Tony Blair has said that he will keep on flying - which rather flies in the face of comments from the Environment Minister that the cheap airline Ryanair is "the irresponsible face of capitalism" in its opposition to an E.U. carbon emissions scheme - adding that it is impossible to expect people to make personal sacrifices by taking holidays closer to home. There are so many issues attending the subject of air travel, that many key points become obfuscated by spaghetti policies. On one hand we should (as a nation) be cutting our CO2 emissions, and yet plans advance for the fifth runway at Heathrow Airport. So does this mean that planes are exempt from consideration in reducing CO2; and then are cars and other road vehicles exempt too, since there seems to be no credible action underway to provide an alternative (non-oil based) means for road transport? "Use the trains", we hear, and yet there are all kinds of troubles with the railway network, especially since it was sold off from what was British Rail years ago, and only now is necessary work being undertaken to shore-up much of the infrastructure. Mr Blair contends that "Science" will find solutions to airborne CO2 emissions, and there is some room for hope in that. It is feasible that better fuselage designs could cut fuel use (and hence CO2 emissions from planes) by 30%, but not for another 30 years, as the plans are still on the drawing board. No airline will adopt such an untested type of plane unless it is sure that it will recover its costs in doing so very quickly. There is a lot of competition between airlines in the U.K. and in Europe (as has been the case in the U.S. for decades), especially from budget companies like Ryanair, and a cynic might wonder if this is what the environment minister was really referring to - that they are being irresponsible in taking profits way from establishment capitalism (the larger and more expensive national airlines) , not necessarily as capitalism per se.
Biobutanol is a word you may or may not have come across, but it is being mentioned as a potential future aviation fuel. Bioethanol: everybody is talking about that, but (bio)butanol is a less "combusted" alcohol and will release more energy when it is burned weight for weight, closer to gasoline or aviation spirit (kerosene). Most biofuels such as biodiesel become very viscous (thick or syrupy) at the low temperatures typically encountered at normal flying altitudes, which have the advantage of saving fuel through reduced air resistance than encountered lower down in the atmosphere. Highly viscous fuels would pose a real problem since they cannot be pumped easily around a jet-engine. In contrast, bioethanol remains a low viscosity liquid down to these and still lower temperatures. There are safety issues over running planes on ethanol (although probably not to the extent of running planes on hydrogen) and so biobutanol might be thought likely to prove itself as the useful alternative fuel to kerosene. However, pure biobutanol is even more viscous than kerosene (similar to a high quality deisel fuel) and would need to be introduced as a mixture with kerosene, therefore not eliminating the need for the latter entirely. True, burning biobutanol will produce CO2, as is the case for all carbon containing fuels, but there is the potential benefit that it is produced from a crop which hence must absorb CO2 from the atmosphere by photosynthesis during the growing season before it is harvested. The crop will probably not absorb 100% of the amount of CO2 that will be generated by burning the biobutanol obtained from it, but there is still an improvement over burning oil-based kerosene alone, in proportion to the fraction of that final fuel which is actually butanol (e.g. a 5% butanol:95% kerosene mix would make no real difference, whereas 50:50 might). Also, if that biobutanol can be produced on our own shores, we are less dependent on imported oil to run our fleet of planes. However, I would guess that the amount that can be produced given the available area of arable land in the U.K. is highly limited and would compromise food production to make any significant quantity of it. In any event, since we cannot run the existing number of planes on pure biobutanol and still need kerosene, how, other than by means of imported oil and consequently raising CO2 emissions, are we to treble the number of flights by 2030, as the government has projected. By then the world will have got through well over half of its remaining one trillion barrel proven reserve of oil, and so planes will long have given way to other necessities that are underpinned by oil. It seems to me that projected demand and limited fuel supply are two forces pulling in opposite directions. The dearth of fuel must win out since it is a simple consequence of depleting a finite supply - and this must cause much of transport (all, road-borne, sea-borne and air-borne) to grind to a halt. Widescale coal liquefaction could in principle produce very great quantities of fuel and yet, with only 15 years left until we have used half the oil there is now remaining, not one single coal liquefaction plant has been built in the U.K. Science cannot save even the existing burden of air-travel, even if we were to implement new technologies immediately, and there appears no serious intent to do so. There will be more pressing needs for oil to support survival on the ground. It is a less mobile and consequently more localised society that awaits us, and widespread plane travel is a mere luxury against that stark backdrop. Capitalism must shoulder its responsibilities more pressingly at ground level, whatever face it chooses to show of the many we have seen so far.