The 75 per cent solution: tourism (repost from 2007)

We won’t be travelling anywhere much  by air for some time to come, so this is a good time to reconsider our whole approach. I thought I’d start by digging out this post from 2007.

A lot of discussion of climate change is based on the implicit or explicit premise that, since we use energy in everything we do, and most energy is derived from carbon-based fuels, large reductions in CO2 emissions will require radical changes in the way we live. Some people welcome this prospect, but most do not.

Having looked at this problem in various different ways, I’m convinced that this premise is wrong, and that quite modest changes, many of which would follow more or less directly from the imposition of a suitable cost on CO2 emissions, could achieve large reductions in emissions. I’ve argued this at the macro level, based on demand elasticity estimates, and also at the micro level in terms of road transport. I thought it might be a good idea to attempt more micro estimates and, while I was visiting Cairns last week, my thoughts naturally turned to long-distance tourism.

So, this is hoped to be the first in a series where I consider the question: Could we reduce emissions in a given sector of the economy by 75 per cent in a way that wouldn’t substantially change the services delivered by that sector?

A few ground rules for the exercise before I start – there may be more as I go along.

1. I’m looking at changes over a time span of a few decades, enough that existing capital stocks are turned over. So I assume that price incentives are enough to encourage a shift to the most fuel-efficient technologies currently in use, but I don’t make any big assumptions about future innovations induced by higher prices. To take the road transport example, I can assume replacement of Hummers by Prius (BTW, what is the plural of Prius?) but I don’t invoke hydrogen fuel cells or similar exotica.

2. I’ll take it as given that the services enjoyed in the late 20th century qualify as not involving radical changes. In the case of road transport again, I might assume a return to the vehicle occupancy rates of 1990 (about 10 per cent higher than today).

3. I’m looking at reductions in emissions to deliver the existing volume of services, not taking account of growth in demand, which needs separate assessment. It’s just an exercise in arithmetic to combine the two. For example, if you predict a 60 per cent increase in demand under business as usual, then a 75 per cent reduction brings total emissions back to 40 per cent (0.25*160) of the original level, which is about what is probably needed to stabilise climate.

With these ground rules, the case of long-distance tourism turns out to be surprisingly easy, especially thanks to this piece by Justin Rowlatt who’s already looked at the question. The current airline fleet has a fuel efficiency of around 4.8 litres/passenger/100 km.[1] Replacing this fleet with the models now being introduced, the Boeing 787 and Airbus A380, will reduce this by about 50 per cent . This is going to happen anyway, and the only role for higher prices is to accelerate the scrapping of the older planes in the existing fleet.

To get a further 50 per cent reduction is even easier (this was the idea that got me started). All you need to is double the length of the average holiday and halve the frequency. I don’t have good numbers, but it’s clear that this would just take us back to the situation that prevailed a few decades ago when air travel was more expensive. Going back a bit further, travel was so expensive that young Australians typically planned a single trip to England that was to last a year (and, as far as such travel was concerned, a lifetime).

Two reductions of 50 per cent combine to give 75 per cent, so it’s all done. But that was so easy, it seemed worth trying for more. What would be involved in reducing emissions by 85 per cent, from 25 per cent of the original level to 15 per cent? That requires a further 40 per cent.

According to the International Air Transport Association, cited by Rowlatt, there’s an easy (in terms of impact on travellers, at any rate) 12 per cent to be gained from improved air traffic control. You could get another 12 per cent (at least) by packing more economy seats into planes (the A380 can take 800, at which Rowlatt estimates fuel consumption of 1.9 l/100 pkm. For the final leg, we’ll need the first actual cut, a 25 per cent reduction in the number of long-distance trips, to be replaced by local holidays with extra spending money from the saving in travel costs.

So, to sum up, let’s look at the impact of an 85 per cent reduction in emissions, achieved as outlined above. Suppose the baseline is eight one-week long-distance holidays over some given period. After the 85 per cent reduction we’d have three two-week long-distance holidays and two one-week local holidays instead. On the plane, we’d be packed in about as tight as at present, maybe a bit less so, and of course there will be lots of nice new features like free WiFi to keep us entertained.

Even with a hefty surcharge on emissions, total expenditure on airfares would fall, so there would be more money to spend on the actual holiday, not to mention the flow of revenue to governments that could be returned in tax cuts or improved services.

