Years ago I saw a great graph on how many kilojoules of energy it would take to travel 3 km (1.7 miles). Since the various modes of transportation would burn different types of fuel to get there, the energy unit used was “kilojoules” (kJ) which can be common for all types.
Riding a bicycle was the most efficient way to travel. Your body would require the calories contained in an apple to travel that distance on a bike. If you walked you’d require a banana or a slice of bread for the 250 kJ you’d need. Walking is less efficient than riding a bike because you don’t have those wonderful round wheels and gears increasing the efficiency of your muscles. A bus or train is a little less efficient, but since there are number of people on the same bus or train, you’re spreading the energy use over more people. And driving a car is really, really, inefficient. It takes 130 kJ to cycle that distance and 6,500 kJ to drive a car!
Take a look at the energy that would be required to fly that distance and it’s insane. 300,000 kJ. Oh the journey would only take 10 seconds but it would use a climate-altering amount of energy to do so.
When I was doing some research for my book “Thriving During Challenging Times” I tried to find verifiable, reputable secondary sources to confirm this amount but it was difficult to find a number that was consistent. The figures were all over the place. There are just so many variables when it comes to air travel. What’s the type of jet? Is it long haul or short haul? How many people are on the plane? Etc. etc. So my chart here is an approximation from a number of sources.
Regardless of the exact number, it’s big. Just think of the energy required to get a fully loaded 200-ton Boeing 767 off the ground. Have you seen the size of just the tires on a modern jet? I’ll bet that even a bunch of the passengers, working together, couldn’t lift one of the tires! Now you’ve got to get that weight to 30,000 feet. Think about it. If you’ve ever traveled in a jet you know how much noise those jet engines make and the G-forces that glue you to your seat as they try and free this building-sized object from the grip of gravity.
Then you need to consider the effect of burning kerosene, or jet fuel, at that altitude. It’s bad. It’s actually much worse than just burning it on the ground. I just read that it’s 2 ½ times worse and that you’d be better to just burn that jet fuel on the tarmac, except that wouldn’t work to get you to your exotic place.
Yet air travel is really cheap. So many people fly so many places the mind boggles. Our local newspaper has a page each week where people send in photos of themselves in far away places holding up a copy of the paper. First off I always wonder who the heck thinks about packing a copy of the local paper in their luggage? And secondly, how can so many people afford to fly so many places?
In honour of Earth Day I sent my own picture in to the newspaper. It’s a photo of me holding a copy of the newspaper while I’m standing in front of my solar panels. I had “ventured” out to my solar panels because they would provide the power for my little “stay-cation”. They provide the solar electricity to my solar-powered television so that I can watch The Travel Channel and explore all sorts of exotic places from the comfort of my own living room. No need to get to the airport 4 hours early. No surly counter staff. No over zealous security staff and cavity searches, no screaming babies trapped on a plane, no jet lag, no “Montezuma’s Revenge,” nobody stealing my wallet, no obnoxious fellow travelers disturbing the local peace, and none of the crappy exhausted feeling when you return home. Being in some new exotic place can seem pretty seductive until the newlyweds in the room next door keep you awake all week.
Sure, I know what you’re saying, “Cam, you’re an old man.” “Where’s your sense of adventure.” Don’t you want to get out and explore the world? Frankly no. I’m not leaving my house. Ever. I have lost any desire to explore the world. Mostly because of what I’ve learned about the reality of air travel. It’s really, really bad for the planet. It always amazes me how many of the people I know in the environmental movement who have tunnel vision/blindness when it comes to this fact. In fact, I know lots of environmentalists who have a way bigger carbon footprint than many “non-environmentalists” because of how much they fly. They should know better. They have to start walking the talk, and keeping their feet on the ground. No government can clean up the carbon you’re putting into the stratosphere when you fly. That is something you have to the intestinal fortitude to avoid putting there in the first place. You can vote Green all you want but if you’re going to keep flying things are only going to get worse.
We’ve come to accept air travel as a basic right. The right to escape cold winters in the north. The right to see Machu Picchu. The right to get married in a southern destination and expect everyone you invite to fly there. It’s madness and it has to stop.
It’s time to sign up for a travel network on TV. It’s time to get a subscription to National Geographic and enjoy those fantastic colour images without have to get all those nasty shots and take those malaria pills. It’s time to realize that we had this amazing opportunity for the last few decades to explore the world, but we know now that the environmental costs of world travel are way too high. You might as well accept the fact that peak oil is going to price air travel out of reach of most of us anyway. So don’t go down kicking and screaming into the air-travel-free future. Embrace it now. Make a conscious decision to celebrate Earth Day by keeping your head (and body) out of the clouds and your feet firmly planted on Mother Earth.