I recently flew to Melbourne, Australia, to attend an ideas summit with fellow newsletter editors. My own speech about net zero came to a simple conclusion: none of you will ever see me again.
Much to my dismay, this didn’t seem to bother anybody in the audience. Until they realised why…
It seems that air travel is going to be a sacrificial lamb of the attempt to eliminate net carbon emissions. And the world is increasingly waking up to this rather awkward fact.
It starts off gentle enough, of course. We’re going to have to convert our aviation fleet to biofuels to cut their emissions.
But Boeing’s CEO is out warning that biofuels will “never achieve the price of jet fuel” and, as the Financial Times put it, “there is no cheap way of decarbonising air travel”.
Willie Walsh, the former chief executive of British Airways, added on the bit nobody wants to hear:
Anyone who says the costs of transitioning to net zero are going to be low or unnoticeable I’m afraid is fooling themselves.
Passengers will have to pay higher fares. We need to be honest with our customers. Airlines are not in a financial position to absorb that cost, so ultimately it will have to be passed on to consumers.
This is a bit of a problem for me, having committed the climate change crime of procreating beyond my replacement rate. Future air travel is getting exponentially more expensive.
But it doesn’t sound so bad. Until you consider what producing vast amounts of biofuels will do to the price and availability of food if we actually try to.
And if we don’t…
What about powering jets with hydrogen instead? The Hindenburg solution!
Well, hydrogen takes a lot of energy to produce in the first place, keeping costs high. A new study from the think tank Transport & Environment reckons “Aviation will need €300bn for EU green hydrogen switch,” says the Financial Times.
But at least we’ll still be able to fly, right?
Over at the UK universities group FIRES, they’re projecting a different sort of problem for any flights which do achieve net zero in a cost-efficient way. The UK’s airports will have to be closed. “All airports except Heathrow, Glasgow and Belfast close with transfers by rail” by 2029 and “All remaining airports close” by 2049 in order to reach net zero.
If that policy option sounds a bit radical for your liking, don’t forget that the French have already banned short haul domestic flights…
Of course, flights are only the beginning of the attempt to reach net zero. FIRES also modelled the need to end all freight shipping and to cut many of our current electricity usages by 40% while also electrifying just about everything that moves, which could be a tough combination.
Even if I could get to Melbourne again, there won’t be any cars available. At least, that’s my expectation given the amount of resources it’d take to make many cars available beyond the ban on combustion engines.
The National History Museum estimated what it’d take to convert the UK’s car fleet to EVs:
There are currently 31.5 million cars on the UK roads, covering 252.5 billion miles per year.
If we wanted to replace all these with electric vehicles today (assuming they use the most resource-frugal next-generation batteries), it would take the following:
- 207,900 tonnes of cobalt – just under twice the annual global production
- 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate (LCE) – three quarters the world’s production
- at least 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium – nearly the entire world production of neodymium
- 2,362,500 tonnes of copper – more than half the world’s production in 2018
Even if we only wanted to ensure an annual supply of electric vehicles, from 2035 as pledged, the UK would need to annually import the equivalent of the entire annual cobalt needs of European industry.
The letter to the Committee on Climate Change states, ‘In 2017 electric and hybrid cars accounted for about 0.2% of the UK fleet, so that clearly needs to change rapidly for this to reach 100% by 2050.
‘The stated challenge for all sales to be pure battery by 2035 is also a steep ask, given projections for vehicle sales, set to be around 2.5 million new vehicles per year.’
Once I settle into my hotel in Melbourne, presumably having walked from the non-existent airport, I could get fined for leaving my 15-minute city – an inappropriate emission of carbon.
By the end of the trip, I’m likely to have used up my carbon allowance and will have to forgo meat for a month to compensate. Which will be especially depressing in a poorly heated home as the heat pump conks out and rolling brownouts loom because the electricity grid wasn’t upgraded fast enough to handle intermittent energy, or because of a dunkelflaute’s lack of sunlight and wind.
At least we’ll be able to console ourselves when we read headlines like this from Bloomberg about the UK: “South Africa Beats Climate Goal as Blackouts Slash Emissions”.
Wonderful news! Bring out the Champagne!
All this begs the question why we’re still allowed to fly at all. I mean, if we must stop flying to save the planet then you’d think now might be the optimal time to do it.
Don’t let anyone leave the ground unless they’ve found a carbon neutral way to do it.
Instead, governments are intent on funding future net zero flights by taxing kerosene. Which is a bit self-contradictory, if you ask me. Relying on an energy transition by taxing what you’re trying to abolish might come up financially short…
But at least there’s hope for me to see my Australian friends again someday. More and more nations are hitting the brakes on net zero policies already, before most of them are even implemented.
Perhaps the prospect of being unable to travel to climate change conferences has struck the fear of carbon out of people.
Until next time,
Editor, Fortune & Freedom