The future of aviation is in the air

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The aviation sector is particularly hard hit by the multiple overlapping crises. The pandemic hit many companies, with a hundred of them going bankrupt during the 2020-21 period, and many others did not fall because governments rescued them, such as Lufthansa in Germany, Air France or the Spanish Air Europa.

Now, when the restrictions have been greatly relaxed almost everywhere in the world, the problem that many of these companies have had is that when they returned to support a workload more and more similar to that of 2019, they did not have enough staff and there is no abundance of personnel willing to do certain jobs. It is not as easy as it may seem to get back to normal after a shock like the coronavirus. And it is not as easy because there are at least two other factors that make the future of aviation uncertain. The climate crisis forces us to move towards low- or zero-emission fuels as much as possible: biofuels, hydrogen, seem to be the best options. They seem to be.

Because the other big problem is energy. And there it is becoming increasingly clear that things are getting more complicated. For many uninformed people, war seems to be the reason for the energy crisis that is seriously affecting the entire world. However, this crisis had been showing signs of worsening long before the war began. The conflict has only accelerated an already inertial decline.
Jet fuel has become very expensive. Kerosene and liquefied petroleum gas have gone up 88% in Nigeria from last June to this June. For this reason, the African country, taking advantage of a generalized situation of price increases - in the world prices have risen 86% in the same period - has prioritized the sale of fuel abroad over domestic consumption, and has even banned domestic flights. It has not been the only country with restrictions. The list of countries with serious energy problems, such as rolling blackouts, is growing.

We are getting closer and closer to a future where flying will be much more expensive, there will be fewer companies, fewer flights and less fuel. This may exacerbate a dangerous trend that has been occurring: further widening inequality. In 2018 only 11% of people on the planet ever flew. But that figure is nothing compared to the following: 1% of the population is responsible for more than 50% of emissions. I repeat. More than half of the aviation sector's emissions are generated by 1% of the population.

Flying is a matter of class, one of the sectors where inequalities are most visible. That this situation will worsen - it will happen if we just let the market "order" via prices - is something we cannot allow to happen.
Should private jets be banned? In my opinion, yes. Their per capita emissions rate is enormously higher and would send a very interesting message to the rest of the population. Should there be a quota on flights? Perhaps some sort of passbook with a limit? This is more debatable, but we are certainly heading towards a world where aviation is going to be reduced no matter what we do. Rationing rationally will always be better than rationing in a way that only a few can access to take to the skies and pollute an atmosphere that is a common good. It is as much yours as Jeff Bezos'.

Turning to future options such as biofuels or hydrogen, the supposedly sustainable aviation fuels (CAS), a couple of things need to be understood before deciding if they are realistic and future-proof options.
Biofuels are very low in energy efficiency, and we cannot devote much land to their production at a time when the food system will also come under pressure from rising energy prices - which in turn will impact food prices - and although vegetable oils will also be used, these options are not as sustainable as they might seem.

As for hydrogen, there are many reasons to rule it out as a reliable bet:

  • It is highly flammable which will involve a lot of risk and the change/adaptation of much of the airport infrastructure, aircraft security checks, and so on.
  • It is energetically less cost effective. The electrolysis process to "produce" hydrogen involves tremendous losses and there will be no way to make this process much more efficient.
  • Emissions: As if all of the above were not enough, the greenhouse gas generation potential of hydrogen has clearly been underestimated. The hydrogen molecule is very small and has a very high tendency to leak into the atmosphere, causing it to bond with other molecules to form compounds such as methane, whose warming power is much higher than the dreaded carbon dioxide.

Concluding on the subject of hydrogen: at a time when there will be much talk of these "solutions", it must be understood that, in addition to the limitations already mentioned, many sectors will demand their share of hydrogen, and the European hydrogen strategy itself recognizes that the European Union will be unable to supply itself with enough hydrogen to be self-sufficient, and has therefore already signed agreements with many countries, especially in Africa, to import it from abroad. This brings us closer to very dangerous, unstable and unjust neocolonial models.

To sum up: practically all sectors will experience strong contractions during the era of energy decline that we are already beginning to experience, but some will be more exposed than others, and air transport is one of those that will suffer the most. A reduction in the number of flights is inevitable, both to meet the margins of the climate issue and because of the increasing scarcity of fuels and net energy that we will experience in the coming decades.

About the Author

Juan Bordera

Journalist and content creator.

August 12, 2022 — Juan Bordera

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