The launch of the Green New Deal resolution sparked significant criticism for supposedly proposing that high-speed trains could be used to replace air travel and its carbon pollution.
House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney (R-WY) claimed the Green New Deal — a plan to rapidly decarbonize the entire economy — would “outlaw plane travel.”
But while the resolution, introduced this month by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), makes no such claim, it does fail to consider a game-changing technology for cutting the carbon pollution caused by air travel while still traveling by air: electric planes.
As one of its major goals, the resolution proposes “overhauling transportation systems… to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible, including through investment in” zero-emission vehicles, mass transit, and “high-speed rail.”
It’s true that a “frequently asked questions” document that was briefly posted on Ocasio-Cortez’s website contained language suggesting bullet trains could ultimately replace domestic air travel. But the document was quickly removed, and Ocasio-Cortez said it was a “draft” that never should have been posted.
Still, that was enough for conservative commentators to seize upon when criticizing the resolution. New York Times columnist David Brooks, for instance, wrote that “the authors of the Green New Deal assume that technocratic planners can master the movements of 328 million Americans and design a transportation system so that ‘air travel stops becoming necessary.'”
He then quipped, “This is from people who couldn’t even organize the successful release of their own background document.”
But if we’re going to criticize the Green New Deal it should be for failing to recognize that the battery advances that jump-started the electric car revolution in the last several years have also turned the ignition on electric air travel.
Battery packs are rapidly getting both cheaper and smaller. As a result, there were “130 publicly known electrically propelled aircraft programs as of October 2018,” according to consulting firm Roland Berger.
In June, Norway tested a two-seat electric plane and anticipates starting passenger flights on electric planes by 2025. The country, also a leader in the use of electric vehicles, is aiming for all short-haul air travel to be completely electric by 2040.
Seattle-based airplane manufacturer Zunum Aero, which is backed by both Boeing and JetBlue, is developing a six to 12 seat, 700-mile range hybrid-electric aircraft to begin selling in 2020. Zunum Aero also plans to create a 50-seat 1,000-mile aircraft for the mid-2020s, and then a 100-seat, 1,500 mile aircraft (capable of over 500 miles per hour) by 2030.
Airbus itself is pursuing a hybrid-electric aircraft that can carry 100 passengers 600 miles — from New York City to Detroit — by 2030, the BBC reported last year.
Hybrid systems have both electric motors that run off of batteries and combustion engines that burn fossil fuels. In a hybrid airplane system, the electric drive allows the combustion turbines to be smaller and operated near their maximum efficiency all the time (which is quite similar to the role the electric drive plays in a hybrid car like the Prius). Reliance on these types of driving systems during takeoff and landing helps make the airplane much quieter.
While the hybrid-electric drives on airplanes can reduce fuel use by one quarter, the plan is to introduce better and smaller lithium-ion batteries as the technology improves, leading to full electrification of aircraft. And the next generation of batteries that could be available by the mid-2020s hold the promise of carrying two and a half times the energy of existing batteries — at one third the cost.
Zunum’s CEO and founder Ashish Kumar says their “roadmap would place aviation on path to eliminate all short-haul emissions by 2040, equating to 50 percent of all emissions from the sector, aligned with the goal set by Norway.”
High-speed rail is definitely worth investing in, but whatever Green New Deal legislation ultimately emerges should be placing a very large bet on electrifying air travel as well.