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Q. Dear Umbra,

Do we really need to fly less or do we need planes that are more fuel efficient? Am I assuming correctly when I say that planes have little or no emissions standards? I didn’t see that mentioned specifically in your previous article on planes and trains. So the real answer would be, fly less for now until planes become more fuel efficient and green.

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Justin B.
East Tawas, Mich.

A. Dearest Justin,

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plane interiorDon’t fly — the friendly skies will thank you.Robert Scoble via flickrYes, fly less for now until planes become more fuel efficient and green. Don’t count your frequent flier miles before they accrue, though, because it is extremely unlikely that airlines will reach the needed amount of “more” efficient in your lifetime.

If you did indeed read back on my extremely erudite plane travel musings, you noticed that planes not only burn a lot of fuel, they burn it in a layer of the atmosphere that lends the fuel more power to change the climate. The greenhouse-gas emissions of an airplane are hence given a “radiative forcing” multiplier, to reflect this extra power.

There are varying accounts of aviation’s contribution to overall climate emissions, ranging from 4 to 9 percent. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that aviation contributes 12 percent of transport-related CO2 emissions. If you have ever calculated your own carbon footprint, you’ll have an idea of the lopsided effect just one or two flights can have on an otherwise typical individual impact.

The aviation industry justifiably fears any mandated carbon reduction, such as the cap and trade system outlined in the American Clean Energy and Security Act. They complain that the system will lead to higher fuel prices, which means they will have no money to make all the efficiency improvements they really, really want to make. Which may be true, to a point; some airlines have been changing routes, experimenting with fuels and landing methods, even developing new aircraft.

But this is also true: If the government does somehow establish a functioning cap and trade program that brings our emissions down 83 percent in the next 40 years, flying life as we currently know it will have ended. The days of cheap fuel will be, and should be, over. Flying will become cost-prohibitive. Flitting about on quick vacations and seeing far-flung family and friends will be even more the privilege of the financially endowed. This is already coming to pass in Europe (and for airlines that fly in and out of Europe), where they are ahead of us on cap and trade and airline emissions will be regulated.

Aviation is a powerful industry, though — and is just one of the powerful groups looking for changes as ACES heads to the Senate. So as I said, try not to fly much — and don’t hold your breath for the day when flying will be climatologically neutral.