While people have dreamt of electric-powered commercial flights for decades, most aviation professionals are sceptical that large amounts of people could viably be transported on battery-powered aircraft.
Despite the shift towards battery power in the automotive, rail and maritime industries, aviation still demands liquid fuel. Kerosene produces much more power per kilogram than batteries, which makes long-haul, large scale electric flight a serious technological challenge.
But for Guillaume Faury, CEO of Airbus, it is not necessarily just about trying to achieve electric flight. The industry should also be focusing on the realistic goal of decarbonisation, he believes. Faury recognises that battery-powered flight is feasible in many cases.
In fact, Airbus has invested heavily in its Vahana and CityAirbus eVTOL craft. It sees the urban mobility sector as a testbed for developing technologies which could be applied to its commercial arm. Faury says Airbus is serious about urban mobility because “it is a playground for decarbonised technologies”.
The eVTOL Vahana is one of Airbus’ flagship clean urban air mobility projects.
Outside of the ‘urban mobility sandbox’, Airbus is pumping cash into schemes designed to help the industry stabilise CO2 emissions between 2020 and 2035 and then reduce them from 2035 onwards. The plan is for the industry to have planes available in 2050 that emit 90% less CO2 than those developed around 2005.
Faury comments: “These are not the same planes. Why? Because we are developing those technologies. We believe it will take around five years to develop some of those technologies, then the development will start somewhere in the mid or the second-half of the decade. [The aim is] to have planes entering into service before 2035 and we will start to decarbonise big time from 2035 onwards.”
Any faster than the timeframe Airbus has forecasted would be unrealistic in Faury’s view. Nevertheless, he states that the company is prepared to make the long-term investment. And such investments from the main manufacturers will be important in convincing the wider public that the aviation industry is serious about the environment.
Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion both grabbed headlines in Europe earlier this year as various environmental movements sought to pile pressure onto governments and corporations. Aviation became a key target and the idea of ‘flygskam’ – flight-shame – emerged.
Faury says that the impact of planes on the environment is comparatively low compared to other industries, accounting four around 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. He says: “It has recently become very trendy to attack people travelling by plane. There is a lack of knowledge and a misunderstanding of data and that’s the part that I don’t like and think we need to do more explaining on.
"Fuel consumption per passenger per 100 kilometres on the Airbus A321 is two litres, which is significantly less than a car. So if you have to go from Paris to Marseille, it’s much better to fly than to go by car. You can compare it with trains. Trains are OK when you have the infrastructure, but in countries where the infrastructure does not exist, building one kilometre of rail is absolutely awful in terms of CO2 emissions.”
But Faury cedes that “2% is 2%” and says that the industry must take its CO2 contribution seriously: “What I like with [environmental] movements is that they raise attention and force us to take it seriously, which we do, and which we like to do. This being said, we don’t need agitation, we don’t need incorrect information or misunderstanding of the situation.
Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury.
"We need a global framework to be able to invest and we need a move to decarbonise the primary sources of energy. If we want to replace fossil fuels by something else it will mean artificial fuels in the plane and they will be produced by electricity. Instead of introducing taxes here and there for short-term wins, we need governments to invest big time in preparing the decarbonised era of primary sources of energy.
"And then the rest will follow. I’m welcoming the fact that some players are catching the attention of governments and taking this very seriously because it’s a long battle and it will take time to change.”
There is a case then that the aviation industry needs a better PR strategy. Having worked in the automotive sector for a decade, where diesel cars used to be the environmental scapegoat, Faury is well versed in the carbon debate.
He believes that the aviation sector needs to better explain what its carbon footprint is. For Faury, the sector must encourage people to look at the global picture and focus on all industries if the CO2 question is to be properly approached.
Certainly, an increasing consciousness around the environmental impact of flying has led to a surge in carbon offsetting. Faury believes that the industry must improve the transparency of the carbon offsetting market for customers.
He notes: “More and more people are ready to offset their flight. The quality of the offset today is still a big debate. I have looked at it personally, not as the CEO of a company but as an individual, and it’s very confusing. We need, as an industry, to get maturity on what is a good offset and ask how we spend the money appropriately to decarbonise what we are emitting.
"But again, we have to put this in perspective with other industries. We would like to make sure that it’s rational and fact-based and it makes sense. I don’t want to give the feeling that we are pushing back, I really want to take it head-on. We want to make that transition. We want our children and our grandchildren to be able to connect and fly around the world without an impact on the environment.”
Faury’s line of thinking is common within the aviation sector. But companies must be careful not to turn the renewed focus of environmentalists on aviation into a distracting PR war. There must be an internal will to invest heavily in reducing the industry’s carbon footprint. While we may not yet be able to quench aviation’s thirst for kerosene, there is certainly no harm in dreaming up and experimenting with unproven, cleaner technologies.