I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling pretty damned good about my carbon footprint these days. Not that it’s been by choice, but because of COVID-19, I haven’t been on a plane in six months.
I normally live in a perpetual state of environmental guilt. I try my best to take care of the environment—ride my bike more than I drive, eat vegan, live a pretty simple, non-consumer lifestyle—but all of my best efforts are undone by my flight habit. I have an addiction, and it involves flying on a nearly weekly basis in pursuit of waves—and that is definitely not environmentally friendly.
Live cam: Nazare
Travel has always been surfing’s original environmental sin (well, that and surfboards, and virtually every other surf product we use), and I certainly am not the first wave rider to lament the hypocrisy of my ways. I recall reading a quote by Yvon Chouinard—founder of Patagonia and the most environmentally friendly person you are likely to meet—saying something to the effect that there’s a special circle of hell reserved for us surfers and our addiction to air travel.
Many times I have wished I could be like Fergal Smith and give up airplanes altogether—to commit myself to living and surfing at home, with a lovely garden and a clean conscience. But then another purple blob pops up on the charts, and almost without realising it I’ve booked another fuel-burning flight to some place that is exotic and beautiful and very far away.
Fortunately for me—and everyone else facing this moral dilemma—Airbus released plans this week for hydrogen-powered commercial passenger jets. Named ZEROe, the hydrogen-powered program “has the potential to greatly reduce aviation’s climate impact.” And Airbus suggests that these cleaner, greener planes could conceivably enter airline fleets by 2035.
I’d like to think I’ll still be chasing barrels 15 years from now, so the announcement gave me hope for the eventual alleviation of my guilt, and of the enormous carbon footprint of our collective habit.
Of course, a lot of things have to happen before this proposed program comes to fruition. First of all, Airbus will have to prove that it can operate flying machines that burn hydrogen safely. You may remember the last high-profile hydrogen-powered flying machine to be produced—does the name Hindenburg ring a bell?—and how well that went. Plus, Airbus itself states that a shift to hydrogen would require comprehensive restructuring of airport fuelling capabilities, which would represent a huge undertaking of its own. And of course there’s the fact that air travel has been hugely reduced by the COVID-19 pandemic (the very reason I’m feeling so green at the moment), and that a number of airlines are currently facing economic uncertainty and the prospect of bankruptcy.
But assuming we can figure all of that out—make it through this pandemic, restart the tourism and air travel industries, retrofit airports, and actually make safe, hydrogen-burning planes—who knows! Maybe in 15 years our communal addiction can become as environmentally responsible as it is fun.
Or we could just keep on staying home and surfing our local breaks, and change the world now. I’ll let you know how that goes.