How Close Are We To Zero-Emission Air Travel?

With the extinction rebellion movement attracting a lot of media attention, as a global logistics company, we have a pretty big carbon footprint. We do as much as we can to offset this but we started wondering; how close are we to completely emission-free air travel?

Even with emission reductions from automobiles, more fuel-efficient and less polluting turbofan and turboprop engines, the rapid growth of air travel in the past years contributes to an increase in total pollution attributable to aviation. Comprehensive research shows that despite anticipated efficiency innovations to airframes, engines, aerodynamics and flight operations, there is no end in sight, even many decades out, to rapid growth in CO2 emissions from air travel and air freight, due to projected continual growth in air travel.

Not the most encouraging news then…

Finding ways to decarbonise air travel is imperative if aviation is going to make a significant impact in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. With electric, hydrogen and hybrid plane development gaining the most investment globally, any of these concepts would decrease (or ideally, remove) aviation’s reliance on kerosene, the fuel currently used by the airline industry. There is also a great deal of work being done around ‘electrofuels’, also known as synthetic fuels. And the good news is… the race has already begun!

Popular European airline, EasyJet, are working with LA based start-up, Wright Electric, aiming to operate electric planes on some of its short haul routes of 500km or less (which could include routes such as London to Amsterdam), by 2030. In addition to this, Norway has made a commitment to flying electric planes for all of its short haul routes by 2040. In summer 2018, the country’s Transport Minister tested a two-seat electric aircraft called ALPHA Electro. It was made by the Slovenian company Pipistrel. The Israeli start-up, Eviation is also working towards a battery electric plane, dubbed Alice, utilising Siemens’ high-power electric motors. It aims to target the regional North American market and hopes to fly routes of up to 1,050km.

This is positive progress and certainly worth celebrating! Additional funding and development encouraged, and will undoubtedly bring with it significant advancements in the 2020s. However, we also need to be realistic about the range of these aircraft, as well as their carrying capacity in the short term – so it may be a while before London to Sydney is a decarbonised flight!

Based on that, it’s evident that technology in current development is aimed at regional or domestic routes. In the UK, these account for a very small percentage of aviation emissions and drastically limit its relevance to the freight industry, with long haul flights making up the majority of UK aviation emissions, at approximately 72 percent.

So in conclusion; you could be flying in a decarbonised plane relatively soon but it’s going to be a while before you’re flying anywhere warm!

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