Final Musings: Slow and Low – the way to go

Slow and Low – the way to go

A systems view of travel emissions – comparing the plane and train to China & back

When planning this journey and also since my return I have been asked frequently about the associated emissions:

“… I thought trains weren't much better than planes, what was the difference?”

 “ … was it worth the effort for whatever you saved?”

 “… how much difference was there in carbon emissions between the train and plane?”

On the face of it, these and many similar queries seem completely reasonable questions to ask.. But in my view they miss the point and without trying to be overly provocative (that’s for later), I don’t think they are so reasonable – particularly from the array of informed experts who asked them. So why do I think the questions are unreasonable – and what would I suggest as an alternative framing for assessing emissions from travel?


ANALYSIS OF SORTS – here goes …


The following ‘blog-style’ analysis is a mix of provocation, parody and some different ways of thinking about emissions from our travel. I’ve tried to make a coherent case on the basis of argument, but some of the language may not be what you find typically in an academic paper. Nonetheless, I stand by the well-intentioned thrust of the case and if anyone has any substantive disagreements I’d be pleased to hear them. It is intended to hold a mirror up to the climate change community – and as with all mirrors it can make for grim viewing – I know, I’m still a fit 36 year old when I look in the mirror - but a less fit grey-haired 49 year old bloke stares right back at me!!

My concern about the questions I’ve been asked fall into three broad and related categories:

1.     They were asked by folk who work intimately on climate change as a system. But not one person asked a systems-level question – how are you going to compare the plane and train emissions; have you thought about rebound; etc.

2.     All the questions relegated climate change to a technical, quantitative and efficiency issue – which, in themselves, tell us little to nothing about what we ‘need’ to do.

3.     The opportunity costs, rebound effect, carbon intensity of time, technical and financial lock-in/lock-out, early adoption, role models, diffusion, etc., - are all concepts  the climate change community should be familiar with. Asking emissions questions without recourse directly or indirectly to any of them is, in my view, neither responsible nor reasonable.



Unreasonable reasonableness – another Rumsfeldian paradox

The first argument for my thinking the reasonable questions aren’t so reasonable relates to it being us, Tyndall and similar folk, who asked them. For the last decade the language of climate change, our bids, research council calls, brochures, government documents, etc., have been awash with terms such as whole systems, systems thinking, interdisciplinary, and the like. Put us in a room and we’ll espouse eloquently the virtues of such approaches and say that if we’re to tackle big issues like climate change we have to think on a systems level. But as soon as there’s something that can be narrowly and readily quantified we’re like a moth to a flame – here’s something familiar to our 2000 years of reductionism, some knowledge - but without understanding.

The great virtues of systems thinking we were waxing lyrical on a few moments previously, are cast asunder in the mad scrabble to get to the numbers. We know what to do with numbers and, as Lord Kelvin so persuasively put it, “When you measure what you are speaking of and express it in numbers, you know that on which you are discoursing, but when you cannot measure it and express it in numbers your knowledge is of a very meagre and unsatisfactory kind.” Well I’m not sure this always holds: the numbers have to be meaningful. Isolated numbers likely tell us nothing about the system, and worse, they can lead to decisions based only on the bit we can measure when this may be worse than doing nothing or making a random action. At the very least the numbers have to be contextual.

So having made the argument that systems thinking requires some system thinking itself, the following sections outline more precisely defined and technical issues that underpin my concern that the climate change community continues to take overly narrow views of system-level issues. In 2011, we ought to know better.

System saving No.1:

Relative dimensions in distance, time, and emissions

If we accept temperature as an adequate proxy for our various concerns around climate change, then what we know is that for staying below 2°C or 4°C, the climate is only really concerned with our cumulative emissions over a relatively short period of time. This period is longer than the Broadbottom-Shanghai train journey, but only stretches about as far as 2020 for 2°C and very approximately 2030 for 4°C (there is some maths behind this, linked to how high we are on the emissions curves, the real emission growth trend, realistic peaks and what carbon budget we’ve squandered already). 

Coming back to the train and its emissions relative to other transport modes; from a system perspective, it’s a good enough approximation to consider the CO2/km for planes, trains and automobiles to be similar. Ok, alone in a Ferrari with your foot to the floor will be many times worse than sardined into one of Easyjets relatively new aircraft. Similarly, four people cosying up in a diesel Fiat Panda will knock the socks off any scheduled airline (i.e. be much lower CO2 emissions). But put a couple of academics in a diesel Mondeo and any disparity in emissions between the modes over the same distance will be lost in the system noise. The difference, of course, arises from the distance we deem reasonable – and really this is less about the distance and more about the time.

Attending an essential conference to save the world from climate change in Venice, Cancun, or some other arduous holiday resort, is perfectly doable by plane (though emission trends don’t seem to have registered the sterling work we have achieved at such events; perhaps if we flew to more of them, emissions would really start to come down – we may even spot some flying pigs enroute).

