If airports become the cities of tomorrow we are in big trouble

frank sinatra
via Come Fly with Me

The impact of flying on climate change cannot be ignored, as I book my next flight.

Urban Hub, the techno-optimistic website sponsored by ThyssenKrupp elevators, asks: Are airports becoming the cities of tomorrow?

Some developers and economists claim that airports are one of the most potent developments in modern urban life. They form a new core of commerce, previously seen only in urban centers and downtowns, which serve a global population constantly on the move.

They look at John Kasarda's concept of the aerotropolis.

In his book, “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next”, John Kasarda explains how the aerotropolis is similar to traditional cities but with a key difference: the urban core is the airport. Today, speed, accessibility, and mobility are the new currency, and the airport provides the most direct way to tap into a global stream of commerce – making it an ideal anchor for a new city.

Kasarda wrote Aerotropolis in 2011, and since then, airports have indeed been expanding like mad. Urban Hub describes how housing and industry are being built around them. "Dubai constructed a “Festival City” just one mile from the airfield with housing for 100,000 residents, schools, malls, and a marina. The new urban center draws a flow of commerce through the already famous Dubai International Airport."

But there is never any discussion or mention of the single biggest problem with the aerotropolis concept, with this dizzying increase in the number of planes flying, the dramatic increase in air freight for overnight deliveries: the effect on climate. Per passenger/kilometer, flying emits more CO2 than any other mode of travel.

impacts of flyingThe Illusion of Green Flying/CC BY 2.0

And what's worse, flying puts out other stuff that means that the effects of plane exhaust is 2.7 times as bad as CO2.

Planes are obviously getting better; the light and efficient Boeing 787 is as fuel efficient as a 1950 turboprop. But more of them are flying every day. And there is not much that can be done about it; a decade ago George Monbiot noted that flying was the most difficult problem we face in dealing with climate.

I have been discovering, greatly to my surprise, that every other source of global warming can be reduced or replaced to that degree without a serious reduction in our freedoms. But there is no means of sustaining long-distance, high-speed travel.

But in one of my favorite paragraphs written by Monbiot, he explains that nobody is really willing to do anything about it.

..If we want to stop the planet from cooking, we will simply have to stop traveling at the kind of speeds that planes permit. This is now broadly understood by almost everyone I meet. But it has had no impact whatever on their behavior. When I challenge my friends about their planned weekend in Rome or their holiday in Florida, they respond with a strange, distant smile and avert their eyes. They just want to enjoy themselves. Who am I to spoil their fun? The moral dissonance is deafening.

Alas, most people are like this, including me; next month I fly to Munich to be part of a Passive House conference where we talk about reducing the carbon emissions of buildings while ignoring the carbon emissions we all put out getting there. The moral dissonance is deafening.

People are trying. Sami has shown us electric airplanes. But ultimately, increases in efficiency are overwhelmed by the growth in passenger and freight travel. To realistically deal with climate change, it is likely aerotropoli have to turn into ghost towns.

Read more in Urban Hub.

Related Content on Treehugger.com