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The future of aviation

How quickly times change.

Most people have been aware of the idea of climate change for about a decade, but rising awareness of
carbon dioxide as a pollutant was coupled with rapidly increasing consumption of fossil fuels.  Globalisation and shopping online created a world in which people and products moved more and more.  Efforts to curb fossil fuel consumption faced the rise of the SUV.  But declining fuel efficiency in the US and increased fuel consumption in China and India, coupled with stagnant oil production pushed oil prices up.  I remember when oil prices fell to around $9.00 a barrel in the 1980s.  The first Gulf War pushed prices up to around $20, but it was only a few years ago that OPEC was arguing about production cuts to keep prices in the high $20-a-barrel range.

How quickly times change.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, and oil prices were in the $130-a-barrel range.  While gas prices in the US had been creeping upward for years, it didn’t seem to hit home with the public until this year.  It seems like people had been looking at the price increases as temporary spikes.  While gas prices had doubled in the Bush years, no one really seemed to have noticed.  But when rising oil and gas prices came coupled with a major economic downturn, people finally woke up.  All of a sudden everyone is talking about the end of The Age of Cheap Oil.  Hybrids are no longer an affectation, and plug-in electric cars are something more than “pie-in-the-sky”.  The need to make a change from a world economy based on fossil fuels to one based on renewables has now become a mainstream idea.

Realistic models exist to move beyond fossil fuels in many areas, but air travel remains a major uncertainty.  We may be seeing the last days of the cheap air travel that most people take for granted.  Writing in The New Republic, Bradford Plumer looks at some of the changes that the end of cheap air travel (and air freight) would bring about.  It’s an interesting read – I fly much, and the idea of flying across the country/continent for a weekend really isn’t something I can relate to.  But while I get home far too rarely, there is no alternative to flying when it comes to a trip home.  And there’s the rub – fast trains already take people across Europe almost as quickly as planes can.  While that option doesn’t exist in most of the rest of the world, you’re talking about proven technology.  But for trans-oceanic transport, the only real option is flight.  Airships are a possibility, but Plumer mentions that it would take 40 hours to cross the Atlantic in an airship, and helium availability poses a real limitation.  Never bet against human ingenuity, but the solutions aren’t there yet.

The comments are also quite interesting.  The first few are sensible, but then they degenerate into denialist nonsense.  Predictable, but sad.

H/T Tim Fernholz (TAPPED)


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