|Currently the only commercial airship in operation, but this could change as the world seeks alternatives to the high emission flights|
If you’re wondering why this post has taken so long, it’s because there isn’t a lot of good news as far as long -distance flights go. Still, although cheap flights may not be on the horizon, there are some emerging possibilities re zero or low emission air travel. I have taken most of the following from the Transport and Environment website – the EU’s combined environment group, because the EU has been doing the most with respect to reducing aviation emissions and has also done a lot of research. Links to other sources as indicated.
In 2012, the EU mandated that all flights travelling in or out of Europe would now be subject to emissions tariffs. However, protest from the International Airline industry meant that they were only applied to domestic routes. This is well and good as domestic travellers in the EU have many low emission alternatives – trains, electric buses and even ferries, but this is less so for more far - flung regions. Nevertheless, although long distance flights represent only 6% of air traffic in the EU, they generate around 51% of the CO2 emissions, as well as particulates and other pollutants which have health effects and can also influence our weather. Aviation generally is also the fastest growing source of emissions. If growth of the industry continues along the trajectory before the pandemic, they are expected to reach 22% of global emissions by 2050 unless urgent action is taken now because of the high cost of Research and Development and the long lead time involved.
The Mission Possible Partnership for Aviation which involves collaboration with the World Economic Forum, industry, government leaders and NGOs, has already outlined a plan for decarbonisation of the sector by 2050. In the short term, this involves greater use of Sustainable Aviation fuels by 2030, with hydrogen supplying 25% of energy demand by 2050. Unfortunately, this would require an additional 10,000 Twh of renewable energy to be available along with improved technology – not yet highly successful, for carbon capture from the atmosphere or from existing industries. We'll talk a bit more about the major alternatives to jet fuel for long distance flights below, though other options involving hydrogen fuel cell technology or various types of hybrids are also in play.
SAFs (Sustainable Aviation Fuels)
SAFs are primarily derived from organic matter, but need to be converted using renewable energy to be emission free. They also need to come from feedstock which doesn’t require additional agricultural land or deforestation. In other words they must be generated from genuine waste such as used cooking oils, crop and timber residue or domestic waste. Since January 2022, all KLM flights out of Schiphol Airport will be using .5% genuinely sustainable biofuel and Air France will be using 1% and adding a surcharge of € 1 – 12 (depending on class and distance) to encourage other EU countries to adopt more ambitious targets, but for now they remain voluntary until 2027 and won’t be reviewed until 2024.
Getting enough material for large scale use remains the biggest problem, along with being able to verify that the sources are genuinely sustainable. Other potential sources include biofuels made from algae and from Salicornia plants, a salt tolerant desert plant being trialled in the Middle East, but both are still in the experimental stage. The latter has the advantage that growing it can be combined with fish farming. After three years of research, Etihad Airways was able to fly a passenger plane – a Boeing 787 -9, from Abu Dubai to Amsterdam using the new fuel on January 15, 2019.
The great hope of the airline industry is e- kerosene - a synthetic fuel made from hydrogen and combined with CO2 from the atmosphere and which leaves only water vapour behind. Once again it requires a great deal of renewable energy to split hydrogen molecules from water molecules and capturing CO2 from the atmosphere is not easy. Even capturing CO2 from fossil fuel industry sources results in only 0.1% capture and could lead those industries to continue polluting to ensure an adequate supply and thus defeating the purpose of decarbonising.
Even when successfully achieved, the resulting fuel costs 3-4 times what fossil fuels do and it necessitates both wholesale changes of infrastructure and aeroplane design. With airlines already in dire straits due to the pandemic, the industry is calling on governments to help fund both research and infrastructure and to encourage uptake by introducing mandates and adding higher tariffs on fossil fuels to make e-kerosene more competitive. Here’s a longer video about it.
The return of the Zeppelin?
if I had my way, we’d all be flying in airships – so graceful, quiet and emission – free. The Zeppelin company already has one in service (shown above) at Lake Constance on the Swiss -German border.
The UK has its 100-seater helium -powered hybrid Airlander which is expected to go into service by 2025. Proposed intercity routes include Liverpool to Belfast, Seattle to Vancouver, Barcelona to Palma and Oslo to Stockholm, while creating 90% less CO2.
French company Dirisolar expects the first of its rigid airships to go into operation by 2023.NASA and others are also experimenting.
However, as usual there are a few downsides which means there won’t be too many of them around for a while. The first is the lack of adequate green hydrogen (from renewable electricity) to make helium to power them. The second is they are much more limited by the weather than planes. A strong wind or storm can delay them or send them off course. While this makes them less desirable as passenger transport they are likely to play a role in the transport of heavy cargo as they can do so at almost zero cost. They can also hover for long periods and can land almost anywhere with minimal need for infrastructure. Expect to see more use in tourism too where time may not be such a critical factor. Swedish Company Ocean Sky has already ordered an Airlander for cruising over the North Pole.
The good news is that as with other fields which we've looked at, the need to reduce emissions has brought a whole burst of creativity and innovation to the air travel sector as well. Even Jetson -style flying cars and jetpacks are being revisited. Big names like Toyota, Boeing, Rolls Royce and Airbus are getting behind projects like flying taxis so who knows what may happen in future. I live in hope.
Next up: What's happening with Plastics?