Magical fuels and other, more immediately available, ways to travel sustainably

Colleen Galbraith is transported to a world of sustainable aviation while watching Ollie Haas’s TEDxTinHau Countdown talk.

Ollie Haas presents his TEDxTinHau Countdown talk ‘Flying on Magic Fuels’. Photo by Alex Macro.

While Hong Kong’s airport has moved since my first trip to Kai Tak in 1990, Hong Kong’s International Airport is one of the world’s busiest passenger airports. HKIA’s vast new third runway project due to complete in 2024 is on a scale almost equivalent to building a new airport next to the existing one

Ollie explained that if aviation were a country, it would have been the sixth biggest CO2 emitter in 2018. Pre-pandemic travel restrictions, Ollie estimates that 65% of his annual carbon footprint related to air travel and that he made 10-15 round trips by air per year. His strong environmental values clearly conflict with the air travel he and I associate with being a modern global citizen. So, what can be done?

Ollie has a strong belief that we can change climate change in the aviation industry, and here are his ideas worth spreading:

  • Batteries – within the next five years Ollie estimates that battery powered aeroplanes will be able to cover 1000km (the distance from Hong Kong to Taipei or from London to Milan). Solar or wind powered batteries have a lower overall environmental impact than jet fuel. While there are constraints such as the weight of the battery, hybrid models will allow for further distances.
  • Waste to energy – although converting waste into plane fuel will still result in greenhouse gases, the cleaner burning fuel and lower emissions have led some airlines to start using blends with biofuel in their existing aircraft. While switching from fossil fuels completely would be expensive and difficult, it’s not impossible. 
  • Hydrogen – last month, Airbus revealed three concepts for zero-emission commercial aircraft which could be flying passengers by 2035. The concepts rely on hydrogen, the first element in the periodic table and the most abundant in the universe. Hydrogen can power planes if it is burnt or using fuel-cells and the only byproduct is water.]
Watch Ollie’s talk ‘Flying on magic fuels’.

Many of us have cancelled flights over the last year and changing travel restrictions may make rearranging trips challenging for the time being. Ollie has two options for our next trips by air:

  • Fly less – while this doesn’t sound fun, Ollie reasons that many people will have learnt to adapt their travel behaviour during the pandemic and that unnecessary business travel and travelling to the farside of the globe for short holidays will be less common.
  • Carbon off-setting – Even though the International Air Transport Association (IATA) says that there was a 140-fold increase between 2008 and 2018 of passengers offsetting through voluntary programmes, this is just 1% of passengers. While buying carbon off-setting vouchers from your airline (if they offer it) or a third party to reduce CO2 is not a silver bullet, Ollie suggests travellers should be more responsible in managing their own emissions.

As the pandemic has caused many aspects of our lives to “pause”, Ollie’s ideas have prompted me to take time to reflect on my travel habits and to take action on the transport within my control. As Hong Kong’s autumn weather arrives, I have stopped relying on Hong Kong taxis in favour of walking around the city more. I have also been more appreciative of the efficiency of the MTR for longer journeys. I hope it’s not too long before I can see my family in person. Before I board my next flight, I am comparing the airlines with off-setting options and researching third party carbon off-set programmes

Colleen with her family before a childhood flight. Will the magic of future travel be the fuel? Photo courtesy of Colleen Galbraith.

Ollie reasons that although there aren’t immediate solutions to aviation’s sustainability problem, the future of sustainable flying is not a quantum leap. I grew up in an area with roughly the same land mass as Hong Kong but with only 0.8% of Hong Kong’s population. As a child, I could only dream of living somewhere as unique as Hong Kong, from its skyscrapers to its country parks. As Ollie suggests, from the first Wright brothers’ flight 117 years ago, to supersonic Concorde travelling at twice the speed of sound a little over 50 years later, it is only by daring to dream that we can make sustainable air travel and businesses like Rabbit Airlines a reality. 

You can #JoinTheCountdown with the Count Us In aggregator. Commit to fly less, drive electric or walk more at Count-Us-In.org

Colleen Galbraith is a qualified lawyer and is currently studying for the Masters of Corporate Environmental Governance at the University of Hong Kong.

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