Remarks to Port Authority of NY&NJ, 10.24.2019
Last month, I contrasted the Port Authority’s $30 billion investment in air travel with the region’s need for sustainable, effective mass transit. Today I propose ways for the Agency to redress that imbalance.
Environmental Impact of Air Travel
Air travel is a powerful agent of climate change. A person on a return flight between New York and London flight generates more CO2 than citizens of some countries produce in a year.1 The altitude at which emissions are dispersed more than doubles the impact.2
The “supernatural” speed of air travel enables trips that otherwise not be taken.3 4 Technical innovation will make only modest reductions in emissions.5 Resources devoted to air travel are unavailable to invest in sustainable modes.
The future of air travel faces headwinds. A survey of European travelers forecasts that “flight shame” will slow growth from 4.5% a year to 1.5%.6 This will delay new plane orders and plans for airport expansion.7
In the U.S. the demand for carbon offsets is projected to grow to $3.8 billion per year for leisure travel and $2.4 billion for business. The beneficiaries of the carbon offsetting business will likely be rail operators, governments and forestland owners.8
In 2018, the Regional Plan Association recommended that the region’s airports be hardened to withstand 3-6 foot sea level rise.9 RPA’s caution may be prudent, but it misses the point. The immediate threat to those facilities is political, not physical.
As sea level rises and the effects of climate change manifest, public demand for carbon-neutral transport will intensify. By the time it reaches 3 feet, the Agency will face an insurrection. New air capacity will go unused, and “sunk costs” will be wasted.
What the Agency Can Do
In light of the evolving climate, political as well as environmental, the Agency should revisit its growth projections for air travel with an eye towards scaling back mid-to-long term expansion plans. This will free up resources to reinvest in sustainable transport modes.
Second, the Agency should forge a consensus among carriers to accelerate adoption of the CORSIA framework to calculate the carbon footprint of international air travel, quantify the cost to offset the emissions and qualify suitable candidates for investment.10 11
Online services already provide a comparable, voluntary opportunity to travelers.12 One website prices a New York-London roundtrip at $50 to $150, depending on class of seating.
The Agency should further work to extend CORSIA to domestic flights. JFK, Newark and Laguardia together serve 140 million customers per year.13 Even 2% compliance generates a hundred million dollars for reinvestment in projects within the Port District.14
Major carriers have already embraced the concept. Delta Airlines purchased carbon offsets for 300,000 customers on Earth Day.15 And United Airlines has partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund and Conservation International to accelerate CORSIA implementation.16 17
Clearly, they see the marketing opportunity. Certainly, the existential threat to their business models. So should the Agency.
1 “How your flight emits as much CO2 as many people do in a year”, The Guardian, 7/19/19, https://tinyurl.com/y4rnlb4v
2 “The high cruising altitudes of jetliners exacerbate their climate impact. The contrails can form clouds that trap thermal radiation, and at that height, other emissions, such as nitrogen oxides, also contribute to warming. As a result, the total warming caused by aviation is estimated to be at least double the amount caused by the CO2 emissions alone.” Flight Shame: The Climate Hazards of Air Travel”, New York Review of Books, 8/28/19, https://tinyurl.com/y3ke7ly3
3 “The supernatural speed of planes also amplifies their environmental harm: they make feasible trips that would otherwise not occur. In other words, flying from JFK to LAX not only emits far more greenhouse gases than, say, taking a bus; if we had to travel by ground, we would be far less likely to make the trip at all.”, Ibid
4 “Get ready for the 19-hour flight: Qantas sets record for ultralong trip”, Washington Post, 10/20/19, https://tinyurl.com/yym63oyc
5 “There’s no way to ‘put a passenger jet on a long-distance flight without burning through 100 tonnes of fossil fuels.’ says Mike Berners-Lee, a carbon footprint specialist and professor at Lancaster University., Flight shame: Airlines are under rising pressure to cut their carbon emissions.”, Los Angeles Times, 8/28/19, https://tinyurl.com/y2rjej7t
6 “Longer term, UBS’s research suggests that in Europe alone the number of air passengers will increase at a rate of only about 1.5% annually through 2035 because the growth of the flight shaming movement. That’s a sharp drop from the 4.5% annual growth rates that both Boeing and Airbus have been predicting without adjusting for any flight shaming impact., Is It Fair To Shame Frequent Flyers For Their Environmental Impact? Is It Even Based On An Accurate Understanding Of Science?”, Forbes, 10/7/2019, https://tinyurl.com/yxuu9krh
7 “The [flight shame] movement has not only taken aim at summer holiday flights, but also at airport expansion plans including Heathrow in London. Flight shame: can airlines ever reduce their emissions? Facing a potential consumer backlash, the industry has few technological solutions.”, Financial Times, 8/27/2019, https://tinyurl.com/yy3xv45p
8 Guilt over the environmental toll of air travel is causing customers to look for ways to offset carbon emissions, and also to take alternate modes of transport when possible. Over the next five years the cost of carbon offsetting for leisure travel alone will reach $3.8 billion per year, with the potential for that number to be 10 times higher. Rail operators, governments, forestland owners and carbon plans will be beneficiaries as carbon offsetting becomes a ‘big business.’ Flight shaming is gaining traction and it could cost airlines billions, says Citi”, CNBC, 10/24/19, https://tinyurl.com/y2eqqaat
9 “The region’s airports are affected by sea level rise to varying degrees. Teterboro faces potential inundation with three feet. EWR and LGA are vulnerable to six. JFK can withstand six feet, but needs to be hardened for storm surge. Upgrading to World Class: The Future of the Region’s Airports Revisited”, Regional Plan Association, p. 20, https://tinyurl.com/ybuvzf99
10 Fact Sheet: CORSIA, IATA, https://tinyurl.com/y5xev3sk
11 Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), Wikipedia, https://tinyurl.com/y3khv5h8
12 New York-London roundtrip – Economy, 1.8 tons CO2, $49; Business 3.4 tons, $94, $150; First Class, 5.3 tons, $147, My Climate, https://tinyurl.com/z4ou5e4
13 Air Travel Report 2018, Port Authority of NY&NJ, p. 1, https://tinyurl.com/y6ql5hag
14 140,000,000 times 0.02 = 2.8 million customers times $50 offset = $140 million per year
15 “On Earth Day, Delta offsets most carbon emissions in single day for over 300,000 customers”, Delta Airlines, 4/22/19, https://tinyurl.com/y3g9smf8
16 “United wants Gen Z customers. Gen Z wants discounts and carbon offsets.”, Washington Post, 9/10/19, https://tinyurl.com/y3dxzbny
17 “United and EDF Launch Partnership to Measure, Manage and Reduce Aviation Emissions. New initiative will focus on developing roadmap for 2050 carbon target to meet CORSIA goals”, Environmental Defense Fund, https://tinyurl.com/y3roqaqh