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Now & Next: Can flying go green? – in partnership with The Economist

Posted on 11 February 2021

The aviation industry has been hard hit by the pandemic. But is this the moment for a green reset? COVID-19 has arguably given the sector an opportunity to build back greener and faster – if the technology can keep up. Will sustainable air travel take off?

Pan American World Airways Clipper flight 100 nears its destination.

Narrator
It’s an industry that has changed the world and it’s now in crisis. But is this aviation’s moment for a green reset?

Celine FornaroHead of European Industrials, UBS
Covid has given an opportunity to build back green and faster.

Narrator
The technology race is on.

Val Miftakhov
There is absolutely opportunity for companies like us to change the world here.

Narrator
But are the runners fit for purpose? And will sustainable air travel cost more?

NOW&NEXT

Can Flying Go Green?

- Cranfield Airport, Great Britain

Narrator
Val Miftakhov is the CEO of a company committed to sustainable aviation.

Val Miftakhov
Of course it’s exciting uh, every time we are testing something new.

Narrator
And today he’s test flying a plane that can potentially solve aviation’s biggest challenge.

Val Miftakhov
This is the worlds’ largest hydrogen-electric aircraft flying right now. We hope for us achieving uh all the performance that we expect to achieve.

Narrator
His vision - to fly without polluting the skies

Val Miftakhov
We’re good, let’s do it.  Okay.

(Starts plane) Okay, let’s do the vax.

Narrator
In this plane hydrogen is being used in a fuel cell to run an electric motor producing zero carbon emissions.

Val Miftakhov
Obviously the only by-product of fuel cell operation is water uh so water vapour gets out into the atmosphere and is pretty harmless.

Narrator
Without decarbonising technologies like hydrogen, aviation could be responsible for 22% of the planet’s emissions by 2050. Because it can pack more energy into a smaller space, hydrogen has recently overtaken electric batteries as the front runner in the race for cleaner flying. Within 15 years the manufacturing giant, Airbus plans to introduce planes that burn hydrogen in engines as fuel and the EU believes that by 2050 hydrogen technologies could reduce the industries carbon emissions by up to 75%.

Val Miftakhov
We actually looked early on at different ways to bring sustainability to aviation. Hydrogen-electric is the most efficient and likely to be the lowest cost out of all.

Narrator
But there are plenty of obstacles to overcome before these hydrogen technologies are commercially viable. For starters, installing the infrastructure to distribute and produce hydrogen will be very pricey. At least 500 billion dollars by one estimate. What’s more, hydrogen will need to be produced sustainably using renewable energy to split water molecules and on top of that, hydrogen packs less energy into a given volume than jet fuel. So powering long-haul flights will mean extensive aircraft re-design.

Celine Fornaro
So you need bigger tanks, you need to change the shape of the aeroplane and then within the engine you need more sophisticated heat exchangers to deal with the hydrogen coming through.

Airlines are fighting for the future of their industry.

Narrator
The big problem for aviation is that green technologies cost a lot of money but there isn’t much to go around.  As the industry faces the worst economic crisis in its history and as environmental movements like Flight Shaming are on the up. Some in aviation are committed to greener skies, it’s just they can’t do it on their own. According to one of Britain’s leading figures on climate change and energy policy.

Adair Turner - Chairman, Energy Transitions Commission
I think the good news is that the industry has really redoubled its efforts to decarbonise.  I think we are seeing many examples of, of  leadership but we may also need you know, Government support in an environment where Covid-19 has very clearly hit the cash flows of the big incumbent players in a way which was not their fault.

Narrator
Even with Government’s help it will take at least two decades before hydrogen powered planes are ready for take-off. To reduce emissions in the nearer term aviation needs other options and a front runner has recently emerged.

Since July the right engine of this Airbus A321 has been powered by biofuel.

Sustainable fuels are made from synthetic sources or biological ones such as crops, algae or even waste.

Adair Turner
One of the great benefits of going down the sustainable aviation fuel, the biofuel or the synthetic jet fuel route is that it is a drop in fuel so that what happens at the airport doesn’t change.

Narrator
To pump up the flow of sustainable fuels, experts say Governments need to offer incentives to airlines.  That could mean rolling out taxes on dirty fuels and making airlines buy a certain proportion of cleaner ones.

Adair Turner
We have this chicken and egg problem as we call it of aviation companies who say, ‘we would love to buy sustainable aviation fuel if it was only 50% more expensive than conventional jet fuel but as long as its three times more expensive, this is prohibitively expensive’ and you have people trying to develop a sustainable aviation fuel, technologies who would say, ‘we could get the price down if only we had certainty of really big orders by a particular date’.

Narrator
And there’s another way Governments could speed up the shift to greener skies. Stumping up investment funds.

Val Miftakhov
So that’s interesting.

Narrator
Just ask the CEO who is trying to make hydrogen powered planes take off.  He says the 3.4 million dollars his company received from the British Government has been crucial.  He argues larger scale investment from the State as well as the private sector is key to making green aviation viable.

Val Miftakhov
It’s very hard to make um, the radically new technologies competitive commercially without Government support right from the beginning. Especially when you are in R&D phase, especially in the, such a capital intense industry as aviation.

Narrator
Going green may be the biggest challenge the industry has ever faced. It demands the right investment and policies to support a range of technologies and that might mean passengers need deeper pockets.

Adair Turner
It may be that there is a slight air ticket premium. I think we should simply pay it, I think we should say this is what we have to pay in order to have zero carbon flight.

Simon Wright
I’m Simon Wright, Industry Editor of The Economist. If you would like to read more about the future of aviation, click on the link opposite. If you would like to watch more of our Now&Next series, click on the other link. Thank you for watching and don’t forget to subscribe.

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