WHEB Commentary

Ted Franks

Greta gets clean away


August is the peak holiday season here in the northern hemisphere. Part of your correspondent’s holidays were spent sailing on the coasts of France and England.

I’ve been doing this for thirty years, in the same ancient leaky boat. This year, we were briefly in the same patch of sea as an altogether different type of sailing boat. Malizia II is a state-of-the-art 60ft flying machine, designed for round-the-world races.

It was loaned by its owner to transport climate activist Greta Thunberg to the UN Climate Summit in New York. Even in one of the world’s fastest yachts, the journey took 15 days.

The Mazilia II moves like lightning (for a sailing yacht) but it will have been an uncomfortable journey. Greta will have spent some time feeling cramped, wet, and shaken. She chose this way to draw attention to the negative environmental impacts of flying.

This is a good time to highlight the issue. With summer come global peaks in the numbers of passengers taking to the skies.

The world’s busiest flying days are typically in late July and early August. These records don’t last for long. The current record is less than 60 days old. On Thursday July 25th 2019, 230,000 flights were recorded[1]. As recently as June 2018, the record was 202,157.

The International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) records that almost 8 trillion passenger-kilometres were flown in 2017. This statistic is growing at something like 7% per year.

This creates an environmental challenge. Jet flights emit greenhouse gases in their exhaust fumes. Carbon dioxide is the largest, but particulates, oxides of nitrogen, and even water vapour trails have a negative impact.

The difficulty with this challenge is that there are limited responses available. Flying requires a huge amount of energy. At the moment, only fossil fuels really have the energy density required to make it possible.

There are turboprop and turbofan planes which are slower but emit less. There is lots of research currently underway into electric propulsion and aviation biofuels. But for now, displacing the fossil-fuel powered jet engine looks a long way off.

When there are credible alternatives, we will look to invest. We are already doing so for ground transportation. Our Sustainable Transport theme includes companies which provide less-polluting alternatives to road transport.

Wabtec is one of the world’s largest makers of rail equipment. JB Hunt’s intermodal business model transfers freight from highways to railways.

We also look to invest in environmentally preferable alternatives at sea. It’s not by chance that Greta chose to sail rather than take a powered vessel. The environmental footprint of cruise liners is as troublesome as aviation.

As part of a response, the International Maritime agency is planning to reduce the allowed sulphur content in maritime fuels from 3.5% to 0.5%.

Linde, in our Environmental Services theme, provides gasification technology to deliver that reduction. It is building a major new plant in Singapore to do just that. Intertek, in our Safety theme, has a business which helps shipping companies comply with the new standards.

Connecting the world is important, and travel both enables commerce and broadens the mind. Our strategy is to get behind technologies which make it possible without costing the earth.

 

[1] https://www.thenational.ae/business/aviation/thursday-was-the-world-s-busiest-day-for-air-travel-so-far-1.891516

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