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I am more optimistic than you are on the future of commercial air travel. Jet fuel is basically 10-carbon alkanes. A big enough offshore wind farm would be able to brute-force a CO2 and seawater to methanol conversion, and organic chemistry should get you the rest of the way.

From that point, which you can reach with off-the-shelf technology, improvements are basically a question of cost. Sustainable air travel using only off-the-shelf technology will not be cheap, but it performs a service of a nature that means it won't need to be.

Now, what would probably need to happen is a closure of most airports and concentration of the network into very large hubs, serving everything in a thousand-km radius, with rail links taking over the role of short-stop feeder. There is no technological reason that Europe needs two hundred airports if air travel is transcontinental-only. Ten should more than suffice.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Fri Apr 18th, 2014 at 11:53:39 PM EST
I can see how it could work. But we would first need to have so much spare clean energy that we can afford to use some like that. And we are some way from being 100% zero emissions, with time running out.

So I would imagine that, before we can use our renewables to make fuel, there is a period when air travel really has to shrink massively. It uses a LOT of energy.
Although maybe it's more realistic to imagine that, since air travel would tend to be something the rich demand, it will stay strong even at the cost of a major catastrophe. But I was putting myself in the scenario of a clean society in the near future, which kind of eliminates such considerations.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Sat Apr 19th, 2014 at 01:33:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't think air travel would be anywhere near the top of the list of low-hanging fruit in a balls-to-the-wall "carbon neutral or bust" program.

Electricity provision is the obvious first target. Then heating and industrial processes, both of which can be electrified. Then inland transportation, which can be electrified and moved to more efficient modes.

Even were we to mobilize a non-trivial fraction of the gross planetary product in the service of such a program, this low-hanging fruit would still suffice to keep the program busy for at least a decade.

How the world would look after ten years of total mobilization against unsustainable business practices is difficult to predict. But one thing it won't be is averse to, or inexperienced with, industrial megaprojects as a solution to scarcity problems.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sat Apr 19th, 2014 at 03:54:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Simply making coach cost what first class costs today, with other rates following proportionately, would start making large inroads on air travel, then double that cost and tax back the cost of subsidies...

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat Apr 19th, 2014 at 10:00:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Such would, perhaps, be a reasonable course of action in areas with reasonable non-car alternatives to air transport.

However, it would also more or less end the current era of globalization for the middling masses.  This may be a good thing, in the long run, but it would also seriously mess up a lot of people's lives.

For example, I'm an expat in Japan.  Visiting home would be more or less impossible with air fare in the $7000 to $8000 range for a single trip.  Not on my salary, at any rate.

Sure, passenger liners may well revive in response, but given how awful marine diesel is, that's probably not a good idea, and anyway, most people can't afford to take a month off work for travel any more than they can afford a $6000 air ticket.

by Zwackus on Sun Apr 20th, 2014 at 02:07:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Sure, passenger liners may well revive in response, but given how awful marine diesel is, that's probably not a good idea, and anyway, most people can't afford to take a month off work for travel any more than they can afford a $6000 air ticket.

A passenger-converted fast freighter makes the Tokyo-LA round trip in 26 ocean days (most non-passenger freighters would probably slow-steam, so making it more like a month each way). A dedicated liner optimized for self-loading freight can probably shave four or five days off that.

That's... doable, if not necessarily optimal. And if you hold your holidays on Midway, you can cut the transit time roughly in half.

Definitely becomes easier if you have a position that lets you telecommute for a few weeks, though.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Apr 20th, 2014 at 06:44:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Worth noting as well that once you're competing with 26 ocean days instead of 12 hours flight time, then there are flying options that are more energy efficient and become viable - because they are too slow compared to jets, but quicker than fast freighters on the ocean.
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Tue Apr 22nd, 2014 at 10:18:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't deny that the social consequences of severe price rationing of air travel will be dire. But I strongly suspect that such a development is baked into the cake within the next decade simply due to the rising cost of fuel. The government supported flag carriers will likely be the last airlines to be seriously affected and downsized.

For those who have the time and for time insensitive goods high tech sail/solar powered transport may become a factor. The average speed of the trade winds should increase.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Apr 20th, 2014 at 08:28:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Perhaps this could help with the cost of air travel, if it pans out. Or perhaps it is another source of claims of engines that run on water. The linked piece is clearly of the nature of a promotional press release. More here but also here. A fly for every ointment.  

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Apr 21st, 2014 at 11:34:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]


Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.
by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Mon Apr 21st, 2014 at 12:04:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The fly in the ointment was hiding behind link #3.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Apr 21st, 2014 at 08:50:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Besides, the rich have their own private planes and there will be plenty of pilots and mechanics to fly and maintain them, at least in the short and medium run.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat Apr 19th, 2014 at 10:19:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'll beg to differ. It's actually very "low-hanging", as it could be almost removed very quickly. Yes, that would not be at equal level of satisfaction, but it's possible pretty much instantly.

What you describe are major priorities. They are not, though, low-hanging fruits. Full decarbonisation of electricity production is a massive task, and one that will actually create a lot of emissions, which would thus have to be gained back (as would emissions from peaker plants).
But that'd only be the start, as to de-carbonise other activities, electricity production would have to double.

And of course, there are other GHG than CO2.

The point is not just to "keep the program busy for at least a decade". It's to have started reducing CO2 concentrations before the end of the next one. Not emissions. Concentrations.

I don't see how that would be achieved without making sacrifices in terms of availability of air travel (OK, not total disappearance, but enough that visiting my friends once in a decade would be problematic -yes, we are talking Australia, New Zealand, Laos...) during the transition period.
The alternative is to let some catastrophes happen. I believe it is the more likely scenario. We would have needed to start a massive program earlier.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Sat Apr 19th, 2014 at 05:45:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If the franchise were limited to engineers, you'd be right. But under the universal franchise, shutting down cheap airflight is going to cost more political capital than shutting down coal power.

(I'm assuming that the only real challenge here is the politics - the technology we have pretty well in hand. Also, I'm shooting more for "survival of industrial civilization," and less for "keeping all our coastal cities," nevermind "avoiding serious catastrophes.")

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sat Apr 19th, 2014 at 06:55:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A significant part of the problem with air travel is not just the CO2, CO, various hydrocarbons and particulates emitted, but where they are emitted - the upper atmosphere.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat Apr 19th, 2014 at 08:48:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If we have time, and want to get rid of air travel, how about boats? Ok, not optimal for going from Europe to Australia, but east coast US to west coast Europe should not be prohibitively long time if we are traveling to meet people.

Not optimal for business meetings, but there increasing prices until options like phones and video-chats are used more could decrease the number of trips.

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by A swedish kind of death on Sat Apr 19th, 2014 at 11:48:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
My impression is that prices for flying are already at a point where video conferencing is used for pretty much everything it can be used for. There really are some things you can only do with physical co-location.

Where price increases on flying (and better rail connections) can help is in the intracontinental segment. For capital-to-capital, sleeper rail already beats plane + 1 travel day + 1 hotel night, in terms of both cost and comfort. The problem is that the rail connections into the hinterland are so bad that you end up spending a whole travel day anyway. And then you're suddenly looking at a head-to-head plane vs. sleeper rail comparison, and that's not so hot cost-wise.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sat Apr 19th, 2014 at 05:18:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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