Instead, junk the plane and get together with a few other UK speakers heading to the same event, cram yourself in a trusty Fiat Panda and set off for Venice. Amazingly, somewhere around Dartford what was previously essential starts to take on a different hue – and by Dover a whole new meaning has evolved. Essential has become a relative term, dependent on: can we get there by plane?; are our friends also attending;? is it somewhere nice to visit (or name-drop);? we will be taxied around;? stay in a nice hotel;? and not have to dip in our pocket for a penny because it’s all on expenses!?

This is where the first major saving resides; slow forms of travel change fundamentally our perception of the essential. We consequently travel less (at least in distance), and given that air travel is the most emission profligate activity per hour (short of Formula 1 and space tourism) the emission-related opportunity costs are knocked into a cocked hat. Of course, as climate change specialists we are exempt from such analysis – our message truly is essential - so we’re the exception that should be able to carry on as before.

Ah, yes, and business folk - we need them to drive the economy. Tourists – another real important economic driver (not to mention the great cultural gains from staying in Western-style hotels with like-minded folk and observing other cultures pass by the windscreens of our taxis). Next there are the pop stars and celebrities – the world would be such a dull place if they weren’t able to prance about at some international festival or the other. The football & tennis players that must test their mettle in the international arena – and of course they need their fans to cheer them on.

We can then turn to whole industrial sectors who put forward an equally bewildering array of ‘reasons’ why it is they should be the exception and exempt from major emission reductions. This includes government departments, climate change think tanks and some NGOs – with the remaining less deserving sectors and individuals taking up the slack (I think this may be Ethel and Walt’s local pet food shop – they’ll need to make one hell of a cut – perhaps a bit of CDM would help). It really is a puzzler as to why emissions keep on rising – all the more so since fuel prices have rocketed to levels way in excess of any carbon price economists previously told us would collapse the economy!

Still, a few more international conferences and guidance from the carbon-market gurus will have us turn the corner on this one I’m sure.

Obviously these caricatures are soooooo far from reality that we don’t recognise ourselves in any of them - but nevertheless the message is clear. Travelling slowly forces us to travel much less and be much more selective in what we attend and to endeavour to get more out of those trips we do take; – fewer trips and potentially longer stays – not rocket science – just unpalatable climate change basics.


System saving No.2:

Iteration, adaptive capacity and indulgences – how to avoid carbon lock-in

It may well be apocryphal, but I heard from several reputable sources that China is in the process of constructing 150 new international airports. Sounds implausible, but its population is ~22x the UK’s and the UK has ~25 international airports – suddenly seems less implausible (i.e. 550 airports would be the UK/capita equivalent). Either way, flying to Shanghai sends a very clear market signal: expand your airport, which is exactly what they’re doing right now – so they’re reading our repeated signal loud and clear!

Well how is that worse than expanding the rail network – in addition to the time issue outlined above? Firstly, there is a huge potential for radically improving the efficiency of train travel – until very recently efficiency has not been a major issue for the industry. This is not the case for aviation. Jet engines and current plane designs have pushed the ‘orthodox’ design envelope about as far as it can go – so 1-2% p.a. improvement is about as much as you can wring out of the aviation industry in the short to medium term. In the longer term things may change, but this will not be within the scare time ‘resource’ associated with climate change. So flying now locks the future into high-carbon aviation infrastructure. By contrast trains have substantial large-incremental efficiency potential, though this may be compromised with the very high-speed trains. But much more significantly, trains can run on electricity, many already do; and electricity can be low-carbon, and some of it already is. Trains can also have regenerative breaking (tricky with aircraft) and overnight trains can be used to flatten demand curves (& cuts back on hotel emissions). Try putting a very powerful electric fan on a 747, get 400 hundred of your nearest and dearest on board and blat down the runway. If you do manage to take off it’ll be because you’re connected to the mains – and the flight will be dramatically curtailed as your cable reaches its limit; – or you’ve blasted through the battery power during take off and again a sticky end is guaranteed still within sight of the runway. Planes are currently locked into high-carbon kerosene whilst trains already have several low-carbon options.


So there you have it – jump on a plane – and you send a signal that says please buy some more aircraft that will have a 20-30 year operating life and a design life of typically around 40 years (the first 747-100 flight was 1969, and latest 747-8 went on sale this year). Please build some more airports; divert your public transport funding to ensure I can travel from the centre of the nearby city to the airport in a low-carbon manner (before leaping on the pinnacle of humankind’s carbon emitting ingenuity); please also expand the car park (these ‘always’ expand in absolute terms more than the public transport); and please ensure we keep seeking out the black stuff – because without it we will have invested billions on an industry dependent on kerosene – lock-in par excellence. They don’t tell you all this on the back of the ticket – though there may be some oh so useful advice on carbon offsetting– odd again how emissions aren’t coming down when we can buy indulgences so easily and cheaply?


