Over the past two years a narrative has surfaced around aviation and sustainability. This crystallised in the Toulouse Declaration, which was launched to much fanfare earlier in 2022, and outlines a plan to achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2050. This article argues that 28 years is too long to wait for a radical technology step-change in aviation that delivers pollution-free commercial air travel.
Aviation’s history is festooned with dramatic industry changing inventions that unleashed new frontiers for aerospace. Far thinking engineers, prodded by political and business leaders, made technical breakthroughs that utterly changed the way in which air travel occurs. Classic examples included the transition from propeller driven aircraft to jet engines, the plan to put men on the moon, and the development of supersonic commercial air transport (Concorde). Each of these was achieved in an era when computing power was a fraction of what exists today. Each of them required new thinking, was achieved within a time period of a single decade, and was prompted by Governments intent on leveraging aerospace to advance their respective societies.
Compare those breakthroughs with the announcements by airlines, aircraft lessors and aircraft manufacturers in 2022 that says they are committed to net zero air travel by 2050, a full 28 years away. There are a number of problems with these public relations announcements.
Firstly, net zero is a form of accounting terminology that suggests you can have a bit of polluting offset by other savings to deliver a net result. It does not produce 100 per cent pollution-free flight. Secondly, 28 years is a nonsensical period for any industry leader. That would be like JFK saying in 1960 that he chose to go to the moon by 1988, or for Winston Churchill to say in 1939 he could beat nazism by 1967. All the relevant current aviation industry leaders will be long gone by 2050 so their commitments to targets by then are a tad hollow.
Instead of slogans that seem derived by accounting and marketing departments, we need a much more ambitious and aggressive plan by the global aviation industry to solve pollution-free flying. That achievement will mark an important contribution to healing the environment while giving air travel a major long-term boost.
Lets bin the Toulouse Declaration and replace it with the Shannon Declaration that commits to delivering a safe and approved commercial short-haul aircraft by 2032 that can carry 200 passengers the same distance as current Boeing 737/Airbus A320 equipment without emitting pollutants. This will require enormous resources. The Americans spent the equivalent of $260 billion (€250 billion) over 10 years to land men on the moon and I suspect something similar is needed here to make the necessary breakthroughs.
Engines that rely on some form of hydrogen, electric or nuclear power will be needed to achieve this feat but the prize is enormous. If aviation can deliver a platform that is truly pollution free, it will create instant demand from airports, Governments, airlines and consumers who understand and value the power of commercial aviation in driving economic and societal advances. It would remove entirely any question marks about aviation’s role in supporting growth and expansion if it no longer pollutes the environment.
Of course, an enormous risk exists if such an aeroplane can be invented, and it may help explain the baloney around 2050. There are about 30,000 commercial aircraft operating globally at present and each of them is a multimillion dollar investment. These are expected to have commercial lives of at least 20 years and are accounted for accordingly by those who own them. An aircraft that is pollution free would make the existing fleet redundant in a very short period, thereby undermining the many billions invested in the sector.
Once a pollution-free aeroplane is developed it must be manufactured in large numbers quickly to replace the existing fleet. I can hear the groans already of how long that might take because Boeing and Airbus together produce only about 100 short-haul aircraft a month. But here is another datapoint worth noting. When the Americans dialled up their war machine after 1942 they hit a record in 1944 of producing 9,000 aircraft in a single month, with factories that would be laughed at by aerospace engineers today. A production run of just 1,000 aircraft per month would replace the global fleet in about three years. And lets face it, we need a war machine mentality to tackle environmental pollution by aircraft, not fancy videos about 2050.
Juan Trippe, the inspirational leader of Pan American when it was the world’s largest airline, was renowned for pushing aircraft manufacturers to make radical technical breakthroughs. He was key to the invention of long-range intercontinental jet aircraft. He also hustled for the development of what became the highly popular Boeing 747 Jumbo aircraft. We need similar leadership now to drive a fundamental and fast-paced period of research and development that delivers an all new aeroplane within a decade.
Ireland can play a major role in this endeavour. Some of the largest buyers of aircraft globally — leasing companies — are run from here. The largest low cost carrier in Europe — Ryanair — is based here and led by Irish management. These corporations should be aggressively pushing manufacturers, governments and energy companies to bring forward much quicker radical designs for their business models and customers.
The Government can lead here, too. Instead of mutterings about reduced flying as a way to tackle climate change they should be strong advocates of new thinking around commercial air travel. Shannon Airport could be positioned as a Sustainable Aviation Campus that attracts academic institutions, private companies and Governments to research and test all new ways to fly that directly tackle the scourge of pollution. Ministers should be pushing the European Commission and United Nations to robustly accelerate programmes that encourage rapid development of new aircraft technologies.
Net zero by 2050 is a facile comfort blanket that the aviation industry has embraced as its answer to polluting aircraft. A can-do spirit is needed now to end pollution from aircraft quickly, and unleash a new frontier for air travel and those who invest in it.
Joe Gill is head of origination at Goodbody Stockbrokers