As the global village tightens, the frequency of our air travel spikes. For many millennials, London, Paris, New York, Tel Aviv, and Sydney have morphed into an extension of one another. With cheap flights increasingly available, what’s to stop us from engaging in constant air travel?
Unfortunately, our flying extravaganza is exacerbating the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere at a terrifying rate. Situated at altitudes sufficient to shove its plumes of burned fuel right into the atmosphere, airplane transportation currently accounts for nearly 3 percent of all global emissions annually. Doesn’t sound too crazy? Well, according to the EU, the share of international aviation in the global emissions pie will rise to 22 percent by 2050 if we keep thinking that hopping to Berlin for a night at Berghain or spending that extra weekend in Greece bears no consequence on the environment.
Extensive research has taken place in order to figure out a way to replace fuel-burning airplanes with eco-friendly electric ones. Among those who are dead serious about developing a greener alternative to our polluting planes is Airbus, who at the 2018 Farnborough Airshow flaunted its E-Fan X initiative, also referred to as “the next step in Airbus’ electrification journey.” The project, which is done in collaboration with Siemens and Rolls-Royce, seeks to develop a flight demonstrator testing a 2MW hybrid-electric propulsion system. On its website, Airbus declare that the company believes “electric and hybrid-electric propulsion will help the aviation industry meet the goals set out in the Flightpath 2050 Vision for Aviation, which aims to significantly reduce CO2 emissions and noise levels.” The U.K. government has thrown its support behind the project, pledging to allocate to it a portion of the £255 million it plans to invest in eco-friendly aviation technologies.
The ever controversial Elon Musk has also toyed with the idea of developing an electric aircraft, one that would be “capable of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) and supersonic flight at high altitudes.” In a fun-sponge move, though, Musk conceded that this is not a top priority for him, as he wishes to spend his effort on further developing electric cars, solar energy, and stationary storage of energy (not bad news for the environment, but a buzz-kill nonetheless for those of us eager to maintain our travelling habits with a clear conscience).
An interesting and promising development, however, emerged from an MIT lab where researchers have managed to fly a silent ‘ion drive’ powered by charged air. Throughout the demonstration, the scientists have utilised high powered electrodes in order to ionise and accelerate air particles and forge what they refer to as an ‘ionic wind’. This ionic wind enabled them to fly a five-meter wide device across a 66-yard sports hall. According to the researchers, “unlike the ion drives which have powered spacecraft for decades, this new drive uses air as its accelerant.”
While the MIT team certainly reached a breakthrough, their discovery is far from constituting a guarantee that electric passenger aircrafts will fill the sky anytime soon. The greatest challenge for all green aircraft manufacturers remains battery technology. Presently, no available battery is even close to providing the weight-to-power ratio required to fly an airplane full of people across the sky and against the gravity of the planet. The gulf between us and the coveted battery technology only widens now due to rivalries between corporations trying to guard their ‘secret’ electric aviation technologies and scientists at universities who perform their experiments in a more open environment. The lack of cooperation between the two thus significantly delays any progress in the field.
Some researchers are hopeful, though, indicating that development in the electric car industry will ultimately lead to the creation of a battery capable of flying an aircraft across the ocean. “All things start to converge at some point. Autonomous vehicle technology, electric vehicles, drone development, and electric aviation will all enable each other, and may be pushing these technologies along faster than anybody realizes,” says Don Hillebrand, director of the Argonne’s Center for Transportation Research, in an interview for Wired.
All factors considered, electric aircrafts still remain an asset of the future, as scientists predict no significant breakthrough in this sphere can be expected to occur before 2045 (by which point we will have passed the 12-year deadline to seriously get our act together and significantly reduce CO2 emissions). And so, in the meantime, let us reconsider our travelling habits and contemplate whether we can cut back on a few excursions abroad in the coming years.
“I feel so guilty.”
I’m on a video call with a friend, let’s call him Sid, who works as cabin crew for a major airline. He’s generation Z and has a plant-based diet. He tells me he tried to eat scallops the other night when he landed late in France. He couldn’t do it, felt too bad. Instead, he picked at the carrot puree underneath and forgot about the seafood. Sid feels bad about consuming animal products, and about contributing to food waste, but he feels worse about his carbon-intensive job. It’s an inescapable web of shame.
“I do feel guilty that flying is just doing so much damage. I always think, when we’re coming into land and we have to wait for half an hour while we loop around a holding pattern…how much fuel is this burning?”
Sid wanted to vote for the Green Party in the upcoming European Parliament elections, until he heard the party recommend that people limit themselves to one flight a year. “I just can’t get behind that”, he sighs.
Taking climate action means readdressing the foundations of our identities. It starts with flying. When I was growing up I was told that travelling would make me a well-rounded, employable person. I was promised that the only way to truly understand a culture or to learn a language was by jumping on a plane to whichever destination I felt inclined towards. If there were one thing I knew I wanted when I grew up, it was to feel the glamour of being a frequent flyer. It was the narrative of the educated and of the well-to-do. Arriving by plane makes any entrance grander. Planes make people feel important.
Now the narrative has, rightly so, shifted dramatically. Our educated friends in Sweden have begun a phenomenon called ‘flygskam’ or ‘flying shame’. Social stigma in Sweden surrounding flying has led to a sharp drop in the number of aeroplane passengers in recent months, prompting airlines to up their efforts to reduce emissions, or at least pretend to, as all the best green-washing corporations do.
I’m not here to talk economics, although the sheer financial fuckery of a world where rich people have decided flying isn’t cool anymore hits me when Sid suggests I Google ‘flightradar24’. It’s a web tracking tool which shows all the flights in the world in real-time. Thousands of pixelated yellow planes shuffle and stutter over a green and blue map of the world. It’s astounding to think of all those goods and people above us, whose livelihoods depend on fuel-guzzling jumbo jets.
Climate change is hard for Sid and I to talk about. I’m a climate researcher with the luxury of taking the moral high-ground because my job allows me to do so. Frequent flying has been a part of my social makeup, but I’m leaving it behind. I’ve stopped taking weekend trips and city breaks that rely on short-haul flights. Where I can, I take the train, even though it is often more expensive to do so. I console Sid by telling him I had a beef roast the other Sunday.
I ask him, aside from guilt and shame, how the recent school strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests made him feel. He tells me that during the protests there had been a rumour one morning that activists were going to chain themselves to the runway. As Sid belted himself in, ready for take-off, he prayed silently for the activists to go ahead and lie down on the tarmac to halt the take-off. I see that the idea of just one day without flights emissions from Heathrow fills him with a feeling of relief and hope. Sid’s colleagues apparently grumbled at the protests, found them pesky, but I wonder how many of them also turned secret wishes for the environment over in their minds as they ascended towards the sky.
This week, climate activist and journalist Naomi Klein tweeted powerfully in response to Democrat Joe Biden’s plans to craft a middle-ground climate policy: “No Joe, there is no ‘middle ground’ on climate breakdown—there is bold, transformative action or there is sinking ground, burning ground and churning ground.”
There is no middle ground. We have to change today, but that means continuing to open up dialogue, especially with people whose jobs prevent them from taking the type of climate action they’d like to. If we can’t have middle of the ground solutions then perhaps we can have middle of the ground listening. Sid’s grateful for the climate strikes, if activists hadn’t taken bold action, he points out, we wouldn’t be having this difficult discussion.
Shame locks lips and stifles empathy. Shaming is often a pastime of the most privileged. For many, it’s not that they won’t change, it’s that they can’t, yet. Sid loves the earth, but he loves his livelihood too. It’s not about greed for Sid, it’s about putting plant-based food on the plate.