Christiana Figueres: “The fact is that you cannot exempt any sector of the economy from these efforts. So you can’t say ‘We’re not going to fly because aviation is too high emitting.’ That is the wrong approach. The approach is: aviation and maritime and land transport, all three of them have to come down in their emissions.
“And it’s very interesting that in the last two weeks we have had an announcement from a very small start-up, as well as from Siemens, that aviation is moving in the direction of electrification. So Siemens was the last company that just put out last week that they foresee that ten years from now, they will be having airplanes that are fully electric with clean energy and they will have a thousand-kilometre range.
“So you already have in a very short time span, you already have flights that can be clean, certainly the short flights, and then we have to look at the longer ones. But it is not a question of changing one mobility for another. For the time being if you want to be responsible, yes, definitely go for the mobility with the lowest emissions, but that cannot exempt any sector. Every sector has to bring down its emissions… and aviation is coming!"
In the middle of the interview Nick asked a very important question about airline emissions. Quite frankly the response Figueres gave alarmed me! Rather than deal with reality she puts a positive spin on that situation with the news that in ten years there could be short-haul electric aircraft; after that she implies that long-distance aircraft will be developed. How much time do we have?
Setting the stage for this she has commented that business will act in self-interest rather than be stimulated to save the planet.
And yet, her answer to the airlines emissions problem is completely devoid of any understanding of the airline industry. The business model of the airline industry has critical aspects that contradict her optimism. For instance what about the fleet turnover rate? What about maximizing air time? What about existing, and in the pipeline, efficiency developments that are yet to deliver returns?
At the top end of the industry the fleet turnover average rate is in the high teens [years]. Aircraft are not sent to the scrapheap when replacements are introduced, they are sold down the food chain, and at the bottom of that food chain there are many aircraft over 40 years old. This is one way the low-cost short-haul carriers can make a profit because the invested capital in operational equipment is much lower than at the top end.
Aligned with this reality are the operating characteristics of the major carriers. Their objective is maximum airtime because when equipment is on the ground it is not considered to be in earnings mode: that’s assessed as during flying to destinations. Little can be done to improve the cost from point-to-point, but a lot can be done to improve the cost between flights. Over the last couple of decades, the way flights are scheduled through a sequence has become a major source of increased profitability. UPS knows an awful lot about this and has complex algorithms controlling the entire system.
Short-haul carriers, which would fall into her 1,000-km range, normally have the oldest fleets, and turn-around time is critical. I find it hard to conceive that these operators will convert on the basis of business self-interest, even if the super-capacitor or advanced batteries prove viable.
Developments in weight reduction (particularly carbon-fiber bodies), and thus fuel efficiency for long-haul aircraft, will dovetail, but the inventory of machinery and equipment to produce engines is considerable and writing it off will not be short-term.
For me that interview is more of the same: loaded with wishful and unsubstantiated thinking. Figueres is not short of staff and has access to immense resources. Could she not have asked for an overview of this critical aspect of transitioning? Absent that, it is the usual positive spin based on defining at best a future defined on spurious reasoning.
What are we going to do about the airlines because the situation defined in the attached graphic indicates that absent appropriate action this element alone will take us over the edge!