FlyZero's Zero Carbon Plane Spotlights the Mixed Blessings of Visionary Concepts

There is a danger in placing too much faith in ideas and technologies that are decades away from realization.

A plane in flight flying over clouds

Aerospace Technology Institute

United Kingdom-based Aerospace Technology Institute unveiled its concept for a zero carbon, long-haul plane capable of carrying 279 passengers for distances as far as London to San Francisco. It prompted a whole slew of enthusiastic headlines about putting zero carbon flying on the horizon—and there’s good reason for that enthusiasm. As I’ve documented in confessions of my own climate hypocrisy, many of us in the top 10% of global wealth now find ourselves with family, friends, and professional connections that are spread out all across the world. 

As someone who would very much like to continue seeing my mum (and drinking proper British beer), I am as much of a cheerleader as anyone for low- and no-carbon aviation. That said, there is always a caveat when it comes to visionary concepts that are putting X, Y, or Z societal benefit "on the horizon." And that’s the question of how far away that horizon really is. 

In the case of the FlyZero concept mentioned above, for example, the horizon we are talking about is, according to the project’s own news release, well over a decade away: 

“Big technological challenges exist to realise green liquid hydrogen-powered flight but there is a growing incentive and reward involved in resolving these. And with other sectors also moving towards hydrogen energy, an increased demand is expected to lead to lower supply costs. A new generation of highly efficient hydrogen-powered aircraft with low fuel costs is forecast to have superior operating economics than conventional aircraft from the mid-2030s onwards.”

Even assuming the timeframe is realized—and plenty of other "green aviation" timelines have fallen by the wayside before—we’re only talking about the beginning of these flights, not an actual, full-fledged transition at that time. (Planes tend to have a very long shelf life.) 

Of course, none of this is to suggest the project is futile. Like recent efforts to scale up Sustainable Aviation Fuel, we should welcome credible steps toward lower-emission flights. We should also, however, not allow those improvements to become an excuse for business as usual.

As aviation emissions expert Dan Rutherford argued in a previous interview, we are not faced with a binary choice between technological improvement and demand reduction. In fact, the limited availability of truly sustainable alternative fuels—combined with the long timeframe for newer, zero-emission aircraft—means reducing our reliance on aviation is central to ensuring that these alternatives can eventually meet demand.

And, he argued, if business travel patterns change in a post-pandemic world, then lower emissions flight starts to look considerably more achievable:

“The pre-COVID baseline was that demand was growing by 5% per year, while fuel efficiency was improving by 2% per year. Post-COVID, we might be looking at something like 3% annual growth in traffic, and we believe that 2.5% efficiency improvements per year are achievable long-term. That almost gets you to flat emissions. How much could new planes, electrification, SAF, route improvements, demand reduction achieve when combined? A 50% reduction in absolute emissions by 2050 certainly doesn’t look as crazy as it once did.”

From woven bamboo concept cars to low carbon "cities of the future," Treehugger is no stranger to visionary concepts and wild imaginings of a saner future. There’s an important place for these ideas as a way to shape what’s possible and move our imagination beyond the status quo. That said, there is also a danger in placing too much faith in ideas and technologies that are decades away from realization, as they can serve as a fig leaf for doing nothing different in the present. 

From bikes to telepresence to eating some darned vegetables, so many of the climate solutions we need are already here—and provide a myriad of advantages over the fossil-fueled status quo. So by all means, let’s continue to dream about, and invest in, FlyZero and other technological improvements. But let’s not let that get in the way of doing what we need to do today.