Up to 4 percent of human-generated CO2 emissions come from aviation. Commercial flight emissions are rising up to 70 percent faster than earlier projections, and could account for 22 percent of global CO2 emissions by 2050 if significant action isn’t taken.
Still, clean aviation is often viewed as a pie-in-the-sky proposal in the fight against climate change. Efforts to reduce carbon emissions are largely focused on ground transportation. When attention is paid to the aviation industry, it focuses on expensive synthetic fuels. While a great improvement over current fossil fuels, synthetic fuels do not enable the drastic CO2 reductions needed to make a long-term difference.
Electric aviation is rising to the occasion. Today, we are on the cusp of a revolution that promises to revive the type of monumental changes achieved when the powered Wright Flyer flew in Kitty Hawk, or when the jet engine was introduced in the early 1940s.
In the last 12 months, we have witnessed successful, record-breaking flights of all-electric aircraft. With zero emissions, these revolutionary aircraft have done what until recently was said to be impossible. Electric propulsion is now being combined with new hydrogen and battery technologies, which will soon enable retrofitted aircraft to fly a little over 100 miles, and newly designed electric aircraft to fly up to 500 miles. The implications of these developments are staggering when considered alongside the fact that 100 miles represents 5 percent of worldwide airline flights, and nearly half of all commercial air travel is less than 500 miles in range.
For the first electric car companies, the first few miles were the hardest. Tesla did not begin with large sedans or semi-trucks, but rather with small, limited-range two-passenger cars. Yet electric cars are so prevalent today that we have forgotten that many were skeptical of their viability when they were first introduced just a few years ago.
However, we need buy-in from federal officials for electric aviation to truly take off.
Rep. Rick Larsen’s (D-Wash.) amendment to the Clean Jobs and Energy Innovation Act, which passed the House in September, is a strong step forward. The amendment calls on the U.S. Department of Transportation to catalog climate change mitigation efforts, identify barriers to adoption and develop a roadmap for U.S. aviation to meet emission reduction goals.
Yet, more government support is required to accelerate the improvements needed in the aviation industry. Tax incentives for development, utilization and other technological advances will compel the industry to focus on innovation. Imagine small operators earning a federal grant or tax break for starting new zero-emission, cost-effective flight services. Grants and capital investment could be funneled to airport charging infrastructure to support widespread use of electric aircraft. Developing and expanding the workforce needed to build and maintain tomorrow’s fleet of electric airplanes could create a new category of jobs and economic growth.
Aspirational policies – such as requiring all flights shorter than 200 miles to be zero-emission or shorter than 500 miles to emit 50 percent less than today – will motivate traditional aircraft operators and manufacturers to move toward cleaner aircraft. These suggested incentives and policies are bold, but not unheard of. There is no reason the United States should not and could not be a global leader on this front.
To be clear, electric aviation is already burgeoning because the private sector is buying into it. Startups are funded, and partnerships are taking shape to ensure electric solutions are commercially viable. But as long as Congress sits on the tarmac, mainstream U.S. aviation will remain grounded in high-cost, polluting technology. The United States simply can’t afford to wait while other countries widen the gap in aviation innovation. Norway set a target date of 2040 for zero-emission domestic flights. Sweden has a similar goal for 2030. The European Union and the U.K. have committed tremendous amounts of funding to support zero-emission, carbon-free flight.
Electrifying commercial air travel is a win-win for combatting climate change and bolstering the aviation industry for the future. Congress should put its best foot forward and take bold action to make this a reality sooner rather than later.
Roei Ganzarski is the CEO of magniX, an industry-leading manufacturer of electric propulsion systems for commercial aviation based in Redmond, Wash., and he is also the chairman of Eviation, the electric aircraft manufacturer.
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