rulers and policy-makers of the ideas they started with,’ to quote Barbara Tuchman.

It is painfully difficult to decide whether to abandon some of one’s core values when they seem to be becoming incompatible with survival. At what point do we as individuals prefer to die than to compromise and live? Millions of people in modern times have indeed faced the decision whether, to save their own life, they would be willing to betray friends of relatives, acquiesce in a vile dictatorship, live as virtual slaves, or flee their country. Nations and societies sometimes have to make similar decisions collectively.

All such decisions involve gambles, because one often can’t be certain that clinging to core values will be fatal, or (conversely) that abandoning them will ensure survival…

Perhaps a crux of success or failure as a society is to know which core values to hold on to, and which ones to discard and replace with new values, when times change.”

Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. p. 433 (paperback)

Milan June 23, 2009 at 10:09 am

One relevant factor here is non-reversibility.

It is possible that a sustainable form of transport (such as renewably powered electric trains) will emerge in the next few decades. By that point, however, it will almost certainly be too late to meet Emily’s grandfather.

The consequences of a false positive error (going when it isn’t just to do so) are reversible, in the sense that emissions can be equivalently cut in the future. The consequences of a false negative (not going, when non-environmental ethical factors compel it) are not necessarily similarly reversible, and certainly not reversible in the mid-to-distant future.

Milan June 23, 2009 at 1:20 pm

Another possible justification for travel is finding opportunity. Even for someone intensely engaged with the issue, it isn’t clear where one’s efforts can best be applied to improve climatic outcomes. Travel of a kind that allows for the identification and investigation of such possibilities could therefore be a necessary part of making a meaningful difference.

R.K. June 23, 2009 at 2:36 pm

Once you reject the idea that your key moral responsibility relating to climate change is reducing your own emissions, it becomes a lot easier to justify ‘optional’ emissions like those associated with travel.

What you do become obliged to do, however, is as much as you can to drive society as a whole towards sustainability. In that sense, the point about finding opportunities is a good one. When a problem is both big and unprecedented, it is especially hard to know how to go about helping to solve it.

. June 23, 2009 at 2:44 pm

An Adventure in the Making

Is this the Vehicle that will take me across Canada? The story began several weeks ago with some couch surfers who needed to sell a Van they had driven from Vancouver to Montreal and Toronto. Unfortunately, they were not able to sell it. Which was lucky for me, because it meant they were willing to sign it over to me (in actuality, they signed it over to my mother to make it easier to insure). Now, the plan is to drive it across this great land.

. June 23, 2009 at 5:02 pm

“A call for people to reduce their CO2 emissions, while appropriate, oversimplifies and diverts attention from the essential requirement: government leadership. Without such leadership and comprehensive economic policies, conservation of energy by individuals merely reduces demand for fuel, thus lowering prices and ultimately promoting the wasteful use of energy.”

James Hansen

Milan June 27, 2009 at 12:46 pm

Tristan and his brother are now considering an Amtrak rail journey. The key segment is “July 9th from Chicago station at 2:15pm. Arrives in Everett at 8am on the 11th.”

That still leaves the problem of getting back, but it seems more affordable than the Via Rail option. Also, I would have company.

Tristan June 28, 2009 at 12:59 am

I’m quite fascinated by this Amtrak train. Even if we end up driving instead, I might take the train the other direction in late August.

Milan June 30, 2009 at 11:16 am

One more consideration relevant to choosing between modes of transport (as well as optimizing the design for each):

Because of their weight, a much higher portion of energy use in trains goes into overcoming rolling resistance, rather than air resistance, than is the case for either cars or bicycles.

For an eight-carriage train, 119 km/h is the approximate velocity at which air resistance becomes greater than rolling resistance.

Milan June 30, 2009 at 3:17 pm

Here is an idea for an ethical framwork, based on a personal carbon budget.

First, I could create as accurate an assessment of my carbon emissions as possible: taking into account heating, transport, food, etc.

Then, I could compare that with the emissions of Canadians in general.

I could draw up a near-term limit that is achievable but significantly better than average.

