Don’t let the miserabilists clip humanity’s wings

Flight is one of man’s greatest achievements. Let’s challenge the greens and officials who want to snuff it out.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Science & Tech

Flying away on your holidays this August? The consensus is growing that you should feel guiltier than ever about it.

In the topsy-turvy world of eco-friendly corporate thinking, it should come as no surprise that one of Britain’s leading holiday companies, Thomson, wants you to think very carefully about what you pack for your holidays. Apparently, you should be as obsessive about the weight of your airport novel and your swimming gear as you are with the recycling of your rubbish at home. Why? Because by packing less stuff to take on a plane, you can do your bit to reduce the use of aircraft fuel, lower CO2 emissions and thus ‘save the planet’.

Thomson takes your environmental responsibilities so seriously that it has enlisted the services of Brix Smith-Start, a stylist from the Channel 4 show Gok’s Fashion Fix, to advise on an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny holiday suitcase. Thomson has done research that shows, shockingly, that only 16 per cent of travellers actually use everything they have packed.

If people cut the weight of their bags by a quarter, says Thomson, 7,537 tonnes of CO2 could be saved each year. That is apparently the equivalent of taking 2,216 family cars off the road. To put this into perspective, there are around 30million cars used in the UK. Compare the grand campaigns with the minuscule CO2 savings and it’s clear that the cant and self-deception that now surround flying in and out of the UK are – even by the standards of environmentalism – quite extraordinary.

This moralism goes all the way to the top of society. For example, the Lib-Con coalition programme includes a section on energy that is emphatic about Britain not having a third runway at Heathrow, or any additional runways at London’s other big airports, Gatwick and Stansted. This sounds like good news for The Planet, but it is dwarfed by the fact that, right now, China alone boasts no fewer than 166 working airports, has a further eight opening this year, and plans to build a further 70. Do those who oppose runways in Britain think they can stop this kind of commitment to air travel? Go right ahead and lobby Beijing, guys.

Or take the global picture. Boeing’s latest annual projection of the worldwide number of passenger jets likely to be in service over the next 20 years shows that growth could well be explosive.

Passenger jets in service, 2009 and 2029, as forecast by Boeing

2009 fleet 2029 fleet
Large 800 960
Twin aisle 3500 8260
Single aisle 11580 25000
Regional jets 3010 2080
Total 18890 36300

Maybe Boeing’s totals are, from the aerospace industry’s point of view, too optimistic. Or maybe they are an underestimate. But given the broad growth trend in air travel, both of passengers and freight, it is clear that even if current air-related greenhouse gas emissions are actually quite small, aeroplanes will emit a significant amount of greenhouse gases in decades to come.

Even if, as the industry argues, jets become more efficient in the future, that won’t stop large rises in emissions. As the greener-than-thou New Economics Foundation (NEF) delights in pointing out, in a wide-ranging document titled Growth Isn’t Possible, ‘efficiency gains of just one per cent have been described as “rather optimistic” given that the jet engine is now regarded as mature technology, and annual efficiency improvements are already falling… An analysis of projected aviation growth and anticipated improvements in aircraft efficiency suggests that if growth in Europe continues at five per cent, traffic will double by 2020 (relative to 2005). With an “ambitious” one per cent annual improvement in fleet efficiency, CO2 emissions would rise by 60 per cent by 2020.’

Improvements in the energy efficiency of flying are desirable, but given that we would expect such improvements to mean cheaper flights, they will probably mean more flying and more CO2 emissions, not less.

Given the long-term trend to greater air travel, we need to be more realistic about our approach to it. We need to recognise that flying is a good thing and work out how we can reduce its negative impacts, not simply abandon it or try to restrict it. For example, there is much talk about using telecommunications to replace travel. But in reality, no amount of IT-aided virtual tourism or business will ever substitute for actually moving around. No screen experience, no matter how touchy feely, can replace direct contact with the terrain, food, culture and people that one meets abroad. Going abroad broadens the mind; as such, the aspiration to travel is a good and noble one.

