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Modern Transportation—A Miracle under Attack

Image used with permission.

Modern transportation is amazing. Each day, millions of people fly, drive, or are transported across our world for business, pleasure or to see distant family members. These trips, which are powered by petroleum-based fuels, were all but impossible a century ago. But today, many of our leaders call for elimination of hydrocarbon-fueled transportation.

Between 1840 and 1860, more than 250,000 people traveled by wagon train from Independence, Missouri to the west coast on the Oregon Trail. Horses and oxen carried the settlers on this 2,000-mile, six-month journey. Disease, attacks by Native Americans, and run-overs by wagons claimed the lives of more than 15,000 travelers. Today, a family can make this same journey in a few days in the safety of their air-conditioned van. 

Throughout most of history, traded goods were carried by camel, wagon, and sailboat. Although world trade increased throughout most of human history, the value of global exports in 1900 was only about $10 billion in today’s dollars.

Since 1900, world merchandise trade skyrocketed to $19.7 trillion per year in 2018, a gain of almost 2,000 times. Each day, trucks, trains, ships, and planes transport more than 100 million tons of freight. Petroleum fuel powers more than 90 percent of this cargo.

Trains belching smoke typified early hydrocarbon-fueled transportation. But over the last 50 years, humanity has all but eliminated dangerous pollutants from vehicle exhaust. Environmental Protection Agency data shows that US vehicles now emit 99 percent less common pollutants (carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and particles) than the vehicles of 1970.

The only remaining emissions from most engines are water vapor and carbon dioxide. But carbon dioxide (CO2), a harmless, odorless, invisible gas that people exhale and plants use in photosynthesis, has been demonized.

Last week, 200 celebrities attended a Google-sponsored climate change conference near Palermo on the island of Sicily in Italy. Movie stars, business executives, and royalty traveled by private jet, yacht, helicopter, and limousine to this exotic location to discuss how humans are destroying the climate.

Dozens of articles criticized the hypocrisy of the extravagant travel by these elites and the large release of CO2 emissions. But aviation fuel powers 99 percent of commercial air travel and almost all of the other vehicles, leaving no practical alternatives.

Zach Wichter declared that air travel is now “going electric” in a New York Times article last month. But the only example he could cite was a plan for an experimental hybrid aircraft to be deployed in Hawaii that burns aviation fuel as the primary propulsion with batteries as a backup.

Jet fuel has a specific energy of 43 megajoules per kilogram (MJ/kg). The best lithium-ion batteries deliver a specific energy of only about 0.9 MJ/kg. Electric engines are more efficient, but jet fuel engines still have an energy advantage of almost 20 times compared to batteries.

Gasoline- and diesel-powered automobiles are a modern miracle taken for granted. The average family of four can travel 400 miles in comfort on a $50 fill up. Internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles also hold a 20-times energy density advantage over batteries. This is energy available to power SUVs and small trucks, a growing share of demand in the US, China, and much of the world.

Plug-in battery vehicles suffer from the weaknesses of high cost, short driving range, small carrying capacity, a lack of charging stations, and expensive battery packs that must be replaced during the vehicle life. And who wants to wait 30 minutes for a recharge, even if one can find a charging station?

Yet governments now plan to force people to buy electric cars and even to ban traditional cars. Austria, Britain, France, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Scotland, and several other nations recently announced intentions to ban ICE vehicles during the next two decades. Battery electric vehicle sales are growing, but still captured only about 1.5 percent of world markets in 2018.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg announced that she will take a sailboat to the next world climate conference in Santiago, Chile in December 2019. Her decision not to take an aircraft may save CO2 emissions, but will turn a one-day trip into two weeks of travel each direction.

Electric utilities across the world are now required by laws to urge customers not to use electricity, the product which they produce. If climate fears continue, look for airlines and cruise ship companies to be required to urge consumers not to use their services as well.

As Cardinal George Pell of Australia remarked, “Sometimes the very learned and clever can be brilliantly foolish, especially when seized by an apparently good cause.”

Steve Goreham's picture

Thank Steve for the Post!

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 16, 2019 9:01 pm GMT

No one is calling for transportation to be eliminated, but these industries should be compelled to find innovation to eliminate their rampant negative externalities when the free market doesnt incent them to do enough in that regard as it is. 

If climate fears continue, look for airlines and cruise ship companies to be required to urge consumers not to use their services as well.

Instead of going to that extreme, the truth is that they are going to be required to clean up their act an initiate sustainable practices that they aren't doing today. And is that really such a bad thing?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 16, 2019 11:29 pm GMT

"Last week, 200 celebrities attended a Google-sponsored climate change conference near Palermo on the island of Sicily in Italy. Movie stars, business executives, and royalty traveled by private jet, yacht, helicopter, and limousine to this exotic location to discuss how humans are destroying the climate."

