Airplanes are a really tricky issue. They emit greenhouse gases, create air and noise pollution, and operate in a ridiculously unstable business model leading airline after airline to go bankrupt. But airplanes are obviously important too, and certainly don’t need to be banished from existence or be a source of guilt for travelers. Today, we’ll highlight a few of the challenges facing aviation, and discuss some of the exciting technologies and policies that could make airplanes cleaner, healthier, and more economically viable. With special guest Dr. Kevin Lane, Assistant Professor of Environmental Health at Boston University.
This episode is part of a four-episode series made possible by the Sustainability Innovation Seed Grant from BU Sustainability and Innovate@BU.
Even though they’re totally different, airplanes and beef seem to have a lot of similarities. Both comprise a large percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions. We don’t know how to make either one zero emissions. And both are really really important to a lot of people. Because of that, people really really like to ignore these two issues. For some, they don’t want to think about it so they don’t feel guilty. For others, they feel that it’s a “necessary evil” and we just have to live with the consequences. I’ve felt all of this before too. And after completing both episodes, I actually came away feeling 100 times better about the issue because in both cases, yes, we may not know how to make them perfect right now, but we can make them a LOT better. And if we change our goal from “perfect” to “better,” there’s truly nothing stopping us.
As I learned more about airplanes, I was a bit surprised too to find that there was a lot of research on the climate impacts, the health impacts, and the economic dilemmas, but I never actually came across research that tied the three together. And yet, some proposed solutions—energy efficiency, moving away from first class, etc—came up when examining all three impact categories. The economic piece isn’t as linked to the other elements for airplanes as it is for a lot of other issues on the podcast, but a lot of solutions seem to help across the board, which is really exciting. I hope this episode can sort of pull together all of this research and perhaps spark conversation between stakeholders in each facet of the issue, since it seems like a lot of common ground exists.
I was really intrigued, too, to learn about the ultrafine particle piece of the health impacts through Dr. Lane. On the one hand, it’s surprising to hear that UFPs are unregulated. But it’s also refreshing to hear that researchers like him aren’t mad about that; they’re aware of where their research is and where it has to be to demonstrate the need for regulation. With air travel’s decline during COVID-19, researchers have been able to learn a lot more about the share of UFPs coming directly from aviation, which I hope can help push this research along and move the conversation toward coming up with policy.
If you’re an avid traveler, don’t be scared to listen to this episode! I promise, there’s plenty to be optimistic about.