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If lofty rhetoric was enough to lift a plane into the sky, aviation’s future would be secure. At the Paris Air Show, leading companies gathered to hail a sustainable future. Aviation is entering its most exciting period since the dawn of the jet era, they say.
Excitement could give way to gloom. Jet-setting is taking a growing toll on the planet. Aviation accounts for almost 3 per cent of global carbon emissions, but could be a 10th or more of the total by 2050. Amid calls for tougher action, the industry needs a technological breakthrough to avoid being blown off course.
In Paris, there is buzz about electric engines. Rolls-Royce announced its purchase of Siemens’ electric plane unit, expressing confidence that all-electric propulsion would power smaller aircraft in the foreseeable future. Nearly 200 electric aircraft projects are under way, says consultant Roland Berger. UBS believes a shift to hybrid electric planes — using batteries and fuel — might begin as soon as 2022. In a possible $178bn market, Airbus, Boeing, United Technologies, Safran and Rolls-Royce are among the winners.
But electric planes cannot provide all the answers. The energy density of kerosene is as much as 60 times that of batteries. Swapping fuel tanks for vastly heavier batteries would not make sense for long flights. About 80 per cent of the CO2 generated by air traffic is on routes over 1,500km.
Low energy density is also a snag for hydrogen — though Airbus considers it worth exploring. Less futuristic are “sustainable aviation fuels”. Made from biomass, waste fats and oils, they can cut CO2 emissions by up to 80 per cent. But prices are two to eight times the price of petroleum jet fuel. Global capacity is just 0.05 per cent of jet fuel demand. This fuel might be more effectively used in road transport.
The industry faces tremendous technical challenges. If policymakers believe they cannot be overcome, what then? Higher taxes are a possibility. A recently leaked EU report discussed a jet fuel tax that would increase ticket prices by 10 per cent, cutting the number of travellers by a similar proportion. A consumer-led backlash is possible too. Such developments could make aircraft deliveries fall, says broker Jefferies. The environment could one day be ranked alongside conflict and trade wars in its potential to disrupt industry growth.
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