Over the past two years, a narrative has surfaced around aviation and sustainability. This crystallized 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 long to wait for a radical technological change in aviation. which offers pollution-free commercial air travel.
The history of aviation is adorned with groundbreaking inventions that revolutionized the industry and opened up new frontiers for aerospace. Savvy engineers, driven by political and business leaders, have achieved technical breakthroughs that have completely changed the way air travel happens. 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 goals was achieved at a time when computing power was only a fraction of what exists today. Each one required new thinking, was achieved in the span of a single decade, and was driven by governments determined to leverage aerospace to advance their respective societies.
Compare these breakthroughs with the announcements made by airlines, aircraft lessors and aircraft manufacturers in 2022 that indicate they are committing to zero net aircraft by 2050, 28 years from now. . There are a number of problems with these PR announcements.
First, net zero is a form of accounting terminology that suggests you can offset some pollution with other savings to get a net result. It does not produce a 100% pollution-free flight. Second, 28 is an absurd time for any industry leader. It would be like JFK saying in 1960 that he chose to go to the moon by 1988, or Winston Churchill saying in 1939 that he could defeat Nazism by 1967. All current leaders of the concerned aviation industry will be long gone by 2050, so their commitments targets are a bit hollow then.
Instead of slogans that seem derived from accounting and marketing departments, we need a much more ambitious and aggressive plan from the global aviation industry to solve pollution-free flying. This achievement will mark a significant contribution to healing the environment while giving air travel a major long-term boost.
Let’s forget the Toulouse Declaration and replace it with the Shannon Declaration which commits to deliver by 2032 a safe and approved short-haul commercial aircraft capable of carrying 200 passengers the same distance as the Boeing 737 / Airbus A320 current without emitting pollutants. This will require enormous resources. Americans have spent the equivalent of $260 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 depend on some form of hydrogen, electrical or nuclear power will be needed to achieve this feat, but the price is enormous. If aviation can offer a truly pollution-free platform, it will create instant demand from airports, governments, airlines and consumers who understand and appreciate the power of commercial aviation to drive economic progress. and societal. This would entirely remove any question mark over the role of aviation in supporting growth and expansion if it no longer pollutes the environment.
Of course, a huge risk exists if such an aircraft can be invented, and that may help explain the nonsense around 2050. There are approximately 30,000 commercial aircraft operating in the world today and each of them represents an investment of several million dollars. These are expected to have a commercial life of at least 20 years and are accounted for accordingly by those who own them. A non-polluting aircraft would render the existing fleet superfluous in a very short time, thus undermining the many billions invested in the sector.
Once a non-polluting aircraft is developed, it must be manufactured quickly in large numbers to replace the existing fleet. I can already hear the groans about how long that might take, as Boeing and Airbus together only produce about 100 short-haul planes a month. But here’s another data point to note. When the Americans activated their war machine after 1942, they hit a 1944 record of producing 9,000 planes in a single month, with factories that aerospace engineers would laugh at today. A production of just 1,000 aircraft per month would replace the global fleet in about three years. And let’s face it, we need a war machine mentality to fight environmental pollution from airplanes, not fancy 2050 videos.
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 played a key role in the invention of long-range intercontinental jet aircraft. He also worked on the development of what became the very popular Boeing 747 Jumbo. We need similar leadership now to drive a period of fundamental and rapid research and development that will deliver an all-new aircraft within a decade.
Ireland can play a major role in this endeavour. Some of the biggest aircraft buyers in the world – the leasing companies – are managed from here. Europe’s largest low-cost carrier – Ryanair – is based here and run by Irish management. These companies should aggressively push manufacturers, governments, and energy companies to come up with radical designs that are much faster for their business models and their customers.
The government can lead here too. Instead of mumbling about cutting flights as a way to tackle climate change, they should be strong advocates for new thinking about 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 of flying that directly tackle the scourge of pollution. Ministers are expected to urge the European Commission and the United Nations to vigorously accelerate programs that encourage the rapid development of new aviation technologies.
Net zero by 2050 is an easy comfort blanket that the aviation industry has adopted as a response to polluting planes. A dynamic spirit is now needed to quickly end aircraft pollution and open a new frontier for air travel and those who invest in it.
Joe Gill is Head of Origination at Goodbody Stockbrokers