AIRPLANES: SUVs of the sky?

Posted in News Last updated on: Monday, 11 July 2016

AIRPLANES: SUVs of the sky?

We didn't used to know that flying's environmental downsides are so huge--but now we do. Will flying eventually become like driving a Hummer, a mode reserved for the unevolved? Just how bad is it? What fixes are in sight?

How big is the problem?  Take all the West's greenhouse gas emissions--from industry, power plants, cars, agriculture, etc--and flying's portion works out to 10 percent. That's a startlingly high number. It got so big in part because planes release their CO2, water vapor, soot, and nitrous oxide into the upper atmosphere, which multiplies their ill effects. The average American generates 19 tons of carbon per year, but a single coast-to-coast round trip weighs in at 2-3 tons. What's to be done?

We could simply fly less.  Air travel is a textbook case of a luxury becoming a necessity. Cheap prices back in the 1960s and 1970s got people accustomed to traveling much farther than they used to at a fraction of the time required by other modes.  This is still going on: air travel is increasing worldwide, outstripping what gains have been made in fuel efficiency. Convenience is a highly addictive drug, but the fact is that we need to fly far less than we do.  To make this happen might require something like the rationing system used in World War II for gasoline.  Do you see Congress getting behind this?

We could raise the price of flying. If the full climate costs were figured into plane tickets it would be much easier to resist, the same way it's easy to resist taking a private limo to work. The European Union is moving in that direction by classing airlines with other major carbon polluters who are required to be part of the EU cap-and-trade program. This will require airlines to pay fees for all flights leaving from or landing at EU airports, something that so outraged U.S. politicians that they passed a law prohibiting our compliance. China and India balked as well, causing the program's postponement for the time being.

We could make flying less polluting. Unfortunately, powering plane flights with biofuels would take huge amounts of land to grow the fuel and would involve biofuels' own large greenhouse gas footprint. Electric engines? Not enough oomph to get planes into the air. This leaves us with kerosene-based fuels for the present. A lot of those get burned while planes taxi and wait at gates, something not seen as a problem until recently. Two solutions are in the pipeline--an electric motor and a robotic tug. You'll know one of them is in place when your plane's engines don't start until it's about to take off.

Could solar airplanes someday rule the skies? The plane shown flying over the Golden Gate Bridge--Bertrand Piccard's Solar Impulse--has the wingspread of an airbus but the weight of a car. It flew across the United States in stages in 2013. Impractical? That remains to be seen. Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis could carry only him; 20 years later there was regular trans-Atlantic service with planes carrying 200 passengers. Piccard comes from a family of explorers. Check out his rousing TED talk on the necessity of challenging limits.



Could planes be powered by batteries, thus slashing their greenhouse gas emissions?  See this article for the latest.

Bringing less weight on a plane saves fuel.  So does avoiding planes that have First Class. See this for more on making air travel slightly greener.

Bertrand Piccard's solar airplane is in the midst of a round-the-world trip and recently crossed the country to land in New York.  More here.