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Environmental concerns

Pollution caused by land travel,
air travel and food transportation

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Notes on land travel:

A substantial contribution to greenhouse gas emission comes from transport. The sector is claimed to consume nearly 60% of the world's oil and produces a quarter of all energy-related CO2 emissions. 1 However, the former value by Venkat Kumar appears too high. Oil use by transportation has almost doubled since 1973, and the related emissions are growing at about 2.5% annually. 1 According to IPCC, emissions of CO2 from all transport sectors accounted (in 1996) for about 22% of all global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel use. Note that the emitted CO2 and water vapor are directly proportional to the fuel burned - according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, every gallon of gasoline burned puts 20 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere. A number of additional specific details are known for the United States, where, unfortunately, they do not seem to lead to any positive action:

bulletOf all of the global warming pollutants that Americans release into the atmosphere, 27% come from cars, trucks, planes, and other vehicles propelled by fossil fuels. 2 Some sources give 30% for cars, trucks, trains, and planes.
bulletWith 20 miles per gallon, a car produces a pound of CO2 for each mile. With two people in the car, 0.56 pounds are released, on average, for each passenger mile. Airlines perform about the same.
bulletTrucks move about 70 tonnes of goods a mile for each gallon of diesel burned.
bulletIn the US, gasoline consumption amounts to 9 million barrels of oil each day, enough to fill more than four supertankers. 2
bulletIn the last decade, US oil use has increased by almost 2.7 million barrels a day, which is more oil than India and Pakistan use daily altogether. 3
bulletApproximately one fifteenth of all greenhouse gases (GHGs) released by humanity worldwide, originate in the US transportation system. If current trends persist, US transportation GHGs could be half again as much by 2020. 2

In the year 2000, there was in Europe enough factory capacity to make about 18 million cars a year (with only 15 million expected to be sold). The same capacity was in the US (the market was expected to shrink to less than 17 million). In the same period, US had 770 cars per 1,000 people, versus 10 in China, 30 in Egypt, and 552 in Japan. 4 Currently, the passenger car global production amounts to approximately 40 million cars per year. 5,6 As to consumption, American vehicles burn triple the oil they did in 1950, which leads to the following emission rates: 7
If we assume a properly maintained average passenger with annual car mileage of 12,500 miles, and a properly maintained average annual light truck with annual car mileage of 14,000 miles, then, with fuel consumption of 21.5 miles per gallon (mpg) for passenger cars and 17,2 mpg for light trucks:

bulletA passenger car consumes 581 gallons of gasoline, and emit 77.1 pounds of hydrocarbons, 11,450 pounds of CO2, 575 pounds of CO, and 38.2 pounds of nitrogen oxides.
bulletA light truck= consumes 813 gallons of gasoline, and emit 108 pounds of hydrocarbons, 16,035 pounds of CO2, 854 pounds of CO, and 55.8 pounds of nitrogen oxides.

Even if we were to increase vehicle fuel economy by 40%, all the gains would be wiped out within 17 years with a modest 2% annual growth in vehicle miles traveled. 8

It is particularly worrying that, in the US, high-horsepower automobiles and SUVs (Sport Utility Vehicles) will continue to be manufactured, although they have far worse economy than other vehicles. In the US, the SUVs now account for one in four new vehicles sold, and sales continue to climb. Surprisingly, in India sales of the fuel-guzzling SUVs account for 10% of all vehicle purchases, and could soon overtake car sales.

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Notes on air travel:

As to air travel, international travel has never been easier. In 2002, nearly 700 million trips are made abroad. 9 The demand for air travel has increased three-fold between 1980 and 2000, and is set to double by 2020. The expansion raises growing concerns due to its impact on the environment - air transport is one of the world's fastest growing sources of greenhouse gases. 10 The airlines industry consumes about 205 million tones of aviation fuel (kerosene) each year, which, according to IPCC, represents 3.5% of man's contribution to global warming from fossil fuel use. 11 The IPCC figure is expected to grow to between 5 and 6% in 50 year's time. In addition, the climate impact of flying is increased by a factor of at least 2.5 (compared to the combustion of jet fuel alone) by emission of nitrous oxides and other pollutants at high altitudes. There will be efficiency improvements, but so far the growth in air travel has been outpacing all fuel efficiency gains. In 2000, there were around 900 airlines operating 11,600 commercial aircraft, transporting 1.4 billion passengers and 30 million tones of freight. 12 Dominant were large passenger and freight carriers; the total economic impact was estimated to be in the range of $1,300 billion (3.5% of the world's GDP!). 12  Expected is an average annual traffic growth of 5% with freight traffic being one of the main growth factors. Overweight Americans contribute to the problem. They cause airlines to burn more fuel and raise air ticket prices. Extra weight adds up to $275 million each year in extra fuel cost! 13

Air transport is essential for world business and tourism. Over the last 25 years, the number of international tourists has more then doubled. In 2002, 715 million international tourist receipts were accounted for. 14 Even more important is trade. Unfortunately, it is to be regretted that in many instances both in tourism and trade the policy is dictated not by the common good but by excessive demands on profit and on satisfaction of narrow personal preferences. Typically, both the World Trade Organization and the World Bank - the two premier institutions that promote global trade - have been silent about the links between trade, transportation, and climate. This applies particularly to trade which appears to be contributing to the carbon dioxide emissions for purely financial gains.

