Tuesday, 26 June 2012

FLY AND BE DAMNED: What Now for Aviation and Climate Change? by PETER McMANNERS

FLY AND BE DAMNED: What Now for Aviation and Climate Change?
Zed Books, 2012, 182 pages, $26.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

In a future green world, will there be a place for aviation?  In Fly and be Damned,  Peter McManners thinks there will be but that air transport will look quite different.  Today, although total CO2 emissions from aviation are only 3% of total global CO2 emissions, annual passenger and freight travel by air is growing at twice that rate and will quickly become unsustainable.  McManners argues for curbing air travel consumption and for developing green air vehicles.

The biggest obstacle to both is the global 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation which ensures that aviation fuel for refuelling on international flights in hosting countries is tax free.  Cheap fuel was intended to boost aviation growth but it also acts as a disincentive to invest in alternatives to fossil fuel. 

Taxing aviation fuel is the essential first step, McManners argues, noting the absurdity that it costs three times as much to refuel a car in London than to refuel a plane at Heathrow.  Making flying more expensive will see less flying, especially in the low cost airline market which has spiked total passenger boardings to seven million a day.  The unnecessary ability to air-freight fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers from poor to rich countries will no longer exist (a £1 million annual import trade in the UK, for example), and rightly so.

A changed tax model will, says McManners, lead to a “surge of innovation” from the “green business community”.  Current improvements in aircraft efficiency (through aerodynamics, aircraft weight and fuel-efficient engines), better air traffic control (to reduce landing delays) and development of bio-fuels (which, however, take forests and agricultural land out of use and whose energy inputs outweigh energy output savings) are “too little, too late”.  Continued aviation growth will boost aggregate CO2 emissions despite such efficiency improvements.

McManners’ radically redesigned green air fleet will see conventional fuels for the power needed for take-off and headwinds but there will be solar cells and hydrogen for cruising fuel, use of above-cloud thermals, and hybrid aircraft/airships with lighter-than-air buoyancy from an inert gas like helium (unlike the German passenger airship, the Hindenburg, which caught fire from its highly flammable hydrogen in 1937 in New York).  Such flying will be slower and restricted to daylight hours.

Domestic short-haul flights will be replaced by fast rail (using renewable electricity or hybrid locomotives) whilst, for long-haul travel, modern ships powered by sail and renewable energy would be able to compete on price.

McManners’ green flying vision is intriguing although it is based on both an optimistic techno-fix to the problems of climate change and a significant residual role for fossil fuels.  His ‘enlightened’ business entrepreneurs also face an uphill battle against the vested interests of the aviation and fossil fuel industries whilst his forum for instituting a tax on aviation fuel (the G20) is congenitally futile as that body, consisting of governments (including Australia’s), is beholden to capitalist profit and growth.  The future of flying, in a green world, remains up in the air.