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I failed. I caught a plane

Ewan Kingston

3rd February, 2010

Thousands of miles by train, coach, bus, boat and foot and, at the last hurdle, Ewan finds that there's no way to cross the Tasman Sea except on metal wings...

My heart sank a little as I booked the flight from Sydney to Christchurch. My flight across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand will probably have as much of a contribution to global warming as a train from London to Irkutsk, or a passenger coach travelling almost 1 and a half times around the world.

It wasn't for lack of trying. In the last month, I've made about a hundred calls to marinas, port controllers, even nautical bookstores, searching for that elusive cruising yacht that might want crew for the trans-Tasman passage.

Elusive options

There were tantalising hints and leads. One yacht left just as I arrived. A private powerboat was willing to take me, but its footprint was probably massive. 

The rough nature of the passage and the lack of leads also lead me to investigate cargo ships. Though only a handful of shipping companies carry passengers, one-man-show Hamish, of Freighter Travel, liased with them for me. I had a couple of almosts, and they sounded luxurious - 5 days at sea, my own cabin, arriving at Nelson, but these passages were snapped up by others as soon as they were offered. 

So it's the plane. A necessary evil - if I wasn't committed to starting university again in March this year, I would have held out for an ocean voyage. But this time I didn't have the luxury of waiting.

Airlines under the microscope

Booking the plane didn't mean giving up my desire to keep my emissions as low as I could. Some of the carriers helpfully displayed their aircraft models online so I could check their fuel efficiency on the detailed (if optimistic) flying calculator site atmosfair; I called the ones that didn't to check. I chose to fly to Christchurch, which, surprisingly is slightly closer than Auckland is from Sydney.

I also got to witness the disingenious greenwashing tactics of the airline I did choose. First they ignored the Radiating Forcing Index on their CO2 emissions at altitude, and thus underestimated the real impact of flying by a factor of around two. Then they offered to offset this impact of my flight for a mere 3 Australian dollars by supporting a company that captures landfill methane emissions - a niche but vital public good that could and should be underwritten by any sane government, not propped up by charity.

I contacted the airline with my queries about their offsetting program, and haven't heard back yet. It seems our planet's climate remains low on the priorities of some  companies.

Mode Journey Emissions calcs Total emissions
Coach
Canberra - Sydney
287 km x 29g CO2 per passenger kilometre 8 kg CO2
Plane
Sydney - Christchurch
2327 km x 186g CO2/pkm 433 kg CO2
  TOTAL 2614 km 441 kg CO2
 
Equivalent emissions if I had got a passenger berth on a cargo ship: between 12  -  248 kg CO2!

It's very difficult to be precise – this all depends how you want to factor in the space or weight that extra passengers are travelling. If one just counts oneself as extra weight, passengers on cargo ships are very fuel efficient – to the tune of around 2 grams of CO2 per km. As I've noted before, passengers need infrastructure too, which could be seen as taking the place of tonnes of cargo, and this could push the emissions factor up much higher. It's still a niche market though, and could benefit a lot from economies of scale. This is one of the main reasons why I was ready to support it.

(Other emissions factors are from Defra, with a radiative forcing index of 1.9 applied)

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