No doubt all this would take some adjustment. But The End Of Civilisation As We Know It, it’s not.

fn1. Because airplane emissions are injected directly into the upper atmosphere, where they do more damage, this figure can’t be compared directly with fuel efficiency measures for cars. Roughly speaking, you need to double the airplane emissions figures before doing a comparison. Of course, that doesn’t affect the calculations that follow which are all about proportional reductions.

26 thoughts on “The 75 per cent solution: tourism (repost from 2007)

  1. Which leads me to wonder about the effects on emissions of the current Australian and global shut down of much of the economy (including long-distance tourism!).

  2. J.Q.,

    Or… all of the resources put into tourism could be put (along with other resources) into hospitals, medical staff, medical equipment, electric mass transit domestically, the renewable energy build-out, scientific research, implementing the UBI and so on. It’s all about opportunity cost as you tell us. Every cruise ship could have been an emergency hospital ship. Every passenger aircraft could have been a whole bunch of solar panels and associated inverters and electrical equipment. Every football stadium could have been a hospital or clinic. Every large pub could have been a school or a better resourced school and so on. Instead of pi**ing golden showers of natural wealth away on self-indulgence we could have been be gold-plating hospitals, Centrelink etc. with equipment, resources, staffing just the day when there is a crisis of these current gargantuan proportions.

    Perhaps we need a new sense of seriousness where we put 100% of our efforts and resources into things really needed. Without that 100% effort we WILL collapse. People still have no sense of the real seriousness and urgency of our global predicament. It’s not just bush fires and pandemics (there will be more). It’s climate change, flood, storm, sea-level rise, plastics and toxins pollution, limits to growth, sixth mass extinction and a whole swag of problems.

    Again, you said it yourself. The theory of option value suggests we intervene early on all these existential crisis issues to prevent much more pain later. If we over-invest on useful stuff this is still better than the total waste of non-essential, self-indulgent consumption. If we had over-invested to date, we would have had a system which could cope with this unnecessary pandemic crisis. “Unnecessary” because we should have totally closed Australia on 1 Feb. at the latest. Now we would have sitting safe and looking like geniuses instead of idiots.

  3. Re: “Even with a hefty surcharge on emissions, total expenditure on airfares would fall” and “I’m looking at reductions in emissions to deliver the existing volume of services, not taking account of growth in demand.”

    What would restrain demand? If total expenditure falls, would not the seats therefore be cheaper, and so demand and the volume of services increase? Sounds like an airline company’s dream, so would total emissions then remain static at best or actually increase?

  4. Svante,

    Yes, it’s the Jevons Paradox. Without government regulation or high charges in addition, mere fuel efficiency measures would not work as J.Q. mentioned. The airplanes also represent a huge waste of resources which could be put to better use.

  5. “Without government regulation or high charges in addition…”

    And how is that to be applied equitably? Flying long distance over land or seas might be limited to generally agreed upon higher purposes such as defence, humanitarian, medical, and scientific platforms. The rest could fly a sail over the seas. Short hops in green renewable powered aircraft might yet be ok if not only available to those elites who can either afford that or have it as a perk..

  6. Fuel efficiency is king for airlines and passengers have a strong preference for the fewest hops possible on a given journey. Airbus definitely read the tealeaves wrong with the A380 on the later (it’s designed to service a hub and spoke model), and the A380 can’t compete with efficient twin engine designs on the former, whereas Boeing got it right with the 777 and 787. On the other hand Airbus nailed it with the A320 family which has left Boeing scrambling to try and compete, and well we know how that worked out.

  7. > Boeing scrambling to try and compete, and well we know how that worked out

    If it’s Boeing I ain’t going.

  8. There’s nothing wrong with Boeing passenger airliners except for the 737 Max. It will never be safe. It has physical configuration problems as well flight system problems. IIRC, the engines are slung too low leading to a center of thrust or thrust vector problem. Other changes were made to help make the aircraft stable and efficient including to the flight control surfaces and flight systems, IIRC again.These changes are sub-optimal and unsafe in complex ways.

    But in any case, the world has 90% too many passenger aircraft. We need to reduce air travel by 90%. It’s wasteful, climate destroying and epidemic spreading. It’s an economic and existential bad. It’s not a good in any sense. When it comes to large cruise ships the industry should be banned full stop. Only the toughest measures in these and many other areas can save humans from extinction before the end of this century.

