Hundreds of climate change activists chose to fly to the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Madrid. Think about it: almost every activist and speaker arrived via air transport, and only very few hardcore activists chose some form of “environmentally-friendly” transportation. Of course, young Greta Thumberg, is the best-known example, sailing across the Atlantic Ocean thanks to help from a millionaire couple.
Airplanes require a high energy-to-weight ratio fuel, and with cleaner sources of energy, that ratio is too low.
Reality then, attests to the power of air transport. No, air transport is not 100% clean, but it’s safe, fast, comfortable, reliable and affordable. And the UN’s 2019 meeting in Madrid proved that the flight-shame movement has its limits, even for its most obstinate enthusiasts. As it is, the modern world does not have – even with existing technology – a viable alternative to flying for medium to long distances – in other words: more than 500 km.
Let’s face it; the bottom line of the emissions problem is that millions of exhaust pipes and chimneys around the world keep dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as if the atmosphere was some sort of gigantic dumping yard where everything fits. This is very similar to what the chemical industry used to do many years ago, dumping their waste into the rivers and the lakes unchecked. This is not the case any longer. The problem was solved by replacing dirty technologies with clean ones, or by making sure that the waste was treated first, and only clean water was dumped into streams.
We must follow a similar strategy when dealing with CO2 emissions, at least for the stationary sources that account for 78% of global emissions. As we have seen, we have two options: the first one would be to eliminate all dirty technologies and replace them with clean ones; for example, it is insane to think that we are still subsidizing coal mining and running coal powerplants to generate electricity. The second option would be to implement carbon sequestration and storage technologies (CSST) in large stationary facilities, like thermoelectric power plants or factories.
Unfortunately, none of these options are suitable for air transport. This is the case since airplanes must be as light as possible. There is no way around it. Airplanes require a high energy-to-weight ratio fuel, and with cleaner sources of energy, that ratio is too low. As a result, they are not viable for commercial aircraft, and neither is CSST (as it is only valid for large stationary facilities).
Air transport industry must find alternative ways to improve its environmental footprint. Our focus on efficiency is not working. Historical data prove that the efforts made by the industry by becoming more efficient are backfiring. Efficiency reduces costs, and these cost savings are transferred to the passengers by the way of cheaper air tickets. As the prices go down, the demand for more air travel increases, and since air travel is highly elastic in the supply-and-demand economic model, all gains obtained by the efficiency are eroded by the net growth in air travel. As a result, net CO2 emissions are, despite efficiency improvements, growing and expected to grow until 2050.
Therefore, no matter how loudly the industry claims it is doing its job, the public is not going to buy it. They are not dumb.
We should not forget that air transport represents less than 3% of all human-induced CO2 emissions, and 80% of these emissions come from flights of over 1,500 kilometers. Air transport is the backbone of international business and tourism. Since there is not a practical alternative to air transport – and the world won’t go back to Columbus-era sailboats – the only way out of this madness, at least in the short-term, is for the air transport industry to focus on developing environmentally and economically feasible biofuels. And do it now.
We must act now, because if we don’t, somebody will. As it is, there are already three threats to the industry looming in the horizon:
- New taxes to air travel
- Banning commercial flights for short routes and promoting railroad transport
- Imposing quotas
We should not make mistakes. If we don’t take this threat seriously, the industry will pay for it… and pay dearly.