Over years and decades, two things may change. (a) New technologies may become available and (b) I may gain more control over how I live (say, having a mortgage rather than renting an apartment).

The near-term limit could be adjusted so as to remain aggressive, with reference to any changes in (a) and (b).

That seems like a pretty pragmatic way of reconciling the inevitability of producing emissions (just from being alive in an unjust society like ours) with the importance of setting an example and minimizing harm upon others.

Over and above this, I could (a) continue to work in the field of climate change mitigation (b) expand advocacy efforts, to drive society towards greater seriousness on the issue and (c) financially support organizations that are being effective at either reducing emissions or promoting policies that would.

I could compile detailed reports on all of that, annually.

Milan July 7, 2009 at 3:52 pm

Regarding the audit I mentioned:

I used WattzOn.com to make an estimate of my personal overall energy use. Since I don’t have data on my total heating oil use, I took the 730 gallon average figure from this page. I divided it by two, since the furnace also provides heat for the woman upstairs.

Assuming no flights, the site suggests that the huge majority of my energy use is devoted to heating. Housing makes up 2,238 watts out of my total use of about 2,821 watts. That’s 79%.

Food is estimated at 13% (for my vegetarian diet) and commuting is 5% (taking the bus).

I am not sure how good the site’s overall methodology is, and my heating use may be less than average, given how cold the place usually is. I also probably use less total space than the average American.

Their flight calculator is very annoying.

You choose between mid-range flights (between two and six hours long) and long-range ones (longer than six hours long). Two of the former add 167W; two of the latter add 913W.

To simulate two six-hour flights to Vancouver, I assumed mid-range flights to be four hours and added three of them. That yields 403W, or about 12.5% of my total estimated energy use, with flights included.

If all this is remotely accurate, heating would be my emissions reduction priority. I will try to get some real usage data from my landlord.

Matt July 7, 2009 at 4:41 pm

I’m confused about your “watts” usage, because like we talked about in the battery thread, watts are a rate of energy usage, joules per second, not an amount of energy used.

Do you mean kilowatt-hours? This is equivalent to 3,600,000 joules.

Milan July 7, 2009 at 4:48 pm

The site’s methodology is to work out your average rate of energy usage, taking into account what you eat, how you travel, what you own, etc.

Without flights and based on the average fuel oil figure, it estimates that I am using an average of 2,822W at all times. Multiplied by (365*24) and divided by 1000, that corresponds to 24,720 kWh per year.

Above, I determined that my electricity use at home is about 4,768 kWh per year.

Milan July 7, 2009 at 4:50 pm

If my heating oil usage really is 115L per month, the site estimates that the energy equivalent is 1,690W constantly. Since I only actually heat my house in the fall, winter, and early spring, it would presumably be much higher during that span and basically 0 during the summer.

Milan July 7, 2009 at 4:53 pm

24,720 kWh per year works out to about 68 kWh per day. According to MacKay, the average European uses about 125 kWh per day (though he includes more things than the WattzOn site asks about), while the average person in Hong Kong uses 80 kWh per day.

. July 7, 2009 at 4:57 pm

Power consumption per capita versus GDP per capita, in purchasing-power-parity US dollars.

Milan July 7, 2009 at 5:06 pm
Matt July 7, 2009 at 5:17 pm

I get it. Sort of a weird way of measuring energy usage, but on the other hand it’s illustrative. A person can picture that leaving a 1200W hair dryer on at all times would use a lot of energy, and then if they can compare that to their actual usage, they can see that they might want to cut back.

Milan July 7, 2009 at 5:22 pm

Their site has a pie chart based on the data I have entered.

The ‘stuff’ category is probably underrepresented, since I can’t be bothered to enter everything I own. I have added the big stuff: appliances, computers, etc.

If the heating estimate is right, that might be my best option for reducing my overall emissions. There is further scope to insulate my apartment, and I might even be able to convince my landlord to install a more efficient heating system. Since he intends to keep the property forever (his wife grew up there) and he pays the fuel oil bill, he might be open to putting in an efficient condensing boiler or an air-source heat pump.

oleh July 8, 2009 at 2:16 am

“24,720 kWh per year works out to about 68 kWh per day. According to MacKay, the average European uses about 125 kWh per day”

Good for you in having roughly one half of the average KW of the average European. How does that compare to the average North American?

