Michael Pattwell: Do the maths, our planet is on a one-way ticket to disaster

Can the Earth be saved from extinction? Can we, the current population of the Earth, come to the end of our days, confident that our grandchildren or succeeding generations will still exist? So asks Michael Pattwell in his weekly column
Michael Pattwell: Do the maths, our planet is on a one-way ticket to disaster

Planes burn millions of gallons of fuel every day, and the resulting effect is simply unsustainable, says Michael Pattwell

I CAN’T help wondering if the battle to save the planet from the catastrophic effects of ‘global warming’ is well and truly lost.

Not just the ‘battle’, it seems to me, but the ‘war’ itself, and there is nothing for us now but to try to slow it down as best we can so that we can eke out a few more centuries (I hope — but it could be just decades) of existence before Armageddon.

After writing my column last week, my curiosity about the causes of global warming was whetted and I started to do a bit more research.

I think I mentioned last week the conversation we have been having about the contribution the whole issue of cattle flatulence in this country is making to the problem. It appears that the methane produced by the emissions from cattle is 80 times worse for the ozone layer than carbon dioxide. That, of course, makes it a significant problem but it pales into insignificance when compared with other activities that we humans undertake in the modern world.

I cannot imagine the world I know without the internal combustion engine; cars, lorries, buses, trains, ships and top of the list, aircraft. In reality — and we may already be too late — we may well be lost unless we immediately stop driving around in MPVs, and especially until we stop flying around the world.

I can hear it in my mind now, the guffaws of the readers who will read this and ask, ‘Is Pattwell going off his head, or what?’ Indeed, because the idea is so far-fetched, I am laughing at it myself. So used are we to the modern way of life that we have reached a stage where we cannot change it. In particular, I believe the way we have developed air travel and the use of aircraft — civilian travel, commercial flights and military flying — has put us into a situation from which there is no escape, and in reality that is no laughing matter.

It is fewer than 120 years since the Wright brothers’ historic first flight in North Carolina. Since then, aviation has developed in leaps and bounds, with commercial aircraft now expected to carry about four billion passengers in any one year.

With this many passengers, I wondered exactly how many planes already exist in the world today?

Depending on where you look for the answer, it appears that the total number of aircraft currently in service — including passenger and cargo — is around 23,600. One ‘aviation enthusiast’ website, however, says there are about 39,000 — including commercial and military planes — and that over the course of history, there have been 150,000.

Boeing, one of the world’s biggest aircraft manufacturers, says up to 40,000 new planes will be needed over the next 20 years. This will put the number of aircraft in the world at over 63,000 by 2037 (not including older planes no longer in service).

According to FlightRadar24 (I mentioned it last week — it is an app that tracks aircraft around the world) there are over 16,000 planes in the air at any given time on peak traffic days. Look back at the figures for fuel consumption by aircraft I quoted in this page last week. It is worth repeating: It seems that a Boeing 737, in round numbers, will burn 5,000 pounds (750 gallons) an hour. Going up a step or two, it appears a plane like a Boeing 747 uses about 1 gallon of fuel (about 4 liters) every second. Over the course of a 10-hour flight, it might burn 36,000 gallons (150,000 litres). According to Boeing’s Web site, the 747 burns approximately 5 gallons of fuel per mile (12 litres per kilometre).

Just imagine trying to multiply those figures by the 16,000 airplanes that are in the sky all over the world at any moment in a peak traffic day.

Let us, being conservatively generous, try to average it out and say, at a guess, that it is down to 10,000 at any one time over all days and over 24 hours. Let us look at the fuel that is burned and ignore the 747s (there aren’t as many of them as there used to be, I think). We’ll ignore the huge military aircraft too. We’ll go with the 737s as being the average-sized aircraft in the sky at any one time.

A 737 burns, each hour, 750 gallons. Multiply that by 24 (hours), 24

Each aircraft, therefore uses 18,000 gallons of fuel each day.

Multiply that by the 10,000 aircraft I have estimated to be in the sky at any one time, and it would appear that aircraft alone are burning 180 million gallons of fuel each day, and over a year that is almost 66,000 million being injected through the engines of all the aircraft in the sky and emerging as waste fumes to pollute the Earth.

Given that the natural process for the production of fossil fuels takes millions of years, it seems to me we must be using up whatever reserves there are underground at a much faster rate than they are being renewed. How soon, therefore, before we have exhausted what fuels there are and ‘the whole thing’ must grind to a halt?

How soon, too, will we have extracted so much oil from the core of the Earth before we are left with a situation underground that is unable to support the surface of the Earth? And now we have developed ‘fracking’ as a way of extracting oil, how long before large portions of the Earth’s surface will start to cave in, probably taking cities, towns, villages, hamlets and single family settlements with it?

‘Hydraulic Fracturing’ (fracking) is an extraction process that combines chemicals (often dangerous ones) with large amounts of water and sand at high rates of pressure to fracture material surrounding oil and gas, enabling them to be extracted.

It is controversial because of:

a) the number of natural resources needed to complete its process, and — perhaps more notably —

b) the negative effects it can have on the air, water, and soil of the fracked areas.

Perhaps I am displaying a certain amount of ignorance here, but if the structures of the Earth surrounding oil and gas deposits are being shattered, does that mean the naturally formed ‘skeleton’ supporting the surface of the Earth is being destroyed?

In the meantime, the burning of fossil fuels produces about 1.3 billion tonnes (21.3 gigatonnes) of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year. It is estimated that natural processes can only absorb about half of that, so there is a net increase of 10.65 billion tonnes of atmospheric carbon dioxide per year. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that increases radiative forcing and contributes to global warming.

Radiative forcing, or climate forcing, is the difference between insolation (sunlight) absorbed by the Earth and energy radiated back to space.

The influences that cause changes to the Earth’s climate system, altering Earth’s radiative equilibrium, forcing temperatures to rise or fall, are called ‘climate forcings’. Positive radiative forcing means Earth receives more incoming energy from sunlight than it radiates to space. This net gain of energy will cause warming.

Conversely, negative radiative forcing means that Earth loses more energy to space than it receives from the sun, which produces cooling.

At this point I have to stop, because I have no expertise in this area into which I have strayed. I can only use my normal and very average reasoning powers and, using the old maxim that 3 into 2 won’t go, I cannot see how, with the way of life we have all adopted, this Earth can survive in the long term.

That is only in relation to aircraft, I have barely mentioned cars and other fuel guzzling MPVs.

Can the Earth be saved from extinction? Can we, the current population of the Earth, come to the end of our days, confident that our grandchildren or succeeding generations will still exist?

Nobody, of course, knows, but there may be some hope as we turn more to the possibilities that electricity may offer. Perhaps not ‘electricity’ as we know it today which is largely generated by the burning of fossil fuels, but ‘electricity’ generated by alternatives like wind and wave power.

Wind and wave, however, will never, I think, produce sufficient power, but there is another option, one that we toyed with — in theory only — in this country about 40 years ago. That is nuclear power.

The very mention of it, however, is likely to create more controversy than I have the energy to tackle at this time, but maybe I will come back to it and face the furies at some future time.

Contact Michael at pattwellsverdict@eircom.net

More in this section

Sponsored Content