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Electric Planes - Can We Travel and Stay Green?

Holidays. Seeing distant family. Backpacking. Moving to the other side of the world for a new life. All events which create memories. All events made easier with flying. And now with the possibility of electric planes, could these defining journeys be green too?

An Ansys global study showed that 89% of participants would be prepared to pay for greener air travel

Our desire to explore is in direct conflict with the world around us; air travel accounts for 2.4% of C02 emissions worldwide, and demand for flights shows no sign of curtailing. Rising apprehension around the aviation industry has spawned the movement known as "flygskam" (roughly translated to flight shaming), with activists such as Greta Thunberg hoping to discourage commercial flying altogether. Airlines have gradually responded to uneasiness with various schemes to offset customers' carbon footprints, but is this enough? Our individual efforts to decarbonise can sometimes seem like drops in the ocean when the entire aviation industry still revolves around fossil fuels. And with electric aviation still in its infancy, policy-making to stimulate the growth of this new field will be key.


What's Holding Electric Planes Back?


Sadly, long-distance electric aviation is not currently possible. This may be surprising considering the automotive industry has spearheaded a renaissance in electric vehicles, however battery technology hasn't been able to keep up with the need for sustainable aviation. Specifically, engineers are struggling with energy density (the amount of energy per kg produced by a lithium battery). A lithium cell currently produces 43 times less energy than jet fuel per kg, resulting in cumbersome batteries which substantially weigh down aircraft. As a consequence, even the latest prototypes only contain 9 seats and a maximum range of 144 km.


If we were to upscale the size of an electric plane to a 300-ton commercial airliner, the required battery power to achieve take-off would need to be 8 times the plane's mass. Battery technology will continue to improve, and engineers are tweaking the electric motors and aerodynamics of aircraft in order to optimize range, however for now, electric flights will be confined to short-haul.


Air Taxis and Sustainable Aviation Fuels - The First Steps in the Right Direction?


This doesn't mean electric aviation lacks potential. While domestic flights are somewhat of a rarity in the UK, small air taxis could begin to cover short journeys (within 250 km with stops for re-charging) in countries with larger land masses. There is also an economic case for this, as although the cost of manufacturing an electric aircraft is currently significantly higher than a traditional aeroplane, fuel costs would be minuscule in comparison. Emerging companies such as Eviation and Beta Technologies are developing models with the aspiration to provide short-haul journeys by 2030, and major airlines are collaborating with Wright Electric and ZeroAvia in an attempt to reach net-zero targets by 2050. But is this merely PR?


The primary incentive of major airlines isn't to target morality over profit, and changes to environmental policies have only occurred to match customer expectations, and to deflect proposed regulations which threaten corporate interests. In 2010, controversial Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary dismissed man-made climate change as "horsesh*t", but has now backtracked on such comments and has begun underlining the company's commitment to sustainability. Was this caused a genuine revelation, or just a simple reaction to the Paris Climate Accords and other airlines' pledges to net zero? Campaigners claim major airlines have only met one real climate change target since 2000, and even though companies such as British Airways market themselves as progressive, they've also been keen to pressure the government into concealing damaging emissions data (the information showed BA were the worst performing European airline in environmental terms).


O'Leary remains sceptical about electric planes and has branded them "not feasible", instead focusing on sustainable aviation fuel. Is this a smokescreen to avert long-term change or a sober statement on where electric aviation finds itself? Ryan Air isn't alone in shifting its attention to SAF, with Emirates completing a demonstration flight entirely fuelled by SAF last month, and the UK government has promised 10% of used fuel will be sustainable by 2030. While SAFs promise more in the short term, greater support is still needed to increase their financial viability, and the government needs to strike a finer balance between managing the aviation industry's interests and creating effective eco policies.


Are Governments Doing Enough?



Unlike other industries, aviation is struggling to discover a smooth transition to cleaner alternatives. In June 2022, the UK government published its Jet Zero Strategy with the aim to “deliver net-zero aviation by 2050", and promises the UK will be "at the forefront of deploying zero-emission aircraft". How they go about this remains to be seen. The vague language perhaps typifies not only the government's reluctance to introduce more decisive measures, but also the uncertainty surrounding electric aircraft. The limits of current technology have rendered electric aeroplanes as more of a hopeful novelty than a concrete solution, however we could still see them integrated into other countries' infrastructures, especially with greater government incentives to discourage pointless short-haul journeys. How they do this exactly leads to the political question of whether personal freedoms are infringed upon by environmental measures, however an indication of things to come perhaps comes from France. In December 2022 the French Assembly banned domestic flights between two cities linked by a train journey of 2.5 hours or less, and electric planes could possibly serve these short journeys in the future too.


Fighting climate change will require changes which are daunting for politicians and businesses, however, if there was one positive of the pandemic, it was proof we can radically change the way we live and still survive. From the way we work to scientific innovation, we witnessed what can be achieved when we focus our energy collectively. and if greater pressure can be applied to the aviation industry through ourselves and governments, we may begin to see more substantial changes in flying too.


References

 
  • Kurmelovs, R. (2023) Electric planes sound like a fantasy but they may be the future for short-haul in Australia. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/jan/09/electric-planes-sound-like-a-fantasy-but-they-may-be-the-future-for-short-haul-in-australia.

  • This chart shows how global air travel is faring post COVID (2022). Available at: https://

  • www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/12/this-chart-shows-how-global-air-travel-is-faring/.

  • Timperley, J. Should we give up flying for the sake of the climate? Available at: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200218-climate-change-how-to-cut-your-carbon-emissions-when-flying.

  • Check, R.F. (2022) Fact Check-Quote from Ryanair’s chief executive denying man-made climate change

  • is from 2010; Michael O’Leary has since changed his view. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/factcheck-ryanair-climate-idUSL1N2ZU1E3.

  • Check, R.F. (2022) Fact Check-Quote from Ryanair’s chief executive denying man-made climate change is from 2010; Michael O’Leary has since changed his view. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/factcheck-ryanair-climate-idUSL1N2ZU1E3.

  • Gill, O. (2023) Michael O’Leary on EU, hydrogen and running Ryanair for another decade: ‘I don‘t want to do anything else.’ Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2023/01/21/michael-oleary-eu-hydrogen-running-ryanair-another-decade-dont/.

  • Kamel, D. (2023) “Emirates successfully tests flight powered by sustainable aviation fuel,” The National, 6 February. Available at: https://www.thenationalnews.com/business/aviation/2023/01/30/emirates-successfully-tests-flight-powered-by-sustainable-aviation-fuel/.

  • Wendover Productions (2021) Why Electric Planes are Inevitably Coming. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aH4b3sAs-l8.

  • BA pressured government to hide emissions data. (n.d.). OpenDemocracy. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/british-airways-lobby-government-emissions-booking-data-jet-zero-climate-change/.

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