System Saving No. 3:

Opportunity costs – cost carbon

Here we turn to the old chestnut, opportunity costs. Basically if I had flown and assuming the direct emissions/capita were the same between the plane and the Trans-Siberian Express, then what would I have been doing for the time I wasn’t on the train. Well lets say the plane took two days – one day each way (UK to Shanghai). The train took a total of 20 days – 10 each way; so an opportunity cost period of 18 days. Well, if at home I certainly would have been taking the train in and out of work each day. I’d probably have had around four longer UK trips – typically at around 400 miles per return trip. I’d have visited a few rock climbing venues in my immediate vicinity around the Peak District (say 100-200 miles in total – probably shared with a couple of others in the car); I’d have watched a few movies, listened to the radio a lot – and all the usual stuff. Say equivalent to 2000-3000 miles (i.e. very roughly 10-20% of the Trans-Siberian). But if I was a regular flyer, in 20 days I may have taken a flight or two, and if I was one of the great and the good this would have been business or first class – and (if we treat offsetting with the disdain it deserves), - the opportunity cost emissions could easily have exceeded those from the full return journey to China by train. And if offsetting had been used, I take the view that the emissions would have been still higher (increased lock-in, reduced incentive for the ‘donor’ to change behaviour and economic multiplier for the recipient). All this assumes my 12 days actually in China had roughly the same emissions/day as I would have had if I’d remained at home in the UK. This is probably not too unreasonable; – but again it would be if you're one of the great and good since you’d likely have had much higher emissions from still further travel. This slow travel stuff really starts to notch up the carbon savings for those of us who travel a lot – particularly if it includes international travel.



System Saving No. 3b:

The slippery slope – thinking low-carbon engenders thinking low-carbon which engenders …

A final point worthy of a brief note. Making the transition from fast to slower forms of long-distance travel may engender slower forms of travel elsewhere. Once we’ve made such a transition it becomes more ‘natural’ to avoid taxis and seek out the public transport, walking or cycling we espouse for others. Unless exhausted or there really isn’t much option, why is it that many academics typically give no thought to buses or a stroll across London – hailing instead the first available taxi to whisk them to a further all-important climate change event or meeting? Taxis are another market signal for more roads; jamming our bodies onto the tube (or Beijing subway), or waiting for the reliable late night bus from Norwich station to UEA all give much lower carbon signals. Especially if supported with the occasional letter chastising the London Major for not doing more with tubes and local trains and complimenting Norwich bus planners – or however we think admonishment and praise should be meted out.


So there you have it, my potted account as to why I think the climate change community needs to put its own house in order before wagging its hypocritical finger at others or espousing low-carbon solutions to Ministers that we simply wouldn’t accept for ourselves.


Final thoughts:

Can slow travel can be justified within a busy university life?

My guess is that a common retort to my ramblings is, “it’s ok for him, I’m just far too busy to take off such a long time, it’s just not practical, I’ve got to live in the real world”.

But the real world has us flying half way around the world to give banal 20 minute talks to audiences who know what we’re going to say anyway. And even if our talks are riveting canters through the intellectual surf, are they really so important that we have to be there in person and in an instant, before launching off to dispense our pearls of wisdom to another packed house in another exotic location? Isn’t our situation emblematic of the problem we are abjectly failing to shed any light on? Fast and self-important lives for the few – no time for thinking, reflexivity and humility.

My life is perhaps not as busy as many others, but I still clock up a fair few hours, have meetings to attend, admin to do and research to deliver on. The train was certainly not as simple to organise as a plane – though if doing it again it would be much easier and I wouldn’t worry so much about getting everything perfect and having back up plans in place. However, long and unusual journeys inevitably take more planning, not least to ensure the time spent travelling can be productive. And in terms of cost – the reimbursement system is just not set up to support such journeys so you’ll likely have to dip into your pocket as long train (& ship) journeys cost typically more than taking to the air. Moreover, receipts don’t come with purchases of strange foods from sellers on station platforms, similarly, odd bits of accommodation and obscure visas, journeys etc may be difficult to justify even if you can get a receipt.

So what of the work? Well I had planned and expected my many hours of mildly enforced confinement to provide a good working environment. But I really wasn’t prepared for what turned out to be the most productive period of my academic career, particularly on the return journey. During the outward trip I read a range of papers and managed to write another on shipping and climate change. However, after having spent twelve days in China bombarded with the fresh experiences, new ways of thinking and new information, the return journey was a wonderful opportunity to begin to make sense of it all, embedding much of it in a paper I and a colleague had been working on for the last year. This was the first time I had actually put pen to paper with regards to the research. The train’s ability to remove many of the choices that clutter our daily lives gave me the seclusion and concentration I needed to set to work on what has proved a very challenging paper. But by the time Moscow arrived, I had completed about 75% of the writing; this would have taken another six months had I flown to Shanghai.

In the end, from a productivity perspective, the 20-day train journey easily trumped the 2-day flight. Counterintuitive perhaps, but I remain convinced that a carefully planned train journey not only delivers order of magnitude lower emissions, but it facilitates the process of research in a way that universities and daily life simply can’t match. Add to that the ‘slower’ ethos that such journeys engender and I think there may be early signs of making a meaningful transition to a low-carbon future – or at least a bridging ethos whilst we wait for the panacea of low-carbon technologies to become the norm.