• Ed Flattau

Decarbonizing Aviation

Many find flying to be an increasingly arduous exercise, what with sprawling air terminals, lengthy lines, cramped overbooked seating, frequent delays, and often pricey fares.

If they are environmentally attuned, fly frequently despite the logistic hurdles, and are bothered by reports of aviation pollution, it might be natural to contemplate cutting back on personal air travel.

The environmental incentive to reduce discretionary plane trips is considerable. A single flight from New York city to London emits one ton of carbon per passenger, and there are 2500 flights daily over the North Atlantic alone. If the current rate of aviation expansion and accompanying pollution continues unabated, air traffic is projected to contribute 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions by 2050.

That said, the current culture of widely scattered nuclear families and traditional face-to-face business protocol dictate against any drastic reduction in the public’s trips to the airport.

Though the airlines consequently do not feel threatened by the prospect of any governmental-mandated contraction, they are seeking to assuage critics by headlining energy efficiency. Environmentally speaking, it is only a token gesture, designed as a holding action to stave off pressure to modify current flight schedules.

Besides, there is no imminent quick fix for replacing conventional aviation fossil fuels. Biofuels and renewable energy-driven electricity are currently insufficient to support long-range flights, and technological breakthroughs such as hydrogen-powered engines seem remote.

In the meantime, what can an environmentally air traveler do? Programs are being developed to offset carbon conscientious emissions with a surcharge applied to tree planting.

Upon reflection, one can conceive of expanded use of video conferencing for all but the most intimate of personal and business gatherings.

If environmental conditions become desperate with no technological solution in sight, limits on the number of flights could be imposed on the airline industry. Fuel- guzzling short hops could be replaced by high-speed electricity powered rail. Conversely, since only one-fifth of humanity has any experience with air travel, rationing the public’s flight access might not be perceived as draconian as one might anticipate.

All of these strategies, of course, would serve as a bridge to that elusive goal of carbon-neutral aviation travel and compatibility with a climate-stabilized world.


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