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Six and a half flying ideas for the future

Flight free 2020 pledger Sophia Cheng attended the ChangeNOW Summit in Paris, and shares what she learned about a sustainable future for aviation.

FlightFree UK
23 Apr 2020 8 min read

Picture shows the entrance to the ChangeNOW Summit in Paris. An engraved arch reads "Welcome Heroes of Change". The roof is glass and domed and there are many colourful stalls dotted around.
Change NOW International Summit Sortiraparis

I'm what you might call a recovering flying addict.

I love to travel and invariably enjoyed air travel too. I have opinions on where exactly to best sit on the plane (always window), which airlines do better food, and when it's worth paying for priority boarding or not. I am also the perfect size for flying: my legs aren't too long, and as a bit of a contortionist with a super power for sleep, I have a suite of positions to get comfy. I built my identity and more recently my life around flying as a digital nomad. So taking the flight free pledge has meant a major overhaul in my lifestyle.

While I'm attempting to stay still more, when the ChangeNOW Summit was announced, with the by-line ‘the World Expo of solutions for the planet,’ I couldn't ignore that itch – either to travel to Paris (by train) or for the opportunity to find out how we might be able to travel by air in a sustainable way. Is it even possible?

"I couldn't ignore the opportunity to find out how we might be able to travel by air in a sustainable way. Is it even possible?"

‘The Aviation Footprint’ was an 80 min discussion headed up by Michael Gill, Executive Director of ATAG the Aviation Travel Action Group.

"We are not burying our heads in the sand; we are facing our responsibilities, we're tackling the problem."

Barbara van Koppen from KLM, the airline that launched the Fly Responsibly campaign last year, admitted on behalf of her industry, "We have been insensitive in the past; the flight shame [movement] has put us under scrutiny and it came as a surprise. Sentiments to aviation and climate change have shifted very quickly." She added, "Offsetting is not a long-term solution in aviation."

I was feeling hopeful, hopeful that the session would not be mired by greenwashing. Then it was over to the new tech on the horizon.

1. SAF or Sustainable Aviation Fuel

SAF uses "waste oils from biological origin, agricultural residues or non-fossil CO2", that could include cooking oil, food scraps, grass clippings and agriculture residue but also non-bio materials including packaging, paper and municipal waste. Other sources include energy crops like salt marsh grasses and algae.

It is then blended with traditional aviation fuel, currently at 50%.

Air France have been fuelling one of their domestic lines by SAF since 2011 and have recently announced a flight from San Francisco to Paris using SAF starting in June 2020. Super rich Davos delegates arriving by private jet in January were able to fuel up with SAF at Zurich for the last leg of the flight. KLM are investing in making their own SAF but building the plants takes time:

Questions it raised for me:

  • SAF reduces CO2 emissions from the extraction of the oil by 80%, but what about the emissions while the plane is in the air?
  • Does running a fuel that relies on waste incentivise consumption? Like the Danish new waste incineration plant that is now looking for foreign waste to burn!!
  • Currently the blend to conventional kerosene is 50:50 – with the aviation industry still set to grow, that's still a lot of kerosene.

2. New plane designs

Could completely reimagining how a plane looks be the answer? KLM are developing a 'Flying V' design, which reduces overall weight and aerodynamic drag. It can hold as many passengers as the latest Airbuses and is supposed to be 20% more fuel efficient.

In February 2020, Airbus responded announcing their MAVERIC concept, with a different shape but a similar fuel efficiency target.

Questions it raised for me:

  • Is a 20% improvement in fuel efficiency good enough given where the climate science stands?
  • Does the world need more planes that are different shapes? Slate published an enlightening critique on the Flying V.
  • We need a drastic cut in emissions now, and with Airbus still making new planes to the existing design, it will be a long time before any new designs will result in a meaningful drop in emissions.

3. Solar Planes

Bertrand Piccard of Solar Impulse Foundation was the keynote speaker opening up the ChangeNOW Summit. Piccard and his co-pilot flew 40000 km around the world using solar power in 2016. The whole journey took 505 days.

But with a passenger capacity of 1 and a max speed of 75 km/h this route of technological exploration is still in its infancy.

4. Electric and hybrid planes

One of the main issues with electric planes is the weight of the battery, so it’s only really a viable option for short flights. Here in the UK, LoganAir is set to launch the 1.7 mile hop between Westray and Papa Westray in the Orkney islands in 2021.

Panelists were quick to point out the many issues with electric flights, including the CO2 that's needed in the production of the batteries, mostly made from lithium.

The Conversation provides a comprehensive overview with the issue of electric planes.

