Will we still be flying in 2050?

What a new study says about the future of travel

Tågskryt is the new flygskam. In a previous edition of Midnight Weekly, we delved into these two Swedish buzzwords that express pride in taking the train, on the one hand, and the shame of flying, on the other. As increasing numbers of us wake up to the reality of the climate catastrophe, neologisms like these embody a rising awareness of the carbon impact of transport – and a fast-spreading desire to change the way we travel.

However, giving up flying completely would be a challenge for many. And we shouldn’t judge people for it. This week, we’ll instead be reflecting on whether we will still be flying in 2050 – and what conditions are necessary for that to be the case. A European sleeper-train company like ours, whose very mission is to rival medium-haul flights, clearly doesn’t make for the most impartial of spokespeople, so we decided to look at the data included in a recent report by organisation The Shift Project in collaboration with the Supaero-Decarbo collective.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a lot of difficulty for the flight sector, climate change poses an even greater (and more enduring) challenge. In this report, the researchers explored various paths the industry can follow to survive in the long term, based on findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The first is to define a ‘carbon budget’ that should apply to the aviation industry as a whole. This would set a maximum amount of greenhouse gas emissions all airlines would have to stick to. It’s a measure that many say should be put in place as soon as possible: before the pandemic, the International Air Transport Association predicted that the number of global annual plane passengers would double to 8.2 billion by 2037. Without setting a ‘carbon budget’, overseen by an independent authority, the sector will grow to an unprecedented size and have an even greater impact on the planet.

It goes without saying that the policy would be a hard sell for airlines, which would no doubt go all out to lobby against it. But the report also envisions another, complementary path for industry: one that relies on the future development of eco-friendly technology. In other words: engineers will have to find ways to make planes less polluting, one that will help airlines stick to those all-important ‘carbon budgets’.

In their report, the researchers speak of the promise offered by the first hydrogen planes for short- and medium-haul flights, along with the use of biofuels for long-haul trips. But these technologies are yet to be scaled up and are only really likely to get going from 2035. That means we will only start to be able to measure their impact from around 2050 at the earliest. So for the moment, those new green-fuel avenues remain a pretty risky investment for cash-strapped airlines.

As far as biofuels are concerned, at present many would involve the intensive exploitation of land – at a time when we have already reached Earth Overshoot Day, the date on which humanity’s resource consumption for the year exceeds the planet’s capacity to regenerate those resources that year (it’s July 21, for what it’s worth). In short, can humans – already five months indebted to Earth’s resources – really afford to exploit it any more?

Because technological advances won’t suffice to meet international climate targets, the report continues by posing the aviation industry a rather uncomfortable question: should we not just impoe new limits on air traffic? That’s what a lot of climate NGOs have been campaigning for for years, and the researchers suggest various ways of going about it: reduce the number of seats accorded to business class, so more people can fly on fewer flights; scrap the ‘miles’ system that encourages people to fly even when it is not necessary; ban flying where the train allows you to cover the same distance in less than four and a half hours; or taxing individuals according to how many kilometres they fly per year.

When it comes down to it, however, setting goals that have 2050 as an end date is very much out of step with the reality of climate change. Between now and 2030, some countries may even be underwater if we do not act now; that’s the grim reality, notably, for the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Because we’re convinced that trains, and above all night trains, can contribute significantly to alleviating the climate crisis, we’d really recommend measuring the impact of your own movements, using this detailed, educational emissions calculator.

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