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The last flight of your life

Oct 1, 2009

The end of travel as we know it

Meghan Lawson

It’s a small world, right? If you want to visit the world’s great offerings—the Taj Mahal, the Great Barrier Reef, or Machu Picchu—all you would need is a few weeks and the money for your flight. A few hours of cramped sleep, and, alternatively, you’re in Vancouver, seeing your relatives.

Here’s a scary thought, though—if the price of jet fuel were to go up dramatically, flights could become little more accessible than space travel. And with a potential oil crisis looming in the future, you just might have already taken the last flight of your life. But how far away is the threat of having to spend spring break in Niagara instead of the Bahamas?

From the perspective of only a few decades ago, the ease of air travel that we know today was akin to the idea of a hover car—the whimsical imaginings of an improbable future. To your grandparents, aviation was the exclusive domain of the super-rich. By virtue of your birth date, though, you’ve probably never known such a world: air travel is likely little more special to you than riding Greyhound.

In our future, we probably won’t know this luxury again. If oil production peaks, flying in a Boeing 747 will be about as feasible as flying in a giant cruise ship fuelled by coconuts. This is the future of travel a growing number of environmentalists and economists are predicting. As they see it, climate change and energy costs will force our travel patterns to become much more local.

“The reality is that there is no one big solution,” Franz Hartmann, Executive Director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance and professor at U of T’s Centre for the Environment, told The Varsity. “How we move ourselves is one of those things we have to change. For most of us, it will be changing the way we travel on a daily basis.” Deciding not to take a car, opting instead for the train or bike for our daily commute is a big step for environmental conservation.

But the need for reducing our travel-related carbon footprint reaches well beyond the daily commute. Our dependence on air travel is particularly important, whether a plane is used for jetting to some distant vacation spot or sending overnight parcels.

“There’s no doubt that travelling by plane is very carbon intensive,” says Hartmann.

The International Air Transport Association points out that today’s aircraft are 20 per cent more fuel-efficient than they were 10 years ago. Nevertheless, air travel currently produces 700 million tons of carbon emissions each year, accounting for approximately three per cent of global emissions. The Committee on Climate Change, an independent body established by the U.K. government, predicts this number could rise to as much as 20 per cent by 2050.

Such figures have many airlines thinking green. Recent initiatives by the likes of Virgin Atlantic and British Airways include the development of biofuels derived from nuts and algae. But according to Hartmann, widespread adoption of fuel alternatives to kerosene, the basis of jet fuel, remains out of reach. “We are far from a point where jet aircraft can fly with renewable fuels,” he says.

Even if such alternatives were used en masse, there is no guarantee of their long-term feasibility. “We also have to ask ourselves whether there is the capacity to grow the plants to produce the fuel. We don’t know that yet,” he said.

Government regulation is an obvious alternative to low-carbon technologies. In fact, pressure is mounting on western governments from bodies such as the CCC to set a cap on global aviation emissions by the end of this year. How consumers would respond to this type of government involvement remains uncertain. Hartmann remarks, “we are rightly or wrongly at a point where if the government attempted to restrict travel, people would disagree.”

As a result, shifts in travel patterns fall to the discretion of the individual. Hartmann was more direct: “Do we need to curb our travel? Absolutely.” If individual will fails to produce a change, market forces may dictate one. The tipping point will be energy costs, or more precisely, the price of oil. Hartmann notes, “travel for holiday or for business is very price dependent. The big question is what will happen with ticket prices.”

Discount airlines, a staple of modern travel, may soon become untenable. In recent decades, declining costs allowed various airlines to emerge through cut-rate ticket prices, including WestJet and JetBlue in North America, Ryanair in Europe and Tiger Airways in Australia and Southeast Asia. As developing countries expand their airline industries, air travel is expected to double by mid-century. Economists predict, however, that this boom will turn to a bust if fuel costs climb back to their pre-recession levels.

Rising oil prices may well be the death knell of the discount airline. “Especially in Europe, there has been a dramatic increase in travel because of cheap airlines. The cost of fossil fuels could change all this,” says Hartmann.

Jeff Rubin, former Chief Economist for CIBC World Markets, shares this view. Now also an energy expert, Rubin predicts that current travel patterns will no longer be viable as the world’s oil wells dry up. According to Rubin, oil production will peak much sooner than we think. One figure shows, alarmingly, the world’s oil companies extracting three times as much of the resource as they are discovering, both on and off shore. Such practices will lead to higher oil prices, and the effective end of a “globalized” world. In his new book, Why Your World is about to Get a Whole Lot Smaller, Rubin argues, “air travel just doesn’t make sense in a world of triple-digit oil prices.”

Air travel in general will likely return to its traditionally exclusive status. For decades, long-range journeys were a luxury few could enjoy. By the latter part of the 20th century, increased access to cheap oil transformed jet travel from a luxury into a commonality in the west. What we once assumed to have become the norm turns out to have been a historical blip. Indeed, according to Rubin, “We may retreat to the footsteps of our parents, seeking local as opposed to global escapes when we go on holiday.” If economists like him are right, the future of travel will be a return to the past, as long-range journeys, particularly by aircraft, become a luxury reserved for society’s fortunate few.

While your wallet will suffer the immediate effects of high-priced travel, the effects on the global order will be even more profound. Globalization may persist due to information technologies and alternative energy innovation, but it will be a shallower version than the current levels of integration. Reflecting on globalization, Hartmann notes that “that whole system has developed based on certain assumptions of fuel costs. Change those assumptions, and the system also changes dramatically.”

Moreover, citizenship in the socalled “global village” will become less of an actuality and more of an aspiration. Forget about backpacking through Europe, teaching English to primary students in Japan, or learning to surf off the coast of Costa Rica. “To be blunt, the reality is that this issue only affects a small number of people. Most people around the world do not have the means to travel in this way.” Because of this, Hartmann says, “we need to ask: should our convenience trump the global effort to curb climate change?”

For Hartmann, the answer is clear. For the rest of us, a chance to explore the world might be too much to forgo. But if global warming does not curb current travel patterns, oil prices threaten to end the era of affordable travel altogether. In this vision of the future, our world may prove not to be so small after all. Likely, travel for business and for pleasure will become severely restricted, as populations turn inward, and the local village supplants the global one.

As posted: http://www.thevarsity.ca/articles/20870

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