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Clean, green flying machines

lockheed electra.JPG

What happens to the planet if air traffic keeps multiplying too fast for new climate-friendly plane upgrades to keep pace with the rising greenhouse emissions? The IPCC mulled it over almost a decade ago, even before sounding its 2001 global warming alarm call. Lately the problem has been pressing ever harder on European consciences, so that EU parliament members recently vowed to fast-track plans for trading aviation emissions on a carbon market – while airlines yelped defensively that they’d gotten an unfair tarring in mediagenic protests.

Silent Aircraft 3.JPGLondon’s Science Museum examines this race of energy efficiency against passenger numbers in a new exhibit, Does Flying Cost the Earth?, which I took a look at in Nature Reports Climate Change this week. Much of the show is reproduced online, including the museum’s smart matrix of pros and cons for various technologies proposed to clean up jet fumes. (There are more details in a recent roundup of aviation innovation from Nature News; subscription required.) For a quick gut-level hit of the central dilemma, the museum has included a very simple video game where you’re in charge of containing the damage from a booming aviation industry.

The exhibition doesn’t manage to answer whether flying costs the earth, as I explained in my review, but it astutely reflects the general anxiety about how to take iconically modern airplanes into a greener future. “We all love to travel,” Rough Guide travel writer Mark Ellingham told journalists and industry sponsors at the exhibit’s opening, “and we don’t want to feel a sense of shame about it.”

Anna Barnett

Images: The 1935 Lockheed Electra (top), an early commercial airliner featuring a then-cutting-edge aluminium-alloy skin, overlooks the entrance to the Science Museum’s exhibition of green aviation technology for the twenty-first century. Highly aerodynamic ‘blended-wing’ plane designs (bottom) may be seen on runways in 25 years.

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