The Future of Flight
How cleaner airlines can win back passengers.
Tom Rivett-Carnac has spent 20 years working at the intersections of international diplomacy, energy policy and climate change in business, non profit, financial services and international institutions.
17 December 2020
This article is the first in an investigative series on The Future of Transport. I've been exploring this topic with Christiana Figueres and Paul Dickinson, my co-podcasters on Outrage + Optimism. We're pretty outraged that the transportation sector has been so slow to cut its carbon emissions, during pre-pandemic times, when profits were sky high. So now that tough economic conditions and a focus on sustainability seems to be on the rise, we went out to find out where the disruptive opportunities are and what kinds of stubbornly optimistic solutions might be just around the corner.
Transporting humans across land and seas, exploring our planet, is a yearning from which few are immune. Airplanes and the ability to fly long distances captured imaginations in the last century, perhaps more than any other form of transport. From the Wright Brothers first flight in 1903 a few pioneers gave lift off to a massive global industry that is, 120 years later, worth nearly $250 billion. Until now.
The transportation sector of the global economy is built on technologies that were invented more than a century ago, fuelled by hydrocarbons that are literally, choking the earth – and we humans. As Val Miftakhov, CEO of ZeroAvia, points out, “The elevated levels of particulate emissions within 10 miles of the major airports and the particulate emissions from jet engines are largely unregulated.” It is in fact, this particulate matter from burning fossil fuels that is both fuelling climate change and causing the air we breathe to be so toxic; it results in 7 million deaths a year.
The cars, planes, trains and ships that transport us and our goods around the world together account for nearly 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with aviation alone responsible for 2-3% of carbon pollution. So where is the pioneering spirit that can get the future of flight to take off?
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit aviation more than almost any other sector. Passenger numbers are down by 70%, revenues have been slashed by 80% or more and hundreds of thousands of job losses will devastate families. To see whether aviation can find its way into the 21st century, we talked to the experts and entrepreneurs who see the opportunity in low and zero carbon flight as their next great adventure – exactly the spirit we hoped to find.
The short-term solution to resuming flight is sustainably fuelled
In the near term, shovel ready sustainable fuels that can be used with existing airline fleets could provide the welcome reprieve to cash-strapped airlines that can’t retire and replace planes immediately. According to Peter Vanacker, CEO of Neste, “The sky is the limit. As the population grows, waste grows. We just need the guts to develop the chemistry around it to make something valuable.”
Fuels from waste overcome the controversy of irresponsible land use resulting from crops grown for biofuels, instead of for food. Solar Impulse founder, Bertrand Piccard is a fan of this option in the short term. He tells us, “There is no future for biofuels that are made from harvests. But if you make your biofuel from waste or a step further from capturing CO2 in the atmosphere and combining it with hydrogen then you can have synthetic kerosene that would allow the airplanes to fly.”
Whilst grounded for work and leisure, we’ve shown that humans can make radical changes quite quickly. Many are asking whether demand to transport people to boardrooms, beaches and big cities in faraway places will resume. The most profitable flyers, business travellers, are not likely to return in droves, or certainly less regularly, as their corporate employers seek to deliver their own climate goals. Jonathon Porritt, author of Hope In Hell: A Decade to Confront the Climate Emergency, told us “there are many people who now believe airlines will never get back to pre-COVID-19 growth rates, which were anticipated to be between seven and eight percent per annum, pretty much indefinitely into the future, which would have made aviation one of the biggest contributory sectors to the problem of accelerating climate change.”
By 2030 zero emissions flight can be commonplace
Emerging technologies abound, but an industry stuck in its ways will need to embrace them at scale for passengers to come back to flying. According to Val Miftakhov, ZeroAvia is working toward a 250-mile zero emissions flight before the end of 2020 – the equivalent distance of a flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles. He says that “From the technical perspective it will be possible to fly zero emission in 2030 on a single aisle jet but we need to see a speedy adoption of those technologies by the aviation industry and part of that will require the incentives from the government and some of the self-organisation by the industry to push for it.”
Our power as the flying public will be catalytic in part, but we need the choice to take flights in new, cleaner aircraft, and we need airlines to tell us what kinds of fuels and technologies we can expect when we fly with them. This obligation rests on a combination of government policies and incentives and the commitment of airline owners and their shareholders to commit to the transition. The UK and EU governments have attached so-called ‘green strings’ to some corporate bailout measures, but globally these are not applied either consistently, or with an eye to transformation of a sector, or job creation. There is much more work to be done in this regard.
Our intention in running this series on The Future of Transport on Outrage + Optimism is to showcase what is possible, but also to galvanise many more individuals and companies to step up to the transformation of a sector that is ludicrously still plugging away at incremental shifts. If we are to halve global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and live up to the promise of the Paris Agreement, signed by 195 sovereign governments, then we need to supercharge the kind of disruptive innovations we saw in those early days of aviation. We have the privilege to be the first generation with the technologies to rapidly develop a low carbon economy and the responsibility to do it now.