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How Close Are We to Sustainable Air Travel?

Airplanes are one of the most common ways to travel. They provide efficient ways to go from location to location, especially when traveling long distances or overseas. However, the global movement towards sustainability is putting pressure on the air travel industry.

The Solar Helios Prototype flying wing over the Pacific Ocean at Kauai, Hawaii, July 14, 2001. Image credit: NASA

The future protection of the environment requires action now. Many industries are slowly making sustainable improvements, like switching to renewable energy. Electric cars, for instance, are now a common option for consumers. But will air travel be able to follow in the car industry’s footsteps?

Air travel faces various obstacles on the path to sustainability. But experts are already working on ways to make airplanes more environmentally-friendly.

The Issues of Air Travel

The need for sustainability comes from the negative consequences of fossil fuels and other non-renewable energy sources. The pollution that fossil fuels give off, specifically carbon dioxide, harms the environment. Greenhouse gases speed up global warming. And since air travel is as popular as it is, the industry is a prime contributor to climate change. So, a different change must come.

Aviation contributes to a total of 2% of global carbon emissions — a number that is going to continue increasing in the coming years. Since transportation makes up a large portion of greenhouse gas emissions, air travel becomes an area in need of improvement.

Greenhouse gases are a direct cause of global warming. And as the climate continues to change, certain environments will become inhabitable for people and animals. Sea levels will rise and force coastal communities inwards. Changes in the transportation industry can reduce this effect.

Additionally, aviation produces thousands of tons of waste every year. Due to single-use materials or plastics on commercial flights, airlines discard waste instead of recycling it.

People can take steps to reduce their impact on an individual level. Things like avoiding air travel if possible, taking more direct flights and supporting sustainable airlines can lead to reduced environmental impacts. Airliners, too, are taking steps to become more sustainable. But large-scale change is also fundamental for a sustainable future.

Pressure for Sustainability

Climate change has always been a pressing issue. But in recent years, experts have grown more concerned about the need to act immediately. The interest further spiked when climate activist, Greta Thunberg, gained recognition for her efforts.

Notably, her refusal to use air travel contributed to her recognition. From her and others’ protests, the idea of “flight shaming” came about. This is a concept that suggests people should find alternative ways to travel as opposed to flying — the reasoning being the high levels of greenhouse gas emissions from airliners. Because of the pressure, more people may start switching to trains instead of planes.

Though the population level and air travel are growing, there is always the chance that the public will start to opt for more sustainable options. Public pressure can sway industries one way or another. As politics and activism continue to revolve around climate change, societal pressure is going to stay.

So, in terms of a timeline, sustainable air travel is likely to come about sooner rather than later. However, these developments take time. “Soon” could be 20 years. Change happens slowly and gradually. And it depends on what kind of efforts are coming into play as well.

A reduction in fossil fuels, an increase in biofuels, lessened waste and electric-powered planes are all viable options for air travel. These efforts, encouraged by public pressure, will contribute to sustainability.

Sustainable Efforts

Sustainable efforts for the aviation industry come in different forms. Regulations, consumer pressure and cost all contribute to how sustainable an industry can be. For regular businesses, sustainability can help them achieve the triple bottom line. This is the notion that a company can satisfy customers, help the environment and increase revenue all through sustainable efforts.

However, this notion becomes murky with air travel. The main area of complications would be revenue. Currently, other businesses and industries can invest in things like solar or wind power because their costs are decreasing and becoming more practical. Airplanes don’t yet have solar power capabilities and must rely on fuel.

Aviation industry leaders may try to reduce fuel efficiency or offset their carbon emissions to contribute to the sustainability movement. This could include something like switching to biofuel instead of standard fuel. When biofuel is sourced in an environmentally-friendly way, it can be mixed with regular fuel in order to create a less harmful power source. This can reduce overall emissions.

Beyond reducing emissions, some activists, organizations and government officials are calling for zero-emissions from transportation vehicles. For planes, this will indeed prove to be a challenge. But reducing carbon emissions and the use of fossil fuels is one way to meet sustainability necessities. An idea like electric batteries, however, is the most tangible option for sustainability within the airline industry.

Electric Planes

The topic of sustainability can range from renewable energy to reduced waste. Zero-emission vehicles are a crucial part of ensuring that the future pursues sustainability. For aviation, the most realistic option for zero-emissions is going to be electric planes. Societies across the globe have seen electricity become a success for cars and trucks. Now, that kind of push is affecting planes.

Electric planes may not be too far away. Experts are adopting the concepts from electric cars and other vehicles and applying it to planes. The main difference will be that cars have the ability to stop to recharge their batteries on the road, but planes won’t have that option.

As electric planes begin to become more common within the next few decades, they’ll most likely start out for trips under 1,000 miles. This will be helpful for many domestic travelers and short distance rides. After the trip, they will need to recharge — this will prove the be a challenge in order to compete with standard fuel that can last thousands of miles longer.

However, electric planes inspire hope. Certain electric planes have already been successful in flight — this is a good sign for the future. With more electric planes in the sky, pollution within the transportation sector will decrease and sustainability will become the norm.

Electric Planes in Flight

The theory and idea of sustainable aviation is one thing. But seeing it in practice is another. Some planes are already making their way into the sky with electric battery power. Others are still in development but are sure to make an impact within the coming years.

Recently, the e-Genuis, a fully electric plane, took off and had a successful flight. During its trip, the plane reached a peak speed of 142 miles per hour. And, in under two minutes, it was able to ascend to approximately 20,000 feet. It also flew nonstop for 300 miles. While this isn’t yet in competition with major airliners, it’s a groundbreaking feat. These numbers mean big things to come for electric motor-powered airplanes.

Elsewhere, Airbus is developing an electric, zero-emission plane. The E-Fan X is one of the newest ideas that’s bringing sustainability to aviation. The company states it will have the power equivalent of 10 cars, which would extend the average mileage that electric vehicles can handle. Airbus hopes to integrate it as a commuter plane by 2040.

Two things drive the need for electric aviation. More people are flying now than ever — with a growing population, this makes sense. Second, because of this growth in population, planes are going to produce more emissions than ever as well. Integrating electric-powered planes is the way to combat these emissions while still providing services for travelers.

Improvements for the Future

Electric planes are a sure sign of what’s to come for the industry. But, despite their capabilities, they will need to improve in order to keep up with the durability and demands that regular fuel can fulfill. Specific areas for improvement include better batteries, regulations and public opinion.

First, the battery is monumental. With e-Genuis being able to fly uninterrupted for 300 miles, more progress is going to come about soon. Many companies appear to be setting goals to introduce electric planes within the next 20 years. During this time, experts will need to enhance the electric battery in order to last longer distances. Domestic flights are a large percentage of overall trips, but having electric planes for international flights would be groundbreaking.

Regulations are also an area of importance as well. The Federal Aviation Administration must approve of and pass legislation in order for electric planes to be a viable option for commercial travel. This will take years of test runs and engineering to ensure that these planes will uphold the safest standards possible.

Last, the public will need to be able to trust electric planes. A new development will no doubt draw people in who are eager to experience the newest technology. But it will also bring about hesitation. People may want to wait to see how electric planes perform before getting onboard.

With electric aviation leading the developments in sustainability, the future will become greener. New innovations will come in the next 5 years that improve upon what experts have now. In 10 years, more improvements will come. And in 20, electric planes may be soaring across the sky.


Emily Folk is a freelance writer and blogger on conservation and sustainability. To see her latest posts, check out her blog, Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter, @emilysfolk!

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