The Journey to Guilt-Free Travelling
The way we move around is changing. With rising awareness of environmentally damaging mobility practices and a shift towards clean energy, we’re seeing innovative technologies for land, sky and sea.
A lot has changed in a decade. In 2010, there were 345 EVs in the USA, with a standard range of 100km and taking 6 to 8 hours to charge. Now, there are an estimated 1.4 million EVs with ranges of up to 500km and 80% charging in 12 minutes with fast-chargers.
In Europe, Germany aims to have a million EVs on the road by 2022 and the UK (amongst others) hopes to end the sale of fossil-fueled cars in the coming years.
In 2019, 42.4% of new cars in Norway were electric, this figure is expected to rise to 60% for 2020. Since it is the largest oil and gas producer in Europe, they’re making considerable decarbonisation efforts in other industries to meet their goals.
How? By making significant policy changes that provide suitable incentives to facilitate behavioural shifts. People are habitual and incentive-driven, so unless there are good reasons to change, we have a tendency to be stuck in our ways.
In Norway, there is no sales tax on electric vehicles, making them much more affordable. Drivers of EVs don’t pay annual road tax, the have cheaper tolls and benefit from free parking, significantly reducing the running costs. Government has invested heavily into charging infrastructure throughout the country, alleviating the stresses of long journeys with limited range. EV drivers also have the right to drive in bus lanes, allowing them to skip traffic. Policies such as these should be introduced, where possible, by other governments.
It’s not just governments that have grand ambitions. Volkswagen plans to spend $36 billion on electric mobility in the coming years, the company is hoping to sell 26 million EVs by 2029. Harley-Davidson just released its first electric motorcycle and many battery and energy storage companies are expanding rapidly. They recognise that the transition is not just an opportunity to reduce emissions but also to secure large profits in a innovative and highly competitive industry.
But changes to transport habits go beyond personal vehicles.
The Age of Electric Flight?
While aviation only accounts for 2–3% of current global emissions, they are rising 70% faster than predicted. With passenger numbers expected to double in the next two decades, the industry — currently already consuming five million barrels of oil a day — will contribute significantly more CO2 emissions.
It’s also a notoriously difficult industry for emission reductions. Quick travel times combined with the rise in competition between budget airlines — and therefore very cheap tickets — make it the top option for most people.
As of this morning, I can get from London to Milan for £21 return. It will cost me more to travel to the airport than to get to Italy. As much as people may care about the environment, it’s unrealistic to expect them to turn down an offer like that in favour of a 13-hour train journey that costs five times as much.
And yes, we’re seeing a rise in people offsetting their flights but that’s more of a conscience clearer rather than a genuine mechanism to curb emissions.
So, what can we do? Flying less is the obvious answer. But, people work hard and want to enjoy the little time they have off work to go on holiday, so that’s unlikely.
Instead, we are seeing significant technological breakthroughs. Eviation — an Israeli aviation company — unveiled a fully electric commercial plane in 2019. The plane can fly nine passengers up to 650 miles at 276 mph on one charge. Some people have been unimpressed with these numbers, but with two billion plane tickets sold each year for flights under 500 miles, there’s definitely a market for it.
On the business side, a 100-mile journey for a small plane normally costs around $400. It costs this plane $8–$12. MagniX, the company behind it, were clear that cost advantages over environmentalism were the reason for its development.
Over medium distances, advances in hybrid models are also coming along. By turning on the electrical component of propulsion during take-off and landing, fuel savings of at least 30% should be possible. With companies such as Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Siemens pioneering research in this area, some models are expected to fly as soon as 2021. Even investment bank UBS predicts the demand for hybrid airliners to be around 550 per year after 2028.
Over longer distances, batteries are not where they need to be to challenge traditional energy yet, but current advancements show that electric air travel is possible and mobility innovations are moving to the skies.
Laying the Line for Rail
KLM, a Dutch airline, recently launched it’s ‘Fly Responsibly’ campaign, encouraging people to avoid unnecessary flying and take the train when possible.
High-speed rail networks such as the Japanese Shinkansen, German ICE and French TGV not only allow passengers to travel up to 180+ mph, but they also run on electricity, making them much more energy efficient. Electric trains use seven times less CO2 than driving and 20 times less than flying, making them far more attractive.
And people are already changing to rail. On some high-speed routes in Europe, there have been a 60% reduction in emissions from dwindling vehicle and plane use. If heavy goods are also moved from vehicles to rail, and the transition to renewable power continues, this figure will rise significantly.
For short distances, it makes sense. London to Paris — city centre to city centre — is two and a half hours by train compared with a 90 minute flight plus connections both ends. There are many similar routes around Europe that could challenge flying in the coming years, but only with investments.
Reopening closed lines or upgrading existing lines can kickstart the transition without breaking the bank. But if we are to really make a change, big spending on new stations, trains and lines is required. Government subsidies for rail and tax levies for aviation could change passenger behaviour and cause emission reductions.
Governments are already starting to do this. Germany plans to spend $86 billion on its trains, the UK has invested £150 million on longer domestic rail travel and Ireland’s rail investment has risen by 40%.
For longer journeys, there has been an increase in the popularity of sleeper trains. In 2017, the Austrian Federal Railways night train services carried 1.4 million passengers, doubling 2016 numbers. In Sweden, a new route between Malmo and London — a 1,300km journey — is planned for 2022.
Electric transport is still far from perfect. Limited range, the cost of infrastructure and challenges in battery storage remain enormous challenges. But, with large investments and some of the smartest minds working on new technologies, it’s important to realise that now is the worst they will ever be.
We’re already seeing rapid innovations to road vehicles, aviation, rail and even a considerable rise in electric ferries, with much more to come in the next decade.
With new government policies that enable behaviour change and foster an environment for competition and innovation, emission-free mobility and green growth in the transport sector may be closer than we think.