Alongside the stories of Ryanair and Monarch’s woes in the last few weeks have been excited posts on the potential of electric flight, following Easyjet’s announcement that it hopes to be able to fly battery powered short haul flights within a decade. In principle, any development that makes a flight less carbon intensive is to be welcomed as a step in the right direction. Any airline with a long term vision that extends beyond the end of the runway will be investing in this. However, it does not offer the sustainable solution that it is often presented as being.
First, it won’t happen soon enough. Easyjet’s announcement is for flights carrying passengers on 300 mile journeys to be viable by 2027. This is an aspiration, which may or may not come to pass. Jet fuel is currently around 50x more energy dense than the best lithium batteries we have. So while it might be possible to dramatically narrow that gap in a decade, it’s still a long way off reality. And it does nothing about the emissions caused by all the planes currently flying, or flying in the years between now and then. According to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the “global air transport network” doubles in size at least once every 15 years, and it’s predicted to do so again by 2030. The time to be reducing our carbon emissions is now.
Second, it won’t have any impact on the vast majority of flight emissions anyway. I’ve struggled to find precise and up to date figures, but in 2006 the Economist said that four fifths of emissions were from Long Haul. Earlier this year, Airportwatch said that the European Commission’s decision to only include flights within Europe in its emissions trading programme, means 75% of flight emissions were not included. Whatever the exact percentages for long haul vs short haul – the point remains the same, even if we can have battery powered flights for short trips by 2027, that still leaves the vast majority of the industry’s emissions unaffected.
Third, for many short flights there is already a much better alternative. The train. London to Paris is 214 miles. It’s quicker, more comfortable and considerably more carbon efficient to go by rail. How much more carbon efficient depends on how the electricity that powers to train network is generated in the country you are travelling through. So in France, where most energy comes from nuclear sources, a trip on the TGV is much less emitting than in a country that is more reliant on coal or other fossil fuels.
This also means that much of the focus on making rail less carbon intensive comes from shifting our societies across to greener fuel generation. This doesn’t involve an aspiration for where technology might be in ten years. According to a report earlier this month from International Energy Agency, renewables accounted for two-thirds of new power added to world’s grids last year. And shifting from polluting power stations to clear energy sources benefits all members of society, regardless of whether they are using the train or not.
Fourth, it distracts from the biggest issue – the growth in demand. Boeing estimates that the global growth in air travel will require around 39,620 new planes over the next 20 years. China is planning to build 136 new airports by 2025, in total capable of transporting 2.2 billion passengers a year. Yes, it would be better if all these tourists were travelling on less polluting planes. It would be better still if as many as possible of them were travelling less often and on a cleaner form of transport altogether.
Currently, those who fly most and can most afford to pay more for their flights are subsidised to fly even more, through frequent flyer loyalty schemes that offer them discounts and perks. A UK government survey in 2014 found that 15% of adults take 71% of all flights, while 52% hadn’t flown at all in the previous 12 months.
We need a way of addressing demand that isn’t instantly accused of being unfair on less well-off members of society. One such idea is the Frequent Flyer Levy – which proposes that everyone could have one tax-free flight a year, with each additional flight being taxed at an increasing level. Research by the New Economics Foundation found that such a levy would make it unnecessary to build any new runways in the UK. According to NEF: “a progressive tax on frequent flying could play a significant role in restraining demand for flights, while at the same time tending to distribute those flights more equally across the income spectrum.”
There may well be a place for electrical flight in the future of a sustainable aviation sector. But – as climate change is an issue now, our focus should be on solutions that are viable today.