Science - 21/November/2018

Electric flight prepares for takeoff

As emissions from global aviation rise, companies are beginning to look closely at the idea of using electric planes for short-haul flights as a potential solution

Emissions from global aviation are on the rise as more and more people take to the skies for weekend breaks, business trips and holidays in distant destinations. This trend is far from compatible with the need to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions to have the best chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change. Increasing attention is being paid to electric planes as a possible solution, at least for short-haul flights


A three hour flight from Berlin to London produces roughly 177 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions per person. Making the journey by car takes seven hours longer, but emissions are reduced to around 122 kilograms. Travelling the distance by train slashes personal emissions to just 32 kilograms, but escalates the length of the journey to 19 hours. In a world where time is of the essence, few opt to reject the convenience of the plane in favour of longer, more climate-friendly options. Some airline companies are starting to investigate whether the electrification of their fleet could be an answer to this growing problem.

Direct carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from global aviation are forecast to reach 897 million tonnes in 2018. This is 4.4% higher than in 2017 and means they will account for more than 2% of overall global greenhouse gas emissions. Passenger numbers are due to double over the next two decades and the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents most global flight operators, believes net CO2 emissions from aviation can only be stabilised at forecasted 2020 levels. Any further air travel growth will have to become carbon-neutral with offsetting measures, says IATA. It cites the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, which is due to begin as a pilot in 2021, but will not become mandatory for the around 70 participating countries until 2027. Such a slow response means efforts to stabilise emissions at 2020 levels are likely to fail. By 2050 global aviation could account for 12% of the cumulative 205 billion tonne CO2 emissions budget cap, which scientists say the world needs to keep below to ensure global warning stays under 1.5˚C, or face the irreversible collapse of eco-systems.
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