When it comes to long-distance, international travel, there really are no viable alternatives to the aeroplane. Even for domestic journeys, the plane is often quicker. While high-speed trains and electric cars could be extremely useful, there is no escaping from the fact that we are going to need a lot more planes in the future, too.

For environmentalist campaign groups, though, regulation is the answer. For them, the EU’s desire to extend its Emissions Trading Scheme in 2012, to cover aircraft travelling to and from Europe, is proper and indeed sacrosanct: emissions should be capped by law, permits to emit should be partly auctioned, and the unwillingness of US airlines such as United, Continental and American to conform to this regime is a scandal.

The Lib-Cons take a similar line. The coalition programme promised to replace Air Passenger Duty, a tax-per-head levy to make you pay for your flight emissions, with a per-flight duty that makes airlines – and by extension, passengers – effectively pay for the emissions of people who aren’t even on-board.

Characteristically, both green and governmental approaches dismiss what technology could do for flight emissions, and instead hold that state intervention around capping, trading and taxing is the way forward. True, the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change’s just-published Annual Energy Statement murmurs that ‘sustainable bioenergy is important where electrification is unlikely to be practical, such as in long-haul freight transport and aviation’; but its hint that electrically-powered air travel ‘is unlikely to be practical’ hardly inspires confidence.

For environmentalists, biofuels are not the answer. Why? In Growth Isn’t Possible, NEF says that diverting land from agriculture to the production of maize, palm oil, soya, corn, wheat, barley, sugarcane or rapeseed raises the price of animal feed and food generally (maize), involves a lot of CO2 emissions and deforests the world (palm oil, soya), or uses up more energy than it generates (corn, wheat, barley).

It is true that George W Bush’s biofuels programme discredited primitive biofuels in the industrialised world. As a sober report from GTM Research, one group of US-based ‘greentech’ analysts, points out: ‘When we consider the amount of cropland consumption that was required to displace a relatively minor amount of petroleum, we find that current first-generation biofuels are highly problematic. For example, the United States is the largest corn producer in the world. In 2008, the US allocated approximately 33 per cent of its entire corn crop to displace about five per cent of its gasoline needs. Similarly, in 2008, the EU used about 60 per cent of its rapeseed harvest to replace three per cent of its diesel consumption.’

However, around the world there is land enough to grow both food and fuel. Indeed all over the world more and more land is being released from farming, such is the growth of productivity there.

What we really need, however, are efficient, second-generation biofuels, which can be used as jet fuels. Derived from plants that cannot be eaten, such as jatropha, camelina, salt-tolerant crops (halophytes) and algae, the road to introducing such cellulosic biofuels contains a number of technological barriers. But GTM Research suggests that, even with all its faults, cellulosic ethanol will likely achieve commercialisation around 2011. Yet NEF fails to mention the potential for such technology, particularly ‘third generation’ biofuels made using algae, which would have almost no impact whatsoever on food supplies. Algae biofuels will almost certainly become an unsubsidised economic inevitability around 2016. GTM reckons that, by 2022, biofuels will make up 17.8 per cent of all jet fuel consumed.

That won’t be enough to satisfy the killjoys who want humanity to lose its wings. But if we remember the huge advances that aviation has achieved over the past century, it is clear that there is everything still to play for. In fact, biofuels are expected to be certified as safe for aircraft in 2013, with airlines testing biofuels in the US, Mexico and Brazil.

It may be slightly unrealistic to imagine that third-generation biofuels will ever fully supplant conventional jet fuels. But that would not be as unrealistic as ending or restricting air travel, which is what greens and governments would dearly like us to do.

James Woudhuysen is author, with Joe Kaplinsky, of Energise! A Future for Energy Innovation, published by Beautiful Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) He is also a contributor to BIG POTATOES: The London Manifesto for Innovation.

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Topics Science & Tech


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