Air travel major contributor to climate change

When I was growing up, summer holidays meant a tiny tent trailer towed behind the trusty old Valiant.

“. . . unlike traditional commodities, which sometimes during the course of their market exchange must be delivered to someone in physical form, the carbon market is based on the lack of delivery of an invisible substance to no one.” — Mark Schapiro

“Cap and trade is what governments and the people in alligator shoes (ie, lobbyists) are trying to foist on you.” — James Hansen

When I was growing up, summer holidays meant a tiny tent trailer towed behind the trusty old Valiant.

But now it almost invariably means a quick trip down to the Calgary airport to hop on a cheap flight.

However, air travel is also the most damaging type of travel in terms of climate change, partly because it’s a lot easier to fly 10,000 km than it is to drive the same distance.

There is some help via carbon offsets. Companies such as WestJet and Air Canada work with organizations, such as, to help consumers assuage their guilt by investing in projects that gobble up CO2. It’s not quite like the indulgences that the Catholic Church used to sell sinners in the Middle Ages so that they could go up to heaven, but it has been compared to that.

Mark Schapiro, in the February edition of Harper’s, detailed some of the problems with offsets.

First, we need some assurance that any project to reduce CO2 would not have been done in the first place. Then we need to know that the project actually reduces CO2. It’s not easy, and the early attempts were riddled with problems. The organizations responsible for policing it all have supposedly addressed the problems, but Schapiro still calls it an “elaborate shell game”.

Carbon offsets are an integral part of the whole cap-and-trade system that most industrialized governments are buying into.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous column, it’s a convenient way for a politician not to have to utter the dreaded “T” word. But according to James Hansen (the NASA scientist who blew the whistle on the 2nd Bush administration for censoring science on climate change), it winds up being a tax anyways.

However, it’s only a tax for the folks who don’t have alligator shoes.

If you do have alligator shoes, you can cozy up to your favorite U.S. congressperson (I’m not sure how well it works in Canada) and get a few lines (called earmarks) inserted in the 1,400 page cap-and-trade document (that no congressperson actually reads from cover to cover) so that the company you’re shilling for will be exempted from any tough regulations.

Hansen (also the author of Storms of my Grandchildren) is nonetheless extremely worried about climate change. His solution is to abandon cap-and-trade and instead use a system called fee-and-dividend.

A fee would be levied on every unit of oil or coal or natural gas that comes out of the ground or arrives by ship or train or pipeline at the border.

It’s not quite a tax, in that the revenues don’t go into government coffers, but are instead mailed directly to voters.

It’s not that much different from the Alaskan system of oil royalties that are given to each citizen. And it’s not that much different from B.C.’s carbon tax, except that the money gets sent to your door, instead of being used to reduce payroll taxes.

One main advantage is that it is a very simple and relatively non-bureaucratic method that frustrates lobbyists (because it’s so uncomplicated that it’s hard for them to hide their grubby paws in it).

The other main advantage of the fee-and-dividend system is that it puts decision making in the hands of the voters instead of the politicians (and lobbyists).

If you want to use your dividend check to keep filling up your Hummer, the choice is yours. But since the fees will substantially increase the cost of cost of gasoline, people will start to invest in things that have a lower carbon footprint. For me, that would be history books and old film cameras.

But in the meantime I’ll still buy my indulgences at Offsetters. I’ll cross my fingers that a wind farm in Turkey (one of the projects) would not have been built otherwise.

But I’ll also try to convince my family that taking the train is a far more relaxing way to see the country than squeezing into a 737.

Evan Bedford is a local environmentalist. Direct comments, questions and suggestions to Visit the Energy and Ecology website at

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