Vote #Flight

18 Jun 2014

Written by Dr Helen Czerski

Our planet is our life support system.  We live inside a stunning and complex engine consisting of the atmosphere, the oceans, rocks, life and the ice. As these components move, change, and interact, they provide the conditions and resources necessary for life to thrive and for our civilization to grow.

Those conditions have changed significantly over the millennia, and life has carried on, but the infrastructure of our civilization depends on the climate being almost exactly as it is today. The evidence is that the massive amount of carbon dioxide we are pumping into the atmosphere will change our climate, and if we can slow down those changes, we will have more time to adapt and less to adapt to.

Know your footprint

My lifestyle is mostly relatively environmentally friendly: I cycle everywhere, I’m vegetarian, and I pay attention to where my food and other commodities come from.

But if I’m honest with myself, as far as my personal carbon footprint goes, I might as well not bother. And that’s because I take several long-haul flights each year, both for my research and for the TV programmes I present. Even a single return flight to New York uses up most of my carbon allocation for a year.

It’s estimated that by 2050, 15 per cent of all carbon emissions will come from commercial flight. Being able to travel long distances so quickly has brought huge benefits to our society, and giving up flight isn’t going to happen. But could we do it differently?

Flying right

All commercial flights are currently powered by fossil fuels. But there are hints that a better future is possible. Perhaps we could use hydrogen as a fuel – the major exhaust gas from burning hydrogen is water. It might be possible to build better battery technologies, and to charge those batteries using solar or wind power. And maybe a completely new technology could change flight forever.

The topic of carbon-free flight has been identified as a potential Longitude Prize topic because these technologies are just at the stage where a focused push could change the whole field.

Small scale ideas (for example battery-powered planes) have been demonstrated, but a solution to this problem must be capable of being scaled up, capable of carrying the half million people that are in the skies right now, as you read this.

It is just over 100 years since humans first achieved powered flight. In all of that time, every flight has added extra CO2 to our atmosphere.