The Seductive Vision Of Green Aviation

7 Jul, 2023

Safe Landing feature in this masterfully written piece by Henry Wismayer for Noema Magazine:

Some excerpts:

I spoke to Finlay Asher of the advocacy organization Safe Landing. An engineer, Asher previously worked at Rolls-Royce, the world’s third-largest aircraft engine manufacturer. The prototype engines he worked on — with lightweight carbon-fiber fans and smaller compressors — made small gains in power-to-weight ratios that would equate to marginal emissions reductions. But over time, Asher became concerned about the dissonance between the aviation industry’s environmental PR and its determined pursuit of scale. If these new jet engines required 10 to 15 years of exhaustive R&D and certification, the idea that transformative new technologies could come online and scale in time to fulfill net-zero pledges by 2050 seemed fanciful.

This calculus wasn’t being reflected by a sense of urgency within the industry. In 2019, Greta Thunberg captured headlines by sailing across the Atlantic to attend a climate summit in New York, and the Swedish concept of flygskam, or “flight shame,” gained traction. In response, Rolls-Royce’s sustainability team circulated charts illustrating the way its engines had grown more efficient over time. Asher asked to see data that showed the total fuel being burned in the growing number of engines being brought to market, but was met with silence. When he did the calculations himself, it was a diagonal line shooting ever upward.

That same year, at the Paris Airshow, chief technology officers from a group of aerospace giants issued a joint statement emphasizing the indispensability of their businesses, while reassuring the public that the net-zero transition was well underway. Asher found himself disagreeing with every word.

“It felt like sleight of hand,” he told me. “The industry is going: ‘Look at these shiny electric aircraft over here.’ Meanwhile, we’re continuing to massively expand the number of aircraft powered by jet fuel.”

After founding Safe Landing alongside a group of fellow industry malcontents, Asher sought to voice a litany of reservations about nascent eco-friendly flight technologies: SAFs are unscalable, hydrogen is decades away, batteries will never develop enough energy intensity to cope with long-haul. The insuperable enemy is time.

But he’s also keen to emphasize a more holistic point: that in a global race to decarbonize all energy consumption, throwing huge quantities of renewable energy into a utility as uniquely wasteful as aviation is counterproductive. Based on current technology, for example, an e-fuel derived from renewables ends up converting just 10% of the energy used in its production and combustion into actual thrust. That same energy put into the grid uses 100%.

Neither do the more optimistic projections account for the fact that the efficacy of any new energy source depends on the sustainability of the wider lifecycle. If the power used to liquefy hydrogen or charge lithium-ion batteries comes from an unsustainable source, or if hectares of rainforest are denuded to mine a battery’s constituent materials, any ecological gains will be negated.

“In a global race to decarbonize all energy consumption, throwing huge quantities of renewable energy into a utility as uniquely wasteful as aviation is counterproductive.”

Thinking about aviation in this way exposes the hidden drawbacks of so much of what is going on in the innovation space. In Greensboro, North Carolina, Boom Supersonic is in the process of developing a needlepoint supersonic plane that will cut flight times in half. Designed to be run on e-fuels, it is being marketed as a flagship of carbon-neutral flight. But the amount of energy it consumes will be five times that deployed on an ordinary jet airliner flying the same route. While major aerospace corporations extol their investment in green technologies, private jet sales are through the roof.

Aboulafia worries that the industry is indulging in “the triumph of appearance over reality.” As he told me: “It’s out of sight, out of mind. You don’t see the massive petrochemical facilities that have to make the stuff we’re talking about. You just see this sleek, cool thing.”

What’s required above all else, according to Asher, is to put a price on emissions. At present, subsidies and tax exemptions make flying “artificially cheap,” he told me. Adding an emissions surcharge to the price of airfare and directing that money toward abatement strategies like offsets, direct-air capture or sustainable innovation is the only way to mend the cleavage between the ecological ramifications of flying and the marketplace.

Such proposals tend to raise egalitarian hackles. For Western governments to slap a tariff on flying just as millions of people in less economically developed nations might be interested in trying such a luxury for the first time is a hard, hypocritical sell. Only 20% of people around the world have ever been on a plane. And the majority of flight tickets are purchased by a sliver of frequent flyers, around 1% of the global population. A recent study published by the International Council on Clean Transportation found that a progressively distributed “frequent flyer levy,” in which a tariff increases in proportion to the number of times a person flies in a given year, would raise 98% of its revenue from the richest 20% around the world. The introduction of such a levy would invert the current perverse paradigm, which sees the most prodigious polluters rewarded through air miles and “frequent flyer” programs.

“We don’t need technology, we need policy,” Asher said. “Get the policy right and the technological solutions will follow. It’s inevitable that the cost of flying is going to increase. The questions are: Do you want to drive over a cliff edge, or do you plan for it now? Is it going to be early design or late disaster?”

The unpalatable truth is that any objective appraisal of green aviation’s potential remains clouded by denial. If enthusiasm for new technologies is deceptive, it is a masquerade in which much of the flying public is all too happy to collude. We are all Icarus now, mesmerized by our wings, soaring too close to the sun.

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