The Solar Impulse, a revolutionary plane propelled exclusively by the sun’s energy, has completed the first leg of a two-month voyage across the U.S. The aircraft has taken wing just as the conventional aviation industry has experienced setbacks in the U.S. and Europe to long-term plans to tackle climate change by making aviation carbon neutral.
Renewal of the world’s airline fleets is being counted on to provide a fifth of the aviation industry’s planned reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020. Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner was meant to herald a new generation of fuel-efficient commercial airliners using new design and materials technology. Lithium-ion batteries, lighter and more efficient than nickel-cadmium ones, were a part of that. Even though on April 19 U.S. regulators approved a revamped lithium-ion battery system for the 787, the battery’s well publicized problems that grounded the 787 fleet worldwide had already caused rival Airbus to drop plans to switch to lithium-ion batteries on its new wide-body jet, the A350-XWB, which is expected to make its first flight this summer.
Other airplane makers are also drifting away from the energy-efficient batteries. Canada’s Bombardier, the world’s fourth-largest plane maker, is attempting to break the hold of its U.S. and European rivals on the lower end of the 100-to-200-seat market with its new C-series plane, expected to make its maiden flight at the end of June. This, too, will use conventional batteries. Realizing the dream of a passenger plane with a net zero carbon footprint remains elusive.
Even with new fleets and retrofitted new technologies to older aircraft, more efficient operations and even biofuels, there will still likely be a carbon dioxide emissions gap to close if the industry is to achieve its goal of halving emissions from 2005 levels by 2050. Carbon cap and trade schemes are seen as the solution.
Here, too, a setback. The European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which sets an overall cap on carbon emissions for half of Europe’s industries, including aviation since 2012, suffered a legislative setback on April 16 when the European Parliament failed to vote through an interim measure meant to pave the way for longer-term carbon trading market reform.
Carbon trading was launched in 2009 as the centerpiece of the E.U.’s plans to reduce industrial greenhouse gas emissions cost-effectively. The failure of the April 16 vote has encouraged some analysts to compare the fate of carbon trading in Europe to what happened to it in the U.S., where it died in the Senate in 2010, never to be heard of again. However, there is still enough chatter about it in Europe to sustain some hopes that it could get another opportunity.
Meanwhile, the Solar Impulse soars above the political debates. The aircraft, which does not have commercial ambitions yet, will, all being well, complete its historic attempt to fly coast-to-coast across the United States in late June without having used a single drop of fuel or emitting any pollution.