The Coronavirus pandemic has upended the travel industry, with a level of disruption that we have not seen before. Many countries still have at least some restrictive measures in place to limit the flows of people. In the UK, major holiday destinations come with mandatory self-isolation periods upon return, dramatically reducing the number of passengers and placing travel plans on hold until restrictions are removed. When we combine this with the focus on a low-carbon transition, it is possible that the way we travel has changed permanently. Changes in behaviour and travel habits, alongside technological innovations, will determine whether we’ll meet our climate goals and whether travel can ever be guilt-free.
The Rise of Rail
The transport industry has grown significantly, with greenhouse gas emissions doubling in the last 40 years. Realistically, however, research and development into technological innovations that facilitate zero-emission transport will have to continue at pace. In some places, this is very much already happening, with railways becoming an important part of the solution. Behind walking and cycling, trains account for the lowest emissions in terms of grams of CO2 per passenger per kilometre (14), compared with cars (104) and planes (285). They are extremely efficient in their ability to carry lots of passengers and freight without requiring a high amount of energy to take off. Electric rail, free from the weight of fuel and diesel engines, can also reduce the carbon emissions from freight by 76%, compared with transportation by road. As rail infrastructure and the electricity grid moves towards a greater share of renewable energy, savings will increase further.
Big investments are already in place. At the start of the year, Germany announced an 86 billion euro upgrade, alongside the main rail operator, to revamp the network by 2030 and double the number of passengers. This has been followed up by a 1 billion euro purchase of high-speed trains to provide 13,000 new seats by 2022. In the UK, upgrades to domestic rail networks are happening that will reduce our carbon footprint, with further expansion suggested to create thousands of jobs, improve air quality and generate over £155 million annually in indirect benefits. In September, a hydrogen-powered train made its maiden journey, escalating hopes for network decarbonisation. With continued development, it’s thought that such trains can carry passengers by 2023.
Even campaigns by unexpected advocates have amplified voices surrounding climate change. In 2019, KLM, a Dutch airline, launched it’s ‘Fly Responsibly’ campaign, encouraging people to avoid unnecessary flying, stating that “in some cases, railway or other modes of transportation can be more sustainable than flying, especially for short distances such as within Europe”, pointing out that flying from Amsterdam to Brussels takes longer than travelling by train. While an unusual campaign, it does highlight major challenges that could hinder development – namely, travel time and affordability. The increase in demand for air travel (under normal, pre-COVID circumstances) largely stems from both these issues. Often, it’s cheaper and quicker to get return international flights within Europe than to take a single train journey between major UK cities. Expecting people to sacrifice both these elements for environmental purposes alone is, unfortunately, wishful thinking. Instead, government subsidies for rail and tax levies for aviation could change passenger behaviour that facilitates emission reductions.
Electric vehicles (EVs) are now at the forefront of the low-carbon transport transition, with their popularity rising significantly. In the US, it is expected that 90% of cars need to be electric by 2050 to meet the climate goals of the UN. Realistically, to make this happen, government policies must impose restrictions on fossil fuel-based vehicles alongside providing financial help. In September, California announced that all new cars sold after 2035 have to be zero-emission. In the Nordic nations, incentives are provided to facilitate behavior changes. For example, EVs are not subject to sales tax, owners do not pay road tax, tolls are cheaper, and parking is often free – all making the purchase and running costs more affordable. Producers need to play their part too. Competition is ramping up, with big players well aware of the opportunity. Just recently, Volkswagen announced a 15 billion euro investment, alongside Chinese ventures, to fund electric mobility innovation in China. This builds upon their 2019 commitment to EVs totalling $36 billion over four years. The race for innovation is on, with highly desirable returns on investment for companies making waves in this space. An often-used example is that of Tesla. Currently, its stock price is trading around six times above the yearly lows. While the price is well over 1000 times company earnings – a sign of a stock being considerably overvalued – many analysts believe that as more affordable models roll out in the near future, the long-term growth potential is unparalleled. Therefore, companies and investors that get it right will reap the financial benefits.
Post-pandemic air travel remains a scary thought for many. Surveys in the UK show that ‘normality’ isn’t desired, with only 9% of respondents wanting to return to pre-COVID lifestyles. 54% said they wanted to see significant changes both at the individual and national levels, including placing a greater focus on the environment. The chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts – the entity that commissioned the survey – stated that “this poll shows that the British people are increasingly aware that the health of people and planet are inseparable and it’s time for radical environmental, social, political and economic change.” In the US, 55% of respondents to a survey said they were unwilling to return to air travel in the near future after lockdown. Despite these figures, flying remains the favourite choice for most people due to time and cost. Therefore, advancing technology in this area is pivotal.
The prospects for aviation have been well documented but significant developments are worth highlighting. Last month, Rolls-Royce announced it had completed ground testing for its electric aircraft technology. They aim to complete a record-breaking flight in early 2021. In recent weeks, manufacturing giant Airbus unveiled plans for commercial zero-emission aircrafts. Blueprints for hydrogen-powered planes would allow 200 passengers to travel 2000 miles but would likely not be available until 2035. Elsewhere, Eviation — an Israeli aviation company — unveiled a fully electric commercial plane in 2019. Nine passengers can fly up to 650 miles at 276 mph on one charge. While these numbers have been criticised, with two billion plane tickets sold each year for flights under 500 miles, there’s clearly a market for it. Equally, there is a strong business case. A typical 100-mile journey for a small plane costs around $400. It costs this plane $8–$12. This allows for greater profit margins for companies while keeping prices for passengers relatively low.
No single innovation is likely to truly revolutionise travel. The collective efforts of individuals to make conscious choices combined with ongoing technological development and investment from governments and investors alike are essential.