  9. JQ, I did not get the issue of travel and immigration wrong on Crooked Timber. I said explicitly;

    “As regards the pandemic, it shows that international visitor rates and international tourism in general are far too high and/or nations are far too slow to close borders in a pandemic. If we cared about pollution and climate change we would want international tourism, a purely wasteful consumption activity which the planet can no longer afford, to be seriously curtailed in future. “

    I also said;

    “It is neither anti-immigration nor racist to put forward a zero population growth policy because of concern about the sustainable footprint of Australia, the driest inhabited continent. A ZPG policy for Australia would still mandate immigration and/or refugee acceptance to counter Australia’s considerable emigration. Our replacement rate (to put this in context) is about net zero.”

    I got it exactly right on both counts. I am not entirely sure why you can’t see it. I think the explanation is that you have consistently under-rated the existential dangers of limits to growth and have consistently over-rated the ability of conventional economics simpliciter to make adjustments to our dangerous over-shoot trajectory. You still do this to this day. It’s not that you are unaware of either of these factors. Rather, it is your relative weighting of the importance of these factors which is empirically and demonstrably incorrect. You weight the limits to growth as distant and relatively unimportant when in fact they are very close and crucial in historical terms. You weight conventional economics as relatively useful for these problems, when in fact it has proven useless to date. The empirical proofs (for example no effective flattening of the CO2 curve nor of the 6th mass extinction crisis) are already to hand.

  10. Errrm… Since humans find it disturbingly easy to kill each other, maybe we should be subsidizing long range travel? I can’t say that’s going to be any kind of cure but surely it would have to be better for the cause of peace than reducing travel. It should of course be done in a way that doesn’t kill people by destabilizing the climate further, but this is not a particularly complex challenge.

  11. My synthisis of the comments made by Ikonclast and Ronald above. Ration long range air travel, how ever it is ultimately defined to two trips per person per life time. The first trip would be as part of a class trip around the age of 14 or 15 or 16. The second would be allowed for a persons first honeymoon. People who have no interest in long range air travel, and there are many would be allowed to sell their allotment.
    These rules would last as long as there is a climate crisis. Or a new non damaging technology for air travel is developed.
    Exceptions could be made for people who live on small Islands in the middle of an ocean. New Zealand does not qualify. But what percent of the world’s population would that cover, one quarter of one percent? What ever the answer is the number will be smaller in the not so distant future as these isalnds disappear.

  12. Ronald,

    I am not sure how subsidizing people to travel would stop them killing each other. Historically, the most subsidized form of travel, expeditionary war, has caused an extraordinary number of deaths.

  13. Hmmm… We may have to be extra strict about that whole, “No bombs & no guns” rule on planes. The Jingle almost writes itself — “If you bring a bomb or a gun, your itinerary will be undone… If you have a knife or sword, frequent flyer points we won’t award… Cheap travel isn’t what you’ll get, if you bring a cosh or bayonet.”

  14. Seems to me there is a major opportunity to reduce another major cause of emissions at less than zero cost: the road lobby.
    If we eliminated the various subsidies hidden in transport and planning policy* we could reduce national emissions by about half (transport and land use represent over half total national emissions).
    Unlike other interventions this would actually save money and reduce economic disruption; switching from the least efficient transport mode would free up probably hundreds of billions of dollars economy-wide. And it would make everyone’s life easier, enormously reducing the national number of hours people spend trapped in congestion, reducing traffic fatalities and other car-related health problems. It would also have the benefit of building fairer, nicer cities that are less segregated, more affordable and much more friendly, with stronger bonds of social capital and so on. There is no downside at all, for anyone in this country.
    That’s because, for the first time in decades the road lobby employs more or less zero Australians. It’s a complete paper tiger politically; witness the wimper as Abbott put a pillow over the head of local manufacturing.
    Of course, foreign petrol and auto companies still demand endless subsidies in the form of policies* designed to make Australians slaves to the car. But they rarely actually offer real money on the table unlike the big miners and the banks, which have a genuine commitment to corrupting local politics. I think, with a concerted national effort, the road lobby would completely fold.

    * Subsidies include:
    A massive underspend on rail, bus and bike infrastructure and service, a general lack of coordination and incompetence in transport planning organisations, coupled with an enormous overspend on urban highways and other roads. For surely hundreds of thousands of people the car is literally the only option, by design.
    Racist planning laws like density maximums, floor-area ratios, height limits, parking minimums, setback rules and segregation of use and so on.

