Aviation & the internet: Carbon commonality & fairness

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A Guest Article by Renee Martin-Nagle → → →

Many thanks to our friend Renee Martin-Nagle for her authoring this informative article comparing the carbon impact of aviation and the internet. She speaks as a highly accomplished aviation lawyer who decided to focus her considerable energy and intelligence on the environment. As she once explained, she felt compelled to learn more about the issues and to advocate change to assure that her grandchildren have a planet where they can live healthy and happy lives. To attain the level of knowledge, the self-described workaholic has established the following impressive list of academic and professional accomplishments:

Note: this reflects only her aviation-related works; she has an equally impressive CV on water issues also.

The JDA Journal is sincerely appreciative of Renee’s contribution (she’s incredibly busy in her research and simultaneously teaching her course at Pitt) and even more thankful for her decision to dedicate her time to such critical issues. Having reviewed some of her lecture notes, one could be easily depressed by the state of the globe. Given her greater comprehension of the crisis, it is clear that she has great strength to continue to smile as brightly as she does (maybe it’s her adoration of her grandchild bursting forth).

Aviation and the internet: Carbon commonality and fairness

The aviation industry has long known that its activities generate approximately 2% of the global carbon emissions. Two percent may not sound like a lot, but it does add up over time, and this carbon footprint has caused aviation to be lambasted by environmental groups and scrutinized by governmental organizations in the US and in the EU. In response, for years ICAO has been exploring mechanisms to reduce the environmental impact of air transport and is expected to announce a program to address the issue at its next General Assembly meeting in 2016. Meanwhile, airlines have instituted their own programs to reduce the impact of their activities. For example, JetBlue offset all of its emissions for April 2015 and has partnered with Carbonfund.org to allow concerned passengers to offset the carbon footprint of their travel by purchasing offsets. United Airlines instituted an Eco-Skies CarbonChoice program, where passengers can calculate the carbon footprint of their trip and then donate either money or miles to one of several programs through Sustainable Travel International. The qualifying programs include community-based forest conservation in Peru, forest conservation in California and renewable energy in Texas.

At the end of September, The Guardian published an article about the carbon footprint of the datacenter web centers, which turns out to be about the same as aviation’s footprint—2%. Greenpeace has been discussing the footprint of the internet for some time, but how many of us are aware that surfing the web and streaming videos has such an impact on the planet? Why have the internet and its largest companies been able to fly under the carbon radar screen, avoiding public outcry and government regulation, while aviation, which also links people and products in vital ways, has been subjected to scorn, criticism and regulation? Part of the reason for our collective ignorance could be that the emissions from the web are invisible to us, because they are produced far from our homes offices and out of our sight. The contrails of airplanes, on the other hand, are quite clearly visible in the skies above us. Another reason could be the high visibility of aviation as well as its long history—the web is a relative teenager compared to aviation.

While the footprint of individual users is relatively low, global companies like Google and Facebook generate an impressively high amount of total emissions through their billions of users. Like aviation, the use of the web is expected to increase in the future, which will of course increase its carbon footprint as well. Now that we are becoming more aware of the greenhouse gas impact of the web, should the larger companies such as Google and Facebook show some leadership in addressing the issue? If so, what form should that leadership take? Perhaps they could invest some of their prodigious profits in alternative energy. Perhaps they could initiate offset programs like the airlines have done. Perhaps they should use their economic and political power to encourage governments to adopt carbon reduction measures in Paris later this year.

As we all look to an increasingly hot and resource-scarce future, heaping blame on aviation seems unfair when other industries have similar carbon footprints. While awaiting action from the internet giants, maybe we could all make personal choices to reduce our internet carbon footprints by avoiding the temptation to watch those ubiquitous cat videos.

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