Can Flying Ever Be Green?

Soaring fuel prices and stratospheric carbon emissions bode ill for the aviation industry. Is flying beyond redemption? Mark Anslow tries some blue-sky thinking. The soaring cost of crude oil works in mysterious ways: hard-up hauliers park their rigs along London’s A40, fishermen camp outside Defra with placards and motorcyclists ride noisy go-slows on the M62. Airlines, however, are much less demonstrative. They simply go bust. In the last days of May, the world opened its financial pages to discover that Silverjet, the loss-making business airline with an ambition to be ‘carbon neutral’, had gone into administration. Squarely blaming the rising cost of aviation fuel, the company’s directors cleared their desks in the same manner as their counterparts at the airlines Oasis, Eos and Maxjet, all victims of the price of oil.

The episode paints one thing in extraordinary clarity - the vast amount of fuel used by the aviation industry. What this means is that airlines are at the top of two concern lists: climate change, for providing the biggest easily avoidable source of greenhouse gas emissions in most Western lives; and energy efficiency, for gobbling up refined crude oil at a rate that would make the eyes of a commodities trader water.

It’s fair to say that the industry has been trying. The fuel efficiency of airliners has increased steadily at around 1.2 per cent a year, and is continuing to rise; new tax structures mean that flying half-empty planes will soon become uneconomic, and entrepreneur Richard Branson recently flew one of his planes with one engine operating on a weak blend of biofuel.

All these incremental steps, however, welcome as they are, come in the context of an industry that in the UK grows at a rate of eight per cent every year, and which is predicted to quadruple in size between 1990 and 2050. The simple fact is that if aviation continues to grow as predicted then even with projected increases in efficiency it will use the UK’s entire allocation of carbon dioxide by 2050, if we were to accept an 80 per cent reduction target.

Over the next few pages, we examine some of the more radical ideas for making flying green. They range from the scientific to the social, the old to the new, the far-out to the logical. Only one thing is sure: aviation in 2050 won’t - because it simply can’t - look anything like it does today.

Mark Anslow 24/07/2008

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