COVID-19, Green Aviation and the French

One of the least well-known and positive stories in managing greenhouse gases / carbon emissions (GHG) is that of the commercial aviation community, specifically commercial jets. Most people do not know just how good a job the aviation industry has done in increasing its fuel-efficiency and reducing its impact on the climate. With climate activists and some apparently otherwise normal folks engaging in the latest fad – flight-shaming, it remains a mystery why the commercial aviation community has not figured out how to better tell its good-news story on reducing its impact on our global environment. But fear not. The French government has lobbed a big, beautiful softball toward the commercial aviation community. Now is the time to step up and knock it out of the park.

Amid the governmental efforts seen around the world to mitigate the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the French government has crafted a singular approach; making aid to the commercial airline industry contingent upon accepting fantastical ‘green’ goals. The French government has now gone all in on the war on climate change, throwing its commercial aviation industry into the trenches. Perhaps this is the 21st century incarnation of Clemenceau’s ‘no matter what – I make war.’

Just for Context

Globally aircraft contribute about 3% of GHG. Slightly more if we can both verify and quantify the impact of contrails.

In the US the transportation sector (think planes, trains, automobiles…) contributes 28% of GHG. Within transportation, aircraft are 9%, or about 3% of total US GHG. Within that 9%, passenger travel accounts for about 80% and cargo about 20%.

For the period 1990-2018: Trains, on-road vehicles and aircraft volumes all saw increased volumes. Vehicle emissions increased by 30%. Train emissions increased by 10%. Aircraft emissions decreased by 7%.

For several decades now, aircraft and engine manufacturers have poured billions of dollars into research and development of more efficient airliners. One result has been that the energy efficiency of modern transport aircraft has been steadily increasing. Newer aircraft enjoy about a 25% reduction in energy density as compared to older aircraft. Today, nearly all the major airlines are ahead of schedule in meeting their target efficiency. ”All in”, the commercial aviation industry has spent more than $1 trillion dollars achieving its reductions in emissions over the last quarter century.

In keeping with their failing to advertise their owns success in reducing GHG, some in the commercial aircraft/airline businesses seem content to lie down and accept ever more ambitious goals heaped upon them by climate activists and their allies in government. One place environmental types seem to thrive these days is a presumably more enlightened Europe. As opposed, say, to us more backward types here in the US. Apparently at the head of the European climate charge (assault?) on the airline industry are our good friends in Paris. Since we backwoods Americans want to emulate our more mature brethren on the continent, let us now take a brief but enlightening look at the French government’s latest idea for battling climate change. Perhaps in it we shall find the seeds of enlightenment.

Thank You, May I Have Another?

In exchange for government aid perhaps allowing it to survive the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate wizards in Paris have in their peculiar flavor of enlightenment decreed that Air France must show a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions per passenger & kilometer by 2030 (as compared to 2005), a 20 year acceleration from the accepted industry target of 2050. Adding a nice condiment to that meal, for flights within France, Air France must reduce its CO2 emissions by 50% by 2024. For good measure as a garnish, 2% of the fuel used by its planes has to be from alternative, sustainable sources by 2025.

As one official notes, the practical impact of these strings likely includes a very significant cut in the number of flights the airline will be to operate within the borders of France. A knock-on impact will probably be to drive Air France passengers to move within the country either by car, bus or train. Perhaps Air France will purchase carbon-credits to help in achieving their lofty goals. But in doing it will probably heap further negative burden on its financial condition going forward.

Presumably Air France can increase ticket prices to offset additional expenses arising from this generous opportunity to (hopefully) survive the effects of the pandemic. That may in turn reduce the number of passengers on, and thus the number of flights Air France needs to operate.

Yes indeed, the plan is shaping up nicely. Just a bit more of that kind of thinking and the Holy Grail will ease into sight. Air France will in fact become the first zero GHG emissions airline in the world. Well, the latest one anyway; it will claim victory on GHG emissions with its left hand while its right hand signs the “going out of business” paperwork. No flights, no GHG emissions. Well done.

Time for That Usually Unpleasant Reality CheckHere’s a suggestion – let’s get realistic about this. Practical electric powered aircraft, at least of any size, remain a long way off. This despite the fawning of certain writers intent on continuing to tell us that the promised land is finally in sight. The hard truth is that the energy density problem facing electric airliners means that your ‘electric Boeing 737’ or ‘electric Airbus A321’ isn’t pulling up to any airport gate in the next couple of decades.

And while there has and should continue to be progress on the use of alternative/sustainable forms of jet fuels, we remain years away from their practical, at scale use.

Going Forward

Let’s reset the conversation and goals to require the continued incremental progress that the commercial aircraft community has been steadily making for decades. That includes continued progress on fuel efficiencies, alternative fuels, and potentially practical hybrid propulsion schemes.

These goals should not only continue to reduce aircraft contributions to GHG emissions but also allow for affordable air travel by both business and leisure travelers for whom the time in transit is a critical consideration. Most people don’t have the luxury of spending days getting to their destinations, or incurring additional expenses to do so. Providing affordable air options doesn’t negate the practical alternatives to air travel. They can peacefully coexist. If, for example, high-speed rail is a viable option, perhaps that offers a practical travel alternative (or supplement).

A wise person once said there are few solutions, just tradeoffs. To keep everyone honest when considering the options and their tradeoffs, let’s be sure to have a full accounting of the carbon sticker price, including all the related costs. From building to operating to maintaining the alternative forms of transport. We owe that to everyone involved.

The commercial aviation industry has done an above average job over the last quarter century improving the efficiency with which it operates and reducing its impact on our climate and environment. Its key stakeholders need to better communicate that record, herald for the progress it represents and use it as a basis for fashioning a practical path of continued progress and innovation.

Or, perhaps, we can all adopt the tactic of a certain young climate activist who, when it comes to international travel, simply steps on board the next available yacht for a cruise across the Atlantic. Just be sure to plan to spend a week going across and another week coming back. Perhaps a few more dollars in the budget for that trip might also be in order. Of course, if you have neither a great deal of time or money, this may not be your best option. In that case, look on the bright side – you can always go into the climate activist business.

Joe Huertas

September 2020

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