Steve, climate scientist James Hansen shares your disdain for climate conferences, not so much for the (significant) amount of carbon expelled by 20,000+ attendees flying from around the world, but because categorically they don't work. Period.

I'd urge you to read his papers, particularly Earth's Energy Imbalance: Confirmation and Implications, written with 14 international co-authors - they share none of your skepticism about the seriousness of climate change. Also see the 15-minute video abstract Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise and Superstorms.

As the owner of three battery electric vehicles I consider myself a minor authority on the subject. The first I built myself from a 1997 Ford Aspire subcompact, and in 2010 I consulted for Nissan Motors on the design of the 2011 Leaf.

By point -

"Plug-in battery vehicles suffer from the weaknesses of high cost, short driving range..."

Price/range has been cut in half in the last eight years, there's no reason to believe it won't continue. 2019 Chevy Bolt, for ~$30K with incentives, has a range of 238 miles.

"a lack of charging stations..."

For the vast majority of drivers charging happens at home (I haven't visited a charging station in 5 years).

"small carrying capacity..."

True, for now.

"expensive battery packs that must be replaced during the vehicle life..."

True. Also no oil changes, oil filters, air filters, fuel filters, tuneups, radiators, fuel injectors, water pumps, mufflers, catalytic converters, alternators, generators, belts, or spark plugs. Maintenance consists of filling wiper fluid, replacing wiper blades, inflating tires. Acceleration is that of a sports car costing twice the price.

Steve Goreham's picture
Steve Goreham on Aug 17, 2019 3:26 pm GMT

Bob,

As always, thanks for your excellent comments.

Dr. Hansen's climate projections have been consistently wrong.  In his 1988 paper, "Global Climate Changes as Forecast by the Goddard Institute of Space Studies Three-Dimensional Model," Hansen and his team forecasted a global temperature rise of 0.5 degrees Celsius per decade.  In large measure due to his projections, in 1990 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations projected a mean rise of 0.3C per decade, with a high of 0.5C and a low of 0.2C.  Today, almost 30 years later, global temperatures remain well below the low IPCC projection.

In a 2006 article in The Independent, Dr. Hansen projected that world sea levels would rise by 25 meters by the year 2100.   But over the last 30 years, tide gauges show an average sea level rise of less than 4 inches.  So far, his sea level preditions are high by a factor of 244.

Regarding electric vehicles, people should buy vehicles based on performance, cost, and real environmental benefit.  Governments should not be forcing drivers to purchase EVs.  There is no reliable evidence that a transition to electric vehicles will have a measurable effect on global temperatures. 

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 18, 2019 5:21 am GMT

Steve, where in Hansen et al (1988) do Hansen and his team forecast a global temperature rise of 0.5 degrees Celsius per decade? Scenario B from the paper projects a .8°C total rise 1988-2019:

A current comparison of nine different estimates over the intervening years shows remarkable concurrence among each, and agreement with measured data:

Also - what government is forcing drivers to purchase EVs?

Steve Goreham's picture
Steve Goreham on Aug 18, 2019 5:33 pm GMT

Bob,

On page 9357 of the article, Hansen talks about 0.5 degrees per decade, which is the result of scenario A.  This is also the high projection of the IPCC First Assessment Report of 1990.  If you asked Hansen, I think he would say we are still in scenario A

Most nations of Europe have announced plans to ban internal combustion engine cars, although these plans are not yet in statute.  See the nations listed in the article.

I seem to be unable to insert graphs into this format.  Suppose we continue this conversation via email?

Mine is gorehamsa@comcast.net.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 19, 2019 2:58 pm GMT

Steve, +0.5°C/decade is Hansen's highest-case scenario, C is lowest, B is intermediate. Like all competent probabilistic risk assessments the three function as "error bars" to show a range of possible outcomes, based on available knowledge at the time.

To calculate mean global temperature, climate scientists rely on estimates based on best available data and techniques, and both data collection and forecasting have improved since 1987. You'll notice the 9 separate forecasts have converged (bottom graph); contemporary forecasts now can be assumed to be accurate to within  ±.1°C. For Hansen to say we're still in scenario A would be to deny empirical data showing otherwise - we're very close to being where scenario B predicted we would be 32 years ago.

That Hansen in 1987 chose to show impacts of climate change based on a worst-case scenario might be faulted if it was a study of anything but climate change. In this case, the precautionary principle prevails: when the results of any risk analysis include catastrophe it's best to act to avoid it, whether it's the most likely possibility or not. To consider Hansen's example using the worst possible scenario erroneous would be equivalent to considering wearing seat belts erroneous - yes, most often it's a waste of time and effort. We wear one anyway for the possibility, one day, it might prevent catastrophic injury.

Re: inserting images: click on the mountain icon in the bar above the text editor. If the image is online, you can then insert its URL in the box provided.

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