At 10.35am on a windy morning on 17 December 1903, a wobbly contraption constructed from wood and cloth accelerated along a beach in North Carolina. Perhaps inexplicably, it lifted into the air. For the next dozen seconds, the machine maintained an altitude of around 20 feet – precarious, but undeniably airborne – before descending and coming to rest 120 feet from where it had taken off. For the first time in human history, the dream of powered flight had been achieved.
Orville Wright’s pioneering journey as pilot of the Wright Flyer ushered in a new age in human mobility. But surely it was beyond the imagination of even the Wright brothers to envisage a world in which more than 200,000 planes would fill the skies above our heads on any single day, a threshold that was broken in 2018. From what was essentially a long hop across the ground, Qantas recently tested the world’s new longest flight, an incredible 16,200km (10,066-mile) journey stretching all the way from New York to Sydney.
Air freight – from perishable foods to vital medicines – is relatively small in terms of volume, but highly valuable to the global economy, with 64 million tonnes of cargo transported annually by aircraft. From trade to tourism, finance to football, it’s hard to grasp the many ways in which cheap and fast aviation has transformed the modern world, enabling a truly global economy to emerge.
Yet while the industry continues to boom, dark clouds are gathering on the horizon in the form of aviation’s persistent and increasingly large carbon footprint. While by no means the instigator, perhaps to be considered at the centre of this particular storm is Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who has become a figurehead for the ‘no-fly’ movement. In Thunberg’s native Sweden, flygskam (flight shaming) has become a popular buzzword, where those who choose to keep both feet on the ground stigmatise those who opt for journeys by aircraft (a rival word, smygflyga, describes the process of flying in secret). Worryingly for the aviation industry, it is a trend that appears to be slipping across borders, with thousands in the UK, Germany, the US and others pledging to be ‘flight free’ in 2020.
So where does this leave aviation? While car manufacturers turn to electric vehicles and fast food establishments whip up their trendy new vegan menus, what can the likes of Boeing and Airbus – not to mention the many airlines who actually purchase these enormous aircraft – do to prevent themselves becoming lumbering dinosaurs caught in the headlights of public demand for a reduction in their emissions in the face of looming climate change? Could climate-friendly aviation ever become a reality? If not, what are the options available for consumers who wish to sidestep aviation? Ultimately, in a climate-constrained future, can we justify not dismantling aviation altogether?
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