Milan July 8, 2009 at 10:25 am

Eyeballing the chart linked above, it looks like the average Canadian uses about 275 kWh per day, while the average American uses more like 250.

Bear in mind, once again, that the number of things included in MacKay’s count is greater than the number WattzOn considers. Also, there is no direct link between kWh of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. It depends on what kind of energy you are using.

Milan July 8, 2009 at 2:04 pm

I got the actual figure: “2155.5 litres of heating oil at an average cost of 98.6 cents a litre.”

That works out to 1,078L (285 US gallons) for me, which WattzOn equates to 1,323W of constant energy use. With the real heating figure used, my total estimated energy use is 2,442W – 21,392 kWh per year, or about 58.6 kWh per day.

My landlord is planning on putting in a more efficient gas furnace this fall. I raised the idea of considering an air-source heat pump, as a possible alternative.

This site estimates the CO2 emissions associated with one such year of heating to be about 3.2 tonnes – which is approximately comparable to three round-trip flights to Vancouver. Of course, I cannot keep my house at Ottawa’s ambient temperature in November, December, January, etc.

Milan July 8, 2009 at 2:07 pm

Incidentally, at that average price (and assuming the woman upstairs pays the same rent as me), the cost of heating my apartment is about 11.5% of the total rent collected.

. July 22, 2009 at 2:28 pm

VIA Rail cancels trips in light of strike threat

Updated Wed. Jul. 22 2009 2:00 PM ET

CTV.ca News Staff

VIA Rail is acting now to prevent passengers from being stranded in the event of a strike by cancelling some long-distance departures, according to a company spokesperson.

Locomotive engineers voted to walk off the job on Friday if a tentative agreement isn’t reached by noon on July 24.

The company put up a notice on its website late Tuesday, warning passengers of cancellations.

In the event of a strike, passengers who are scheduled to depart before noon on Friday will be transported to their destination, either by train or alternate means, the notice said. All trains scheduled to leave the station after noon will be cancelled.

R.K. August 11, 2009 at 10:28 pm

Another idea for offsetting:

Avoid importing a set mass of goods, determined using your mass and the greenhouse gas emissions per kg/km of the different importing options. For instance, 1kg of electronics flown in from China would equate to a certain number of kilograms of carbon, as would wine brought in from South America by ship, or food trucked cross-country.

Since freight shipping is probably more efficiently packed than passenger transport, it seems safe to assume that moving one human-weight of cargo by any means is less carbon intensive than moving the human would be.

. August 17, 2009 at 9:37 am

Yes, fly less for now until planes become more fuel efficient and green. Don’t count your frequent flier miles before they accrue, though, because it is extremely unlikely that airlines will reach the needed amount of “more” efficient in your lifetime.

If you did indeed read back on my extremely erudite plane travel musings, you noticed that planes not only burn a lot of fuel, they burn it in a layer of the atmosphere that lends the fuel more power to change the climate. The greenhouse-gas emissions of an airplane are hence given a “radiative forcing” multiplier, to reflect this extra power.

There are varying accounts of aviation’s contribution to overall climate emissions, ranging from 4 to 9 percent. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that aviation contributes 12 percent of transport-related CO2 emissions. If you have ever calculated your own carbon footprint, you’ll have an idea of the lopsided effect just one or two flights can have on an otherwise typical individual impact.

. August 17, 2009 at 12:45 pm

August 12, 2009, 11:02 am
How green Is Rail Travel?
By James Kanter

Eurostar, the high-speed train service that connects London with Paris and Brussels, advertises a tenfold reduction in each traveler’s carbon footprint by comparison with an airplane trip over similar distances.

In Britain, government officials have described the investment of billions of pounds in a new high-speed rail network as a green initiative. The Obama administration has budgeted billions of dollars to build similar networks in the United States, partly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But do all forms of train travel really offer such dramatic gains?

