This week in I300, our research assignment asked students to find a few examples of existing or currently imagined ways in which (1) digital technologies are implicated in promoting sustainable or unsustainable behaviors, or (2) opportunities for the use or elimination of digital technologies help promote more sustainable behaviors. In contrasting these examples, students were required to make sure at least one was connected to digital technologies in some way.
Carbon dioxide is not a bad thing. To the plants using it for photosynthesis, it’s a great thing. Too much of anything can be toxic, however. The earth had to work a long time before the planet achieved a balance necessary to sustain life:
[T]he present amount of carbon dioxide taken out of the atmosphere every year by plants is almost perfectly balanced by amount of carbon dioxide put back into the atmosphere by respiration and decay. The carbon dioxide produced in this manner is part of a cycle in which new carbon does not enter the system, but rather it keeps changing in form.
source: “CO2 Pollution and Global Warming” by Barbalace, R.C. (2006)
In addition to decay, deforestation not only releases some carbon dioxide but it takes away some of the planet’s ability to remove it from the atmosphere. Warming oceans also contribute, releasing trapped carbon as their temperatures rise. The biggest hit, though, is the burning of fossil fuels, releasing all at once what would have taken millions of years to add to the ecosystem. This is largely what has accounted for the dramatic increase from 280 to 380 parts per million by volume between 1800 and 2005.
Of all the ways we burn fossil fuels, air travel is the worst. Internationally, it accounts for up to 5 percent of carbon dioxide emissions that are released. To help our planet remain or regain its life-supporting balance, addressing the problems of flying modern aircraft is the first, best target.
George Monbiot’s book, Heat, claims that to meet (British) environmental targets for 2050, almost all flying will have to stop. That’s how bad air travel is for the environment. Climate groups have calculated that, in a sustainable world, each person can contribute no more than four tons of carbon emissions each year. One long flight uses almost all of that allowance.
The quickest way to slow down carbon imbalance is to stop flying. For many businesses, it isn’t practical, but it is possible to look for more ways to leverage computer-mediated communication to collaborate. Skype is just one of the tools that would allow for face time (through video chat) and file sharing between two people at remote locations. Finding more and better ways to work together over great distances is a big area of interest for HCI designers.
The inevitability of air travel is underscored by the fact that passenger demand has continued to increase dramatically, despite the threat of terrorism and economic downturns. There are many changes airlines can make to improve fuel efficiency—including wing design, supplemental jet fuel, in-flight refueling, formation flights to reduce drag, and artificial intelligence to optimize flight performance.
In 2010, André Borschberg piloted a solar plane—Solar Impulse—for more than 26 hours, throughout the entire night. Solar power, harnessed through large paneled wings on light aircraft, is a young but promising path of innovation toward reduction of reliance on fossil fuels. Imagine commercial planes powered by the sun, providing all of the advantages of long-distance travel with none of the costly carbon emissions.
Until a variety of technologies exist to allow one to comparison shop based on carbon footprint, travelers don’t have many options for avoiding fossil fuels at the airport. Acknowledging the fact that our tech cannot yet support the increasing need for air travel, several organizations now offer registries to allow people to pay in advance for the carbon they will add to the environment by flying.
With carbon offsets, organizations can offer ways to financially support projects that reduce as much greenhouse gas emission as an air traveler would add to the atmosphere. These credit bundles allow the traveler to alleviate the guilt of flying by simultaneously supporting something that directly contributes to restoring some balance in the ecosystem. Recognized carbon offset companies that can be trusted include: The Gold Standard, The Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS), Green-e, and the International Carbon Reduction and Offset Alliance.
There are questions about how effective such programs are. Some believe the guilt relief leads to more flying, compounded by offsets that do not reduce carbon emissions enough.
Students in my HCI Design class this semester at the School of Informatics & Computing HCI program are being asked to work up weekly components (research or a grounded concept) to gain experience in making and communicating good design choices. I’m going through the process with them, devoting the minimal amount of time (2-3 hours) that I expect of them each week.Tags: airplanes, assignment, carbon offset, design, futuring, HCI, research, Skype, solar plane, sustainability, telecommuting