  15. “For surely hundreds of thousands of people the car is literally the only option, by design”

    Hundreds of millions. By design also it’s the only place they feel in charge of their lives, and in fact ruling their tin box on wheels world they momentarily are. Day to day, it’s the only place where they have some essentially rewarding agency. It’s sick.

    Put them on renewable recyclable electric motorbikes and motortrikes where necessary whilst mass transit/e-bicycles/walking don’t meet the needs of all prior to complete transformation of human settlements. Tesla etc cars imitating current ice cars be damned! For one possible alternative example of a way to go, in Taipei, and elsewhere around Taiwan, they have a neat cheap system for electric mopeds with fast battery swap automated dispensers distributed about the place.

  16. > the only place they feel in charge of their lives, and in fact ruling their tin box on wheels world they momentarily are

    Which is one of the interesting paradoxes of that particular cult, because while driving they are not in control of much at all. It’s not merely all the laws and the hardware of control that they’re embedded in, but their vulnerability to malicious or accidental action by other road users. The biggest single threat to any motorist is another motorist.

    But that “feeling of control” isn’t rational, it’s religious. Viz, contrary to fact but created and maintained by a community of believers as an article of faith.

  17. Svante,

    I agree. I suffer a bit from personal auto sickness myself. One must be honest. I am not nearly as bad as most people though. I drive far less than most people and took the train to work almost my whole working life. From the evidence, today I drive about half the kilometers of the average Australian motorist.

    My next vehicle will be a medium-sized, fully electric medium SUV when they come on the market at a reasonable price. Even that will be an indulgence for sure but for certain reasons including versatility and safety I feel I “need” an all-wheel drive with some reasonable ground clearance. Needs are relative of course and a lot of our “needs” are not vital needs.

  18. Ikonoclast is always Anonymous! Regular contributors should have a good reason for not saying who they are.

  19. I am not always Anonymous. I post exclusively under my nickname except for the rare occasions when I forget to fill out the correct fields and get “Anonymous” by default. When I do that, I post again and correct the record as soon as I realize my mistake.

  20. Ikonoklaust, if you want to educate yourself on how tourism fits into local economies, and how it is often essential to keeping remote or rural areas places where anyone over 18 and under 65 lives and keeping beautiful and/or old things preserved and open to all, there are people and books. Of course there can be too much of a good thing … but tourism often functions to move money from urban centres to places where a lot of people live but where its hard to make a living in an industrial or post-industrial economy, and its less violent than government redistribution and more accountable than finding some wealthy patron to sponsor the local museum or remodel the local castle.

  21. Tourism is a luxury industry which the biosphere cannot afford. Tourism is responsible for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. What profits it a man to see the world if he destroys it in the process? Tourism is environmentally destructive. Tourism is also socially and culturally destructive. What is seen is altered by the pressure of tourism. Authentic cultures and pristine sites and wildernesses are altered and made inauthentic and degraded by being viewed and patronized by tourists.

    A local economy which depends too much on tourism is a fragile economy. Tourism is not an inefficient way to move money to non-urban places. It is not less violent than government redistribution. I haven’t noticed the government using machine guns to tax city dwellers for redistribution in my country. And we won’t notice them doing this even if redistribution is increased. In fact tourism is violent if we count violence to wildlife and the natural world. This kind of violence and general environmental destruction we should indeed count for it is real and it will rebound on humans to their possible destruction. Indeed, the appearance of a new, dangerous, zoonotic disease, COVID-19 is an example of this rebound. These things are happening more and more because of our increasing encroachment into what remains of the natural environment. Everything is connected in a complex biosphere system. We disrupt it further at our peril. Zoonotic diseases are a feed-back. Climate change is feed-back. Catastrophic bush-fires are a feed-back. Extreme drought, floods and storms are a feed-back. Sea level rise is a feed-back. The sixth mass extinction is a feed-back.

    We are now entering a continuous global emergency. Every one of our resources must be mustered to address this emergency. Continuing to pamper ourselves with luxuries and inessentials is not an option. A lot more people will die if we continue any further down that path. Indeed, civilization will collapse and humanity will go extinct if we don’t change now. The time is one minute to midnight on these issues.

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