According to a study by Mikhail V Chester and Arpad Horvath of University of California, Berkeley, some train systems should be seen as nearly on a par with travel in large aircraft in terms of greenhouse gases emitted for each mile a passenger travels. Both air and train also produce fewer emissions for each mile of passenger travel than cars or buses (although, of course, planes generally go much farther than trains, buses or cars, so their overall emissions will be higher).

Milan September 1, 2009 at 11:11 am

My friend Tristan, who previously drove across Canada will soon be making the crossing again, by train.

Milan September 17, 2009 at 1:27 pm

Electric cars have some nice potential:

“According to Bosch’s calculations, a conventional internal-combustion-engined car can travel 1.5-2.5km on a kilowatt-hour (kWh) of energy. A hybrid with a combined electric and diesel engine would go up to 3.2km. But a battery-powered car can travel 6.5km.”

If battery technology really improves, battery-powered electric trains may even be feasible.

Matt September 17, 2009 at 1:33 pm

Trains have a huge advantage over cars, in that the route can be electrified, no batteries necessary.

The advantage of course being, no charging, no battery creation/disposal, no extra weight no haul around, and no range limitations.

Milan September 17, 2009 at 1:37 pm

This article talks a lot about potential improvements in battery technologies.

Electrifying train routes is good, but perhaps impractical or not economically viable from coast to coast. I can imagine a situation where major corridors are electric, but side tracks and linkages between populated areas depend on battery or hybrid trains.

Bernadette Keenan October 19, 2009 at 10:12 pm

Well you are giving this matter very careful consideration. If it helps in my experience the seats on trains recline and there is lots of leg room compared to say buses which are very squishy. You might even be able to sleep on the floor somewhere. Did that with Eurail pass in Europe. Plus on a train you have lots of walk around room. There is a huge baggage car too, so you might even be able to take a bicycle for travel at the other end. Food could be a problem, but there will be stops and they sell food at stations. Could be interesting. Wonder if there is a microwave available on board?

Tris October 19, 2009 at 10:23 pm

“If battery technology really improves, battery-powered electric trains may even be feasible.”

Maybe, but you have to remember – trains are really heavy. A bus weighs about 5 tons, and carries 60 people. A train car weighs 60 tons and carries 60 people. The Amtrak double decker train cars carry more – but they weigh 90 tons!

The advantages of rail have to do with low rolling resistance. Flywheels look more promising than batteries as a “hybrid” solution. Or, perhaps the best suburban trolley would be a trybrid – batteries for getting up to speed, flywheels for recapturing breaking energy, and diesel for when the batteries run down.

. October 20, 2009 at 8:56 am

Ultracapacitor Bus Recharges At Each Stop

TechReviewAl writes “A US company and its Chinese partner are piloting a bus powered by ultracapacitors in Washington DC. Ultracapacitors lack the capacity of regular batteries but are considerably cheaper and can be recharge completely in under a minute. Sinautec Automobile Technologies, based in Arlington, VA, and its Chinese partner, Shanghai Aowei Technology Development Company, have spent the past three years demonstrating the approach with 17 municipal buses on the outskirts of Shanghai. The executive director of Sinautec touts the energy efficiency of this approach: ‘Even if you use the dirtiest coal plant on the planet [to charge an ultracapacitor], it generates a third of the carbon dioxide of diesel.’”

Milan October 20, 2009 at 10:45 am

Batteries would need to improve a lot to be able to deal with heavy trains, but it doesn’t seem fundamentally impossible.

Something like the bus system above might also be an option, especially for urban light rail. If the electricity storage system could be charged quickly, it could be done at each stop.

Milan October 26, 2009 at 1:35 pm

Here is a nice demonstration of how improvements in airline efficiency are fairly incremental, and how the total impact of flying remains large.

Milan October 26, 2009 at 1:37 pm

I was so unconcerned about this back in 2007

I suppose the difference between then and now is greater awareness of how serious climate change is, the kind of change needed to stop it, and the moral implications of large voluntary emissions.

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