Questions it raised for me:

  • Just like conversations around electric cars, talk of electric planes make me nervous. There are not enough raw materials to produce the quantity of batteries being projected. The electric car industry already faces a cobalt crisis.
  • The extraction of raw materials from foreign countries to fuel our consumption in the West is rarely clean. People and biodiversity are inevitably exhausted. Cobalt mining for smartphones has been linked with deaths of children in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

5. Hydrogen propulsion

Attempts to overcome some of the challenges of electric planes are developing the hydrogen fuel cell. James Plowman of ZeroAviva explained that the operating costs are much lower and there is even a retrofit solution.

And when it comes to climate change, there is no CO2 involved in running the plane: the emissions are water vapour.

ZeroAviva launched a prototype for testing last year in California. Their craft will hold 20 passengers and travel around 500 miles, so could be an option for local flights. They're in conversations with the Scottish government to test flights to Orkney summer 2020.

6. Return of the airship

The curiously named Flying Whales presented their flying of the future: helium airships, primarily aimed at transporting cargo. Their rigid cell design can supposedly hold 60 tonnes of cargo and can unload without docking. As helium is lighter than air, there is no need for upward propulsion. Romain Schalck, representing the French startup, suggested that as we transition to renewable energy sources, we'll need large scale infrastructure. At the moment, transporting the parts to build a wind farm is largely done by lorries on roads. Imagine a wind farm's parts being delivered by airship?

Production of these 154m long airships is taking place in Canada, France and China. Lift off is expected in 2021 and 150 of them are expected by the end of the decade.

Picture shows a massive rugby-ball-shaped airship with the words 'flying whale' written on the side. Beneath the ship you can see a pine forest and hills.
Credit: Flying Whales

Further research led me to discover Ocean SkyCruises already establishing itself in the luxury eco-travel space. Unlike Flying Whales these Airlanders are aimed at carrying passengers. First routes are planned for 2023, from Svalbard to the Arctic. Tickets are currently $80,000 each. Find out more about it on BBC Future.

Contains: dramatic music

Questions it raised for me:

  • But aren't we running out of helium?
  • Do we need to be careful? Making the inaccessible accessible can be a force for good and for bad. While an airship could provide important supplies after a disaster, it could also open up previously 'safe' areas for extraction – something Flying Whales do not deny, as their website offers it as "A solution to log from land-locked areas." !!

6 and a half. Self propelling planes?

While researching for this piece I stumbled across the Ion drive. Building on an idea developed in the 1920s, "the silent system takes a powerful flow of ions generated on board the aircraft and uses it to propel the plane forward over a sustained and steady flight," reports Silicon Republic.

Ok ok, so this idea has a long way to go.

Where does this leave us in 2020?

My sceptical hat had remained on for the full 80 minutes. The focus, and dare I say preoccupation, with solving the carbon flying crisis with technology left me feeling a bit hollow.

These prototypes, early concepts and ideas are aimed at making flying more sustainable within our current paradigm, i.e. one where all businesses continue to grow. Given how in their infancy some of these projects are, we'll still be relying on kerosene to get us around for some time yet.

The aviation industry is projected to double in 20 years. Even if all this new technology was ready now, the combined savings in emissions would not be enough to counter that growth.

"The aviation industry will double in 20 years. Even if this new technology was ready now, the combined savings in emissions would not be enough to counter that growth."

Because the science says that to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, we have to leave 80% of the fossil fuels we know about in the ground. That leaves us with only 12 to 31 years of current emissions left.

Covid-19 has abruptly brought flying to a halt and the longer the lockdown continues the more impact it will have on the industry, and of course the vast number of people the industry employs. But a reduction in flights has inevitably led to a reduction in carbon emissions. Perhaps this shows us that the issue isn't how we grow more sustainably but with the idea of growth itself?

Our culture and the leisure industry in the UK and the West is in part built on an idea of having a life that you need to escape from. How many times have you seen holiday adverts use the words, getaway? escape? short breaks?

Maybe that's the root of the problem? If we focussed on making our lives, our homes, our neighbourhoods, our jobs, our priorities enriching and thoughtful, maybe we wouldn't all feel we're entitled to jump on a plane to get away from the 'daily grind’.

In fact I think the most radical idea I discovered throughout the whole conference was challenging the idea of travel altogether. Check out!

Sophia Cheng presents and hosts workshops around climate change and climate justice. She‘s recently launched a 1-1 mentoring service to support people wanting to make a change but not sure where to start. Find out more about EcoMentor.

You can read a longer version of this article on Sophia's blog, and you can read our 'One of the 100,000' interview with her here.

Picture shows Sophia walking down a street. She is smiling and carrying a notebook.

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