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Earlier this year, to reach the UN Climate Action Summit, Greta Thunburg sailed across the Atlantic from Plymouth, England to New York City. It took 15 days, but using a solar-powered sailboat, it was also carbon neutral. While she traveled like this to raise awareness of and combat human-caused climate change, it may soon be how all of us are required to travel across oceans.
Air travel as we know it today is unsustainable. A round-trip from London to New York emits about 986kg of CO2 per passenger. About 2% of global carbon emissions are caused by air travel, and demand is rising. Even worse, the solution isn't as simple as finding cleaner fuel. Nothing matches the energy density of jet-fuel, and without it, we lose the speed and efficiency that makes contemporary air travel possible. Routes over land should be easy enough to replace with trains, but that doesn't necessarily work for trans-continental trips.
But that doesn't mean we're stuck to live our entire lives on whatever landmass we'll find ourselves on when our environment can no longer afford us to fly. The future of trans-continental travel will either look a lot like the past, or like something completely different.
Just because jets would disappear from the skies doesn't mean that all airplanes would have to. It is possible to make a trans-continental crossing using a solar-powered or electric plane. Smaller solar and electric planes have already made globe-spanning trips, the operative word being “smaller." Green planes can make a trans-continental voyage, just not while carrying 300+ people and their luggage. Manufacturer Wright Electric hopes to have a 180-seat electric plane capable of making short-haul flights operational by 2027.
The other air-travel alternative is lighter-than-air travel. Airships, blimps, and dirigibles haven't had the best reputation since the Hindenburg disaster, but technology and design have improved significantly in the past 80 years. Because airships float, they require less fuel to become airborne and could easily be powered by a sustainable source. Their size should also allow them to carry larger amounts of people and cargo. The biggest downside is that, even at their fastest, they average out at about 50mph compared to the 600mph of a jet.
Of course, you don't have to fly to cross oceans. People used boats to explore the world for thousands of years before the invention of the airplane in 1903. Before commercial jet-travel, ocean liners made trans-Atlantic voyages in just over two weeks. Most cruises today are still powered by diesel, but like airships, it is much easier to replace ship engines with sustainable technology than it is for airplanes. The Peace Boat Ecoship uses solar and wind energy to reduce its carbon footprint by 40% compared to similarly sized ships, and it's not hard to imagine cleaner nuclear powered ships sailing the oceans in the near future either.
The biggest change these alternatives pose is getting used to slowing down a world that's grown used to same-day trans-continental travel. Even the fastest of these options, electric airplanes, are expected to go at about half the speed of current-day jets. Luckily, this isn't a new problem - essentially returning things to how they were a century ago – only today, advances in telecommunications can alleviate some of the past's pain points. Additionally, alternate modes of transportation that rival or even exceed the speed and capacity of jets don't have to remain science fiction.
The vacuum powered Hyperloop could be the basis for trans-continental trains. These proposals combine the vacuum element with maglev trains, which could reach speeds of 5000mph – London to New York in under an hour. Hyperloop concepts have a lot of steam behind them, with companies like Virgin Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies already securing contracts in the Americas, Europe, and China.
The problem of clean trans-continental travel is one the world will have to solve one way or the other in the near-future if we want to prevent further climate catastrophe. But for today's transportation problems, we offer a suite of easy-to-use and powerful data-driven solutions to make sure everything runs smoothly regardless of what side of the ocean your trips begin and end.