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A Call for Innovative Solutions to Air Transportation

This article was written by Alex Steffen in September 2006. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Air travel presents one of the stickiest problems we face.

On the one hand, in a rapidly globalizing world, we need to fly to do business, build networks and see loved ones. Indeed, to many people (including myself, to be honest), the ability to travel easily and keep a global community is one of the greatest accomplishments of our civilization.

On the other hand, air travel is frying the planet. While air travel contributes only 3% of humanity's total CO2 emissions (making them a problem only a few times larger than, say, coal fires), air travel is growing at an astounding rate. And while engines are growing more efficient, planes are also getting larger and flights more frequent, meaning that air travel may effectively undo many of the gains so far made in cutting CO2:

Friends of the Earth commissioned a study from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research to work out what growth of 6.4% a year (its average through the 1990s) would mean for Britain over the next 40-50 years. It concluded that the total CO2 discharges from air-traffic would soon offset all the reductions in carbon emissions scheduled under British government policies to comply with Kyoto. The European Commission (presumably neutral on such matters) accepts that, by 2012, the growth in aviation would offset more than a quarter of the reductions that its richer members hoped for

Furthermore, for a variety of reasons having to do with chemical emissions and contrail formation (the white "tails" jets leave behind them), it turns out that airplanes have a climate impact that's actually 2-4 times greater than their CO2 emissions alone would indicate.

To make matters even worse, we seem unable to innovate our way out of this jam. Sure, there are plenty of ideas: We can run flights more efficiently, making sure more of them are full and their routes are as short as possible. We can outfit planes with electric motors for tarmac use, allowing them to run their jet engines less. We can replace the wiring with fiber optics, making the planes lighter. We can use biofuels to make the planes slightly more carbon neutral (though the percentage of biofuels that can actually be effectively mixed into jet fuel turns out to be rather low).

But the brutal truth is that these are marginal improvements. And so far, we haven't done better than an average increase in efficiency of about 1% a year. As Sir John Rose (CEO of Rolls-Royce) has said, with our current limitations "technological innovation alone cannot solve this."

All this makes George Monbiot's recent screed On the flight path to global meltdown worth paying attention to.

In it, Monbiot drops the news in a rude, if accurate, way:

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change discovered, "There would not appear to be any practical alternatives to kerosene-based fuels for commercial jet aircraft for the next several decades." There is, in other words, no technofix. The growth in aviation and the need to address climate change cannot be reconciled. In common with all other sectors, aviation's contribution to global warming must be reduced in the UK by some 87% if we are to avoid a 2C rise in global temperatures. Given that the likely possible efficiencies are small and tend to counteract each other, an 87% cut in emissions requires not only that growth stops, but that most of the aeroplanes flying today be grounded. I realise that this is not a popular message, but it is hard to see how a different conclusion could be extracted from the available evidence.

This means the end of distant foreign holidays, unless you are prepared to take a long time getting there. It means that business meetings must take place over the internet or by means of video conferences. It means that transcontinental journeys must be made by train or coach. It means that journeys around the world must be reserved for visiting the people you love, and that they will require both slow travel and the saving up of carbon rations. It means the end of shopping trips to New York, parties in Ibiza, second homes in Tuscany and, most painfully for me, political meetings in Porto Alegre - unless you believe that these activities are worth the sacrifice of the biosphere and the lives of the poor.

Here's the rub: I don't think people are going to stop flying.

I'm not even sure they should. Indeed, if air travel could somehow miraculously have no negative environmental impacts, I'd almost be willing to endorse the idea that the growth in international air trips would be a pretty good indicator of some kinds of planetary progress. We can't hold together a globalized society without frequent travel, and if I have to bet on which will break under the pressure first -- globalization or planetary ecosystems -- my money would be on cargo ships sailing even on rising seas, supertankers sailing through hurricanes to deliver oil to sinking cities.

International air travel is also one of those services for which no reasonable substitute exists. We can imagine car-sharing, compact communities and transit substituting quite reasonably for the private auto in many cases. We can look to new building materials to substitute for concrete and clean energy sources to replace coal. But what is the alternative to flying? Blimps?

But I also think it's wrong, perhaps almost evil, to imagine that the only course we can steer is straight ahead into disaster.

So, here's my answer: we need better jets. We need to crack a seemingly insolvable problem and design carbon-neutral, non-toxic air transportation.

We have a pretty good mechanism for getting people to tackle dramatic challenges: prizes. Look, for instance, at the X Prize, which set a ten million dollar prize for the first group to fly a private craft into space twice.

There's already an X Prize on the way for the first team that can "design, build and sell super-efficient cars that people want to buy". But a ton of people are already working on improving the auto -- you can read news of their efforts here every Sunday -- while most people seem to despair of the challenge of greening air travel.

What we need is a prize, a big prize, a prestigious prize, given to the first team that can, say, cut by three-quarters airplane emissions (got to start somewhere) in a commercially practical way. That's a goal vastly more meaningful, and, in the long run, more vital than putting a colony on the moon.

Why We Need An X Prize for Eco-Friendly Air Travel is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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Actually that's in the pipeline. We're looking for the right people to run it. Any suggestions??

Also, . If I'm not mistaken, you guys blogged about it the day after it was announced in July 2008.

Finally, if you've got a great X PRIZE idea, propose it. We're all ears. Starting tomorrow, we have BIG news (sorry, its a secret until tomorrow) for people who have great ideas for energy-related X PRIZEs.

Posted by: pragzz on 9 Sep 08

It's a fascinating problem, one I spent a year working on. I agree with Jeremy's article that the trick will be in upgrading airship designs to use modern technology. I like Ohio Airship's strategy of creating a bridge technology - airships with wings - that can use our existing infrastructure while we chart our next steps. I agree with you that ending air travel is a nonstarter. I suspect that with modern communication technology, airships can become a pleasant, productive, and affordable alternative to jets. The trick is the network, much like Shai Agassi's project. Conceptually, an airship floating on hydrogen, running on electricity and partially clad with solar film (the concept I was working on) still appears to make sense. The battery can be switched out when the airship reaches a terminal, allowing for superior turnaround times. Of course, this would require much more funding than I was able to put together, but things appear to be changing.

Posted by: Lyle Solla-Yates on 10 Sep 08



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