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Notes on food transport:

The price of food is disguising externalized cost - damage to the environment, damage to climate, damage to infrastructure, and the cost of transport. The environmental cost of food transport is given as US 3.8 billion dollars a year 15, and it is claimed that it in-creased by 12% in the period between 1992 and 2002. Among the factors that drove the increase was the rise in global trade, concentration of power in the hands of the supermarkets with centralized systems of distribution, greater car use for shopping, and a rise in packaging and processing.

The trend toward eating food from farther and farther away is becoming wide-spread. While much of food goes by sea, air-freighted food - such as chickens from Brazil and Thailand, mainly for use in processed food - makes a major contribution to global warming. It has an extremely high carbon dioxide emission per tonne, and is the fastest growing mode of transport. On top of it, some of the food transport by air simply makes no sense: Why should spring onions from Mexico be sold in an Irish supermarket, or why should iceberg lettuce from Los Angeles be flown to London? In the latter case, Sustain, a U.K. based food and farming alliance, has shown that the lettuce requires 127 calories of fuel for every food calorie. 16

Quantitative data on food transport are known in detail for Britain. 28% of all freight on the roads of Britain is food or agricultural produce: 1.6 billion tones are carried 148 tonne-kilometres. 23% more food than 20 years ago is on the road, and due to centralized storage it is traveling 65% further. Carbon dioxide emitted by food transport in 2002 amounted to 19 million tones. 17 The average distance we now drive to shop for food each year is 898 miles, compared with 747 miles a decade ago. 17 If all of the U.K. food came from within 20 km of where we live, we could save 2.1 billion a year in environmental and congestion costs. 15

According to Brian Halweil from the World Watch Institute, a meal of meat, grain, fruit, and vegetables accounts for 4 to 17 times as much petroleum if it comes from afar than if a consumer buys the ingredients locally. The fuel burned to transport and refrigerate the food contributes to global warming. As to food coming from abroad, about 12.2 millions tones are imported into Britain, and 7.4 million tonnes are exported. 15 Countries often swap food instead of importing critical items that cannot be produced locally. In this, U.K. is no exception: In 1998 Britain imported 61,000 tonnes of poultry meat from the Netherlands, and also exported 33.100 tonnes of poultry meat to the Netherlands.18 Also, Britain exports approximately 400,000 tonnes of milk each year, but imports a similar amount from abroad.
There are surprisingly few data on food transport in the US on the Internet. What is available mostly concerns earth-bound transport.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Venkat Kumar, "Global Trade - Global Warming," at: http://www.commondreams.org/
  2. Mazza Patrick, "Transportation and Global Warming Solutions," 2004-MAY, at:
    http://www.climatesolutions.org
  3. Kirby Alex, "Energy: Meeting Soaring Demands," BBC News, 2004-NOV-09.
  4. Sandronsky Seth, "Excess Capacity in the Car Industry: The Capitalist Crisis Continues," at: http://archives.econ.utah.edu/
  5. Bessem Frank, "Global Car Production, Statistics Pages," 2002-MAR, at: http://www.geocities.com/
  6. "NationMaster.com: Stats > Industry > Car production," at: http://www.nationmaster.com/
  7. "U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Average Annual Emissions and Fuel Consumption for Passenger Cars and Light Trucks," at: http://www.epa.gov/
  8. Berry Thomas & Thomas Clarke, "Befriending the Earth," Twenty-Third Publications, (1992).
  9. McDonagh Sean, "To Care for the Earth," Geoffrey Chapman, (1989).
  10. "Disposable Planet - Tourism," BBC News, (2002) at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/
  11. Rochat Philippe, "Air Transport - a Global Approach to Sustainability," at: http://www.airport-int.com/
  12. Rodrigue Jean-Paul, "Air Transport," at: http://people.hofstra.edu/
  13. "Overweight Americans Cause Airlines to Burn More Fuel and raise Air Ticket Prices," at: http://www.newstarget.com/
  14. Rodrigue Jean Paul, "International Tourism and Transport," at: http://people.hofstra.edu/
  15. Connor Steve, "Buy local produce and save the world," at: http://www.organicconsumers.org/
  16. Venkat Kumar, "Global Trade - Global Warming," at:  http://www.commondreams.org/
  17. Felicity Lawrence, "Food study reveals hidden 9bn costs of transport," The Guardian, July 15, 2005.
  18. "Tricks of the Trade," New Internationalist," 2003-JAN/FEB, at: http://www.newint.org/

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Copyright 2006 by Vladimir Tomek
Originally posted: 2006-JUN-25
Latest update: 2007-APR-18
Author: Vladimir Tomek

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