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Planes, trains and automobiles: Mitigating the climate impact of transport

By: Julia Fitzgerald, Transport Sector Lead

When it comes to the issue of sustainable transport, the whole sector, irrespective of mode: plane, train, lorry, bus, car or ship, is increasingly in the spotlight. The cruise industry regularly receives press attention regarding the environmental impact of cruise ships but other segments also feel the pressure of the press falling on them ready to critique their efforts at ‘going green’.

The aerospace sector in particular is undergoing massive changes, with a key consideration being the fuel consumption of aircraft and the fuel used to power airline fleets. In partial mitigation, UK-based long-haul carrier Virgin has already announced that it will make history when it operates the world's first transatlantic flight powered entirely by sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) at the end of November this year.

Steps like this are huge news for the industry, with businesses (including a number here in Cardiff) now also looking at SAF to significantly reduce carbon footprints and emissions. With the longer term view in mind, research organisations such as Cranwell are investigating alternative fuel options including hydrogen fuel cells, which also require significant changes in the design of aircraft as well as the logistical implications around transportation and safe storage of the hydrogen itself. The solution is not easy, nor is it quick and cheap.

Sustainable Aviation

As noted above, aircraft operators are already looking to reduce their reliance on conventional jet fuel in favour of SAF fuel options, however, there remain questions around technology and cost.

Currently, analysts believe different fuels and energy densities mean that hydrogen is likely to be the fuel for medium and long haul flights, which is about 80% of the flight miles.

Airbus has also announced a test programme using hydrogen for medium and long haul flights, but for many in the aerospace industry, 2030-35 is the goal for implementing sustainable aviation fuels with 2050 as the date for more significant changes and to give time to develop those.

It’s not just about the planes

Legislative and structural changes will also have an impact. France, for example, has already stopped short haul flights and placed the emphasis on rail travel as a replacement. Four hours or more is the current benchmark for flights, although this may be reduced to two hours in the future.

When it comes to powering infrastructure on the ground there is recognition of the need to focus on the environmental footprint of transportation facilities. In this regard there are many issues in relation to electricity. Put into perspective, it was mentioned in a panel of sustainability experts recently that the amount of green electricity that the UK currently generates on an annual basis will only supply 80% of the needs of Heathrow Airport for a year. Other technologies will need to not only fill that 20% gap but to allow for the rest of us to benefit from environmentally friendly energy in our homes and offices.

The question of timing

The timescale for the planned introduction of alternatives is currently set for five years. However, such wholesale change (bearing in mind the change is across all transport modes, not just aviation) requires more than just words and tests. Introducing new infrastructure, new vehicles and vessels or entirely new power-related technologies will require investment and the focus of many individuals and academic, corporate and public bodies on national and international basis. Currently I would question whether there is a long term plan; if there is, it’s hard to divine.


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