The low-carbon traveller’s dilemma

The low-carbon traveller’s dilemma

By Amy Huva

January 05, 2012

I was born with the proverbial ‘itchy feet’ for travel. Being half Canadian and growing up in Australia, I spent a lot of my childhood traveling back to Canada to visit extended family, and was shocked when I discovered in school that it wasn’t normal for everyone to have a passport.

So naturally, whenever I think about how the world is going to have to adjust to a low carbon economy and wean ourselves off fossil fuels, I ponder how that’s going to change air travel. Will it no longer be a rite of passage for twenty-something Australians to travel once they finish high school? Will the ski fields of Canada have to find new staff to run their mountains?!? Will the next generation look at the way I and the rest of my generation travelled and think it was the halcyon days?

It was normal (and affordable) when I was living in Canberra to fly home to Melbourne for a weekend. And since I graduated high school, I’ve been averaging at least one stamp in my passport every year. It may only be a two week trip to South East Asia, or it could be a two month trip to Europe, but I’m always either travelling, or wanting to travel somewhere.

A reduction in air traffic, (if we assume a low carbon economy will result in a reduction in air traffic) will have all kinds of consequences that I wouldn’t immediately think of. That book from Amazon will take a few extra days on a train. Those shoes from Hong Kong will take even longer on a boat. And if my new favourite band is from Europe, or South America, I may never see them tour to Vancouver. Also, will the whole concept of the NHL season have to be re-worked so that they can account for team buses instead of planes? The hyper-mobility that we currently are able to have through air travel could change significantly; it could force everyone to have to re-localise their habits, or it could make many more things virtual, as the cost of travelling the distance rises.

Algae biofuel

Thankfully for my itchy traveller’s feet, there’s a lot going on in the biofuel sector right now that could allow for the transition of commercial aircraft from traditional jet fuel to biofuels. There’s some really innovative ideas like growing algae in seawater and turning that into fuel, or using plants like Camelina which is a naturally oily plant that can not only be turned into fuel, but is also good for rotating with wheat crops to replace nutrients in the soil.

The idea of rotating bio fuel crops with commercial food crops is one I really like. One of the major concerns I’ve always had about bio fuels is that the bio fuel crop could be taking farming space from food crops and creating another shortage in the race to grow as much biofuel as possible to meet demand. And the trade off between growing crops for jet fuel or people fuel is not a good one to have to be making. So cyclical cropping is a great idea.

As with all alternatives to oil based products, it’s going to be a combination of different sources that will fill the gap. There is not going to be a ‘silver bullet’ to replace all of the things we use oil for. But if we can get some combinations of algae fuels, biofuels and gas-to-liquid fuels , hopefully I won’t have to pick a continent to stay put on!

Which for me, is a great thing. Because after Canada, I still want to live in New York City… and Germany… and maybe London… and Vienna… and….

(Icon photo courtesy of Amy Huva, algae photo courtesy of Steve Jurvetson, Flickr)

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