HOW often have we seen jet contrails in the sky during this Covid-19 pandemic? Airports are working at minimum capacity and the future does not look to be improving. Can climate-friendly aviation ever actually happen? That is the imponderable question!
These are a far greater impact of aircraft than carbon dioxide emissions, for they are soot filled clouds that block out outgoing thermal radiation from the Earth thus leading to the ever warming of our atmosphere.
Crux of the problem
From 2000 to 2018, the number of passengers involved in air travel more than doubled from 1.7 billion to 4.3 billion. The International Air Transport Association (Iata) reckons that by 2040 the figure will reach 8.2 million people annually over 22,000 routes in the world. In 2018, aviation released 9.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere equivalent to 2 per cent of the total of manmade emissions of 42 billion tonnes.
One method to make air travel more climate-friendly is by travelling within a country by rail, providing there is an electrified rail system which is powered by hydro, solar, tidal, wind, or nuclear electricity generation. Whilst this is practical in some countries, in larger countries such as the USA, China, Australia, and Russia this is not feasible. Another method is by offsetting. This involves paying a tariff on a plane ticket to help remove the equivalent carbon dioxide content expended on one’s journey. Some airlines already do this and use the monies collected to offset the carbon footprint by environmentally beneficial schemes such as tree planting.
Whilst electric vehicles are increasingly being produced in Western countries because of governmental plans to reduce vehicle emissions by 2035, electric driven planes are of a different magnitude and scale. Electric powered cars can accomplish hundreds of kilometres on a single charge but commercial airlines have to travel thousands of kilometres without stopping! In today’s technology, a battery capable of powering a transcontinental flight would weigh a hundred times more than its equivalent in jet fuel. However, major aircraft manufacturers such as Airbus and Boeing are investing in a hybrid electric aircraft with a launch date by 2035. A hydrogen powered plane seems to be on the near horizon and short-haul greener flights are a realistic solution. Various sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) are in the process of testing and range from alcohol to recycled mustard seeds. To date these have been blended into fuel mixes but on a relatively low scale worldwide.
With two-thirds of these jets based in North America, requiring less fuel consumption than commercial aircraft, the smaller occupancy of such aircraft suggests that they are less efficient per passenger. This makes them ten times more carbon intensive than an equivalent commercial flight.
Alternative forms of travel
Sweden has taken the initiative in travelling greener, spurred on by the youthful determination of the climate-change activist Greta Thunberg who has become the figurehead for the ‘no fly’ movement. ‘Flygskam’ or ‘flight shaming’ is the buzzword there for intranational and international travel. In 2018, some 32 million passengers chose to shun air flights in favour of trains. This is understandable when one considers how much of Sweden’s electric power is generated by hydroelectric power stations.
In the UK, the government project of HS2 (High Speed) rail connecting London to northern cities is gathering both momentum and cost and, indeed, a cost to the environment as ancient woodland is plundered to make way for a new service. Eurostar from London across Europe reckons that it has 90 per cent less carbon emissions than the equivalent budget airline flight. High speed rail may well be the solution to cutting domestic air flights.
China has shown that the development of high speed rail from Beijing to central and western China. Between 2007 and 2014 airline passenger numbers fell by 7 per cent. There, the three major national airlines Air China, China Eastern Airlines, and China Southern Airlines have recognised rail as a major competitor.
In some of the industrialising countries in Africa and Asia, a rail network is not possible because of the physical landscape and their dependence on fossil fuels for power generation.
The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Airlines strives to hold carbon emissions from international civil aviation at 2020 levels thus saving 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from 2021 to 2035, the date fixed by the Paris Agreement of nations. Many countries have volunteered to keep this pact including Malaysia, Cambodia, Australia, Canada, the USA, Mexico, the European Union states, Saudi Arabia, and 10 African countries. These will be required to offset their levels of travel. Rightly, there is a proviso in that the Least Developed Countries, Small Island Developing States, and Landlocked Developing Countries will be exempt.
Whether we pay for atmospheric pollution by an ‘add on’ to a flight ticket or take an electrified train is a matter of choice. Since the first flight 100 years ago, our world has certainly shrunk in time distance between places through intercontinental flights. With an ever-increasing world population, the number of flights will increase accordingly. Budget airlines and package deal holidays have all boosted aircraft numbers as nation is linked unto nation in the shortest time possible.
We can only rely on the technological findings of alternative aviation fuels to kerosene if we are to keep carbon dioxide emissions down in our attempts to arrest climate change. Covid-19 has taught us much about ourselves and the ways in which we use our world. Business trips involving air transport and face-to-face meetings may well be a thing of the past with video conferencing now prevalent. I remain an optimist and believe that hydrogen powered aircraft is the future of aviation but for the time being there are many thousands of planes globally grounded so hard as the Covid-19 pandemic bit into the commercial aviation sector of our economies.