It’s the weekend in New York or your kids – or is it?
It’s amazing how the ancient myths get it right. Consider the story of Icarus. He makes himself wax wings and flies too close to the sun, with the consequence he comes crashing down to earth again. This is exactly the developing story of aviation. If anything is going to bring the climate catastrophe crashing down on top of us it is aeroplanes. A typical long haul flight uses up 100 tonnes of kerosene, the equivalent for each passenger (given that avearge flights are 80% full) in greenhouse gas emissions to running an average size car fifty miles a day every day for a year or leaving on an electric fire permanently for the same twelve months. To that we have to add the nitrates that planes produce and their vapour trails, which also contribute to global warming. Currently planes are responsible for only 3% of global carbon emissions. But that is the equivalent of the whole of Germany’s annual emissions and is set to rise steeply. Aeroplane use is rising by 9% per year and at present trajectories will use up on its own by 2050 the whole of the carbon budget we can afford to burn if we are to avoid the point of no return from global disaster when and if we breach 2 degrees. No politician dares say to people ‘It’s a choice between flying or your children inheriting a world so terrible it escapes our capacity to imagine it. It’s your choice’ But that is the current situation.
Nevertheless it doesn’t have to be. One of the problems with aviation is that by definition it is not under the control of any one country and so escapes the attentions even of governments aware of its grave threat to the future of humanity. In practice it regulates itself and you can hardly expect, in so highly competitive an industry, that its main principles of operation will not be cutting cost and maximizing profit. Yet it is not an industry, either, run by greedy irrational monsters who have no concern for their or anybody else’s childrens’ welfare. But, like the banks before 2008, they are caught up in a competitive vortex from which it is extremely difficult to escape. This is why the publics’ attitude is so important. It really is your choice.
Replacing kerosene as aeroplane fuel is going to be difficult but it is by no means impossible. To start with 15% of aeroplane emissions occur on the ground while they are waiting to take off. This, with, it has to be said, yet more additional waiting time for the public, could be much reduced. There are other efficiencies that could be made as well (see “These simple airplane fixes could cut carbon emissions in half at little or no cost” PBS Newshour November 15 2015). Ethanol (which in these limited quantities could be manufactured from crops growing on marginal land not suitable for growing food or, very soon now, from artificlal bacteria) is not suitable for jet engines. But it can be used for piston engines on short haul flights. Solar-powered electric planes have already flown right round the world. The main problem with electrically powered planes is the energy, and therefore the impractically large batteries, they need for taking off. But this could be overcome by lifting them up into the air by helium balloons. From that point on a combination of solar power and gllding on air currents would enable an at least in some sense commercially viable a plane to carry enough battery powered electricity. But, again, they would only be suitable for short flights. The most promising environmentally friendly fuel for long haul is hydrogen. But that would need radical re-design of the planes and more research into the safety issues. .By far the greatest contribution, however, that could be made to solving the problem of aeroplane emissions is for the public to avoid unnecessary flying. Do you really need to fly rather than go by train? Yes the weekend in New York greatly appeals. But is it really worth putting your children’s future at such high risk? What about all those academic conferences that could be held – not quite so well of course and not nearly so much fun – by video link. Few wring their hands more over climate change than liberal academics and few contribute more to it than they by their addiction to flying. Above all, put pressure on the politicians to put pressure on the aviation industry. Join www.climateonehundred.co.uk The industry itself both wishes to survive and, knowing far more about the noxious emissions from planes than anybody else does, does not wish to destroy the planet. Nothing would put pressure on the industry to solve these soluble problems before it is too late than falling profits. As always it’s your choice. Will the public make the right choice? The outlook does not look good. You deserve and usually get what you wish for.