Monday, 28 June 2010

Ash and Carbon: Reassessing the Risks of Air Travel

This article originally appeared in the 14 June 2010 (issue no. 100) edition of the IEMA journal "the environmentalist".

The eruption in April of a previously unremarkable volcano in Iceland disrupted air travel around the world. The blanket no-fly zone that resulted from the ash cloud over Europe brought chaos to travellers and companies who relied on air travel to get products and people to their destinations. During the initial travel crisis, at least 95,000 flights were cancelled . Even weeks after the event, sporadic restrictions continue to make air travel a guessing  game.

Companies that had contingency plans in place tended to fare better than those that  were solely dependent on travel through the airports. Dutch logistics company TNT was able to mobilise an existing plan to transfer air freight from its air hub at Liège, Belgium to its road hub in the southern Netherlands.

Not everyone was so lucky. Faced with the closure of airports across Europe, people and organisations  scrambled to find ways to get between points A and B. Families boarded ferries and long-distance coaches,
business people turned to trains and videoconferencing facilities, and more than a few intrepid travellers hired cars and taxis for 12-hour drives across the Continent.

Countless others whiled away the time in airports and hotels until flights resumed. Many organisations that commit to reduce their carbon footprint, pledge to address their business travel emissions but struggle to meet
their goals in the face of everyday business requirements. If there is a silver lining to the Eyjafjallajökull  eruption, it has been an increased awareness of travel alternatives on the part of individuals and organisations.
The prolonged transport disruptions and ensuing chaos gave many companies and travellers an opportunity to reassess their transport choices and test some of the alternatives. Now that the dust has started to settle, we can consider the extent to which these experiences will affect their future transport decisions.

How are transport decisions made?

According to a World Trade Organization report, over one-third of global trade by value is transported by air. How do organisations and individuals decide when to travel by air, sea, rail or road?

Transport decisions are usually made as a trade-off between speed, financial cost, and comfort or reliability. An increasing number of organisations are also weighing the environmental impacts of their transport decisions. One of the greatest apparent advantages of air travel over the alternatives is speed. With a cruising speed in excess of 500 miles per hour, aircraft make it possible to deliver products and people anywhere in the world within 24 hours.

This speed comes at a cost, both financially and to the environment. Air freight tends to be more expensive  than shipping products by rail, sea or road, which means that companies tend to use airplanes for lightweight, higher value products like flowers, pharmaceuticals and perishable foodstuffs. Meanwhile, the greenhouse gas emissions for air freight, at around 0.65 kg CO2e per tonne-kilometre, can be over 50 times higher than  surface-based alternatives.

Ships and barges are a popular means of transporting large volumes of cargo where rapid delivery times are not as critical, and ferries are an increasingly attractive option for passenger travel over small bodies of
water like the Irish Sea or the San Francisco Bay. With greenhouse gas emissions as low as 0.01 kg CO2e per tonne-kilometre, cargo freighters are a cost- and carbon-efficient means to transport non-perishable products long distances. With advanced planning, it is possible to transport many otherwise timesensitive
goods overseas by ship instead of by air, lowering air-related emissions and potentially reducing costs.

Rail and road transport occupy a middle ground between ships and aeroplanes. For passenger journeys of a few hundred miles, high-speed rail can be just as time-efficient as short-haul air travel – without the hassle
of airport security and often with greater amenities. For example, Eurostar sources local fresh foods and provides regional cuisine on its train journeys between London, Paris and Brussels. The company’s
offerings are even featured in a magazine for lovers of fine wines, restaurants, and travel. It’s hard to imagine such accolades for a short-haul flight of comparable distance and time.

While passenger rail travel is experiencing a resurgence – at least in Europe – rail freight continues to struggle.
In the US, goods are transported coast-tocoast by truck even though the rail network could carry greater volumes at a lower carbon cost. However, lack of investment in rail has resulted in an antiquated network
with very slow trains. In the UK, meanwhile, a congested rail network that prioritises passenger travel has led to surging road freight levels. Freight trucks have the added advantage of flexibility and convenience
compared to rail, despite generating roughly twice the greenhouse gas emissions per tonne-kilometre. Trucks can provide door-to-door delivery of a wide variety of products and services – a benefit that makes them
indispensable to many corporate customers.

For corporate travellers in the US, fast train travel is limited to the Boston to Washington, DC corridor – and with average speeds of 70 mph even these ‘high-speed’ Amtrak trains are not particularly fast. Beyond this northeast seaboard, passenger travel by train can take twice as long as driving. An investment in high-speed rail is included in pending climate change legislation in the US, where a shift from cars and airplanes is seen as a key element in reducing reliance on imported fossil fuels for transportation.

Alternatives to travel

The sudden closure of airspace in April meant many travellers had to use alternatives they would otherwise not have considered. Many stranded travellers turned to video-calling and other internet teleconferencing solutions. Companies such as Cisco and Hewlett-Packard experienced a surge in business bookings for their
teleconferencing and newer ‘telepresence’ technology and facilities for online meetings. Telepresence is essentially a virtual meeting using large screens and high definition images to simulate face-to-face meetings.

Long-standing habits of travelling for meetings and conferences quickly fell by the wayside, as technological alternatives such as teleconferencing were given a boost. “A market transition is very often marked by a big external event or disruption,” said Fredrik Halvorsen, the chief executive of Norway-based teleconferencing firm Tandberg (just acquired by Cisco). The disruption in air travel was clearly a market opportunity for Cisco which launched a Fly Free programme to provide businesses or governments with stranded key personnel with complimentary use of the company’s telepresence rooms. “As the world (has) seen earthquakes, H1N1 and other disasters, it has really made businesses pause to think how they can use technology to create a
sustainable business model,” Cisco senior vice president of emerging technologies Martin De Beer said.

In the UK, telecommunications company BT is championing the use of teleconferencing solutions as a way for
businesses to make progress on their carbonreduction commitments. With business travel often comprising a third or more of many organisations’ carbon footprints, technology that reduces the need to spend time, money and carbon travelling from place to place appears poised to experience a surge of interest.

Making informed decisions

Individuals and company representatives can use websites, travel agents and freight forwarding companies to get reliable and up-to-date pricing and scheduling information on travel alternatives. As the cost of carbon becomes an increasingly important consideration when choosing to use air, rail, road or sea transport, organisations are asking for tools that allow them to make informed decisions based on the environmental impacts of their transport modes.

For a simple point-to-point journey using one type of vehicle, this type of carbon calculation is relatively simple. Things become more challenging for intermodal transport decisions – for example comparing the cost and carbon emissions from a truck-barge-truck shipment against a rail-truck-air freight shipment. The same
challenges appear when organisations must decide whether to send staff by rail – when they will have to stay several nights in a hotel (with resultant financial and carbon costs) – versus a shorter stay because the journey can be made by plane (assuming no volcanic ash). In anticipation of this need, we have been trialling an online intermodal calculator to compare the emissions impact of complex, multi-mode transport decisions.

The UK Committee on Climate Change has projected that reaching the 80 per cent greenhouse gas emissions reduction target by 2050 will require decarbonising most of the economy and severely restricting any further growth in air transport emissions. If we are to reach these targets, the transition has to begin now. It is our hope that the volcanic ash cloud has spurred people and organisations to begin the process of identifying viable low-carbon alternatives to current travel practices.

Suzy Hodgson AIEMA is a Principal Consultant and Jamal Gore MIEMA,CEnv is Managing Director at carbon management company Carbon Clear Limited.