Tuesday 23rd Jul 2019 - Logistics Manager Magazine

Can air cargo become carbon neutral?

The Freight Transport Association has decided that the government must prioritise air freight to achieve Britain’s future trading ambitions in a post-Brexit world. It told the government as much last week when it responded to a consultation on Aviation over the coming decades.

The news prompted one of my more cynical colleagues to suggest that the FTA was proposing more pollution, more CO2 and more global warming.

Harsh, I thought. But it is undeniable that aviation is a major contributor to CO2 emissions.

Malory Davies, FCILT, Editor.

Malory Davies, FCILT, Editor.

According to the International Air Transport Association, it accounts for two per cent of all global man-made CO2 emissions – some 859 million tonnes in 2017. And IATA is forecasting that passenger numbers could double to 8.2 billion by 2037 so that is set to rise significantly unless something changes.

Of course, most air cargo is carried on passenger aircraft. So there is an argument that if the planes are flying, then it is wasteful not to fill them up with all the cargo possible.

But, is it possible to have carbon neutral aircraft? After all, we are moving towards carbon-neutrality in road transport. Electric vans are already in use, electric trucks are currently being tested.

The idea of an electric aeroplane seems rather far-fetched – surely it would need a battery weighing tonnes to provide the necessary power, and if it got off the ground at all it would have a tiny range.

Turns out that there is a huge amount of work going into electric aircraft. Aero-engine manufacturer Rolls Royce is investing heavily in the technology. In fact it has just agree to buy the electric and hybrid-electric aerospace propulsion activities of Siemens.

Rolls Royce has already been working with Siemens on E-Fan X – an Airbus project to demonstrate hybrid electric propulsion at the scale required to power regional aircraft.

It is also working on Accel, a project to build the world’s fastest all-electric aeroplane. Accel’s first flight is due next year and it is expected to reach a speed of more than 300 mph.

It will have the most energy-dense battery pack ever assembled for an aircraft, providing enough power to fly 200 miles on a single charge.

It will take a few years of development before the world’s air cargo can be flow by zero emission electric aircraft, but the pace of development is faster than many of us ever thought possible.

However, there is another big challenge which will become more important as these technologies go live – generating enough zero-carbon electricity to power all these aeroplanes, plus all the homes and factories and trucks and vans and trains…