As we imagine an all-green future, it appears that nearly everything can be powered by electricity produced without burning coal, oil, or gas. Cars are already beginning to transition to electric.
Homes can be heated and cooled with heat pumps. Many railroads are already electrified. Ships can run on small atomic reactors, used by naval submarines for two thirds of a century.
But airplanes will be a problem. They already spew out a significant percentage of annual carbon dioxide. If air travel continues increasing, its climate-threatening carbon dioxide output would also increase.
Recent reports about possible new supersonic jets, which would burn five to seven times as much fuel per passenger-mile as today's aircraft, suggest that future air travel could be vastly more of a climate threat.
Unlike heat pumps and trains, airliners cannot be plugged into the electrical grid. Unlike automobiles, airplanes cannot carry the heavy batteries needed to move large numbers of passengers or freight long distances. Unlike ships, aircraft cannot run on atomic power; the shielding to protect passengers and crew from radiation would weigh more than planes can handle.
Small, battery-powered aircraft that can travel short distances look promising, but are unlikely to be scaled up to haul large numbers long distances. To save the climate, it may become necessary to discontinue all other air travel completely.
Since rapid transportation is now taken for granted, this would be a major shock. Many well-paying jobs in the airline and aircraft production industries would disappear. Powerful vested economic interests would oppose this move.
But as "Swami Beyondananda" recently put it, "if we lose the earth, there goes the GDP." And new jobs opened up in other transportation modes would absorb many if not all of the displaced workers.
Ending long-distance air travel would have major upsides. It would greatly slow down the spread of infectious diseases from one country to another.
And it would would require eliminating military aircraft, and missiles. (Rockets put out tons of carbon dioxide.) This would render all countries more secure from surprise attack and save immense amounts of taxpayer money.
If nearly all transportation returned to the earth's surface, railroads would regain their past importance, but with more high speed trains like those in Europe and China.
Intercontinental travel would be mainly on ocean liners. It might be possible, though, to connect the western and eastern hemispheres by railroad across the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia's Siberia.
Of course new technology — such as hydrogen — might allow long distance air travel to continue without putting out climate-wrecking carbon dioxide. But new technology is always speculative. So we need to think about how we could end air travel with a minimum amount of pain.
Ending air travel would not just affect passengers. Air freight transports critical parts that go into things produced in other countries, not to mention consumer goods.
Abruptly ending air travel would cause terrible problems for those needing these goods and critical parts. It would be better to give economies time to adjust by phasing it out gradually.
Fuel extravagant supersonic airliners not being here yet, it might be best just to stop developing them. Prudent investors should avoid financing this research.
If we begin reducing air travel soon, it would avoid a sudden shock to the world economy at some future time. An ideal policy could impose an increasing carbon price, gradually making air travel so expensive that it would become rare.
Perhaps the most unavoidable pain would come from the need to stop putting communications satellites into orbit around the earth. However aside from GPS services these satellites could be replaced by additional fiberoptic cables.
Instead of space travel, we could concentrate on preserving and improving life on earth. Radical idea!
We may just have to learn to live without GPS services. Life is tough!
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. Read Professor Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.
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