“There are some black swans in aviation’s future that could tip its economic balance. The three biggies are peak oil, climate weirding and cyberwarfare.”
We are in London this week and on our trip across the pond we could not help but think how much more we would much prefer to have gotten here by sail.
Sadly, there is a distinct competitive advantage that favors passenger jets. If following tradewinds for an ocean crossing means devoting days and weeks for such travel, clipper ships are not coming back any time soon. Still, given the past century’s advances in materials and computing power, there are great opportunities for innovation in Atlantic crossings.
There are also some black swans that could tip the balance against flying. The three biggies are peak oil, climate weirding and cyberwarfare.
Advantage Environment writes:
A foretaste of what the future sails may look like, we can go to companies like Kite Ships and SkySails, each of which develops various forms of large, free-flying sails without masts, which are anchored at the bow of the ship with long, adjustable ropes.
They are hoisted and reefed automatically and are controlled and positioned by wind situation by means of an electronic control system. The automation does not require additional crew and the lack of a fixed rig does not disturb the ship in port. The sail is deployed several hundred meters high, and draws advantage of winds that are smoother and stronger than at sea level.
Norska Vindskip has another vision, appealing in its simplicity. The designers intend to remove the sails and rigging altogether, but believe they can achieve 80 percent emission reductions by an aerodynamic vessel design where the hull itself acts as a sail. The vessel is designed as a hybrid, which first accelerates on gas and then balances between wind and supportive gas to maintain a constant speed. When the ship comes up to speed it encounters a backwind. Although this apparent wind gives effect on the hull’s symmetrical aerodynamic profile, and generates traction even when there is no wind — there is a contributing factor to large emissions reductions. The concept includes a computerized navigation system using GPS and weather data to adjust the route continuously, to constantly give the ship the most optimal angle to the wind as possible. It is thought then to hold 18 knots in average and large portions of the time is powered exclusively by wind.
18 knots is still not the same as 570 miles per hour. A 6-hour crossing by a 757 would take 170+ hours at Vindskip speed — a week-long voyage. Surely we can do better. We need a killer app for ocean crossings.
Will Nodvik, who studied Computer Engineering at NYU Tandon School of Engineering, writes on Quora:
The foiling AC-72s sailed [in 2013] during the America’s Cup top out at around 40 knots in super heavy conditions. Average container ships move at around 20 knots. The mast on an AC-72 is 40m high. Keep in mind that this mast is a rigid wing. The AC-72 is the lightest, fastest, most highly advanced boat. These masts are the strongest material possible since no expense was spared in their construction.
Forty knots (46 mph) is still only 8 percent of the cruising speed of a Boeing 747. Figure three and one half days, if top speed could be held the whole way.
The America’s Cup Challenge resumes this June in Bermuda’s Great Sound. The AC-72 (72-foot) yacht that Oracle Team USA sailed to a historic come-from-behind 9–8 victory over Emirates Team New Zealand on San Francisco Bay in September 2013 is gone. Obsolete.
Replacing it is a smaller, lighter AC-50 (50-foot) catamaran with 79-foot carbon fiber wing sail and new alloy hydrofoils to give it near zero drag. All the competitors in this year’s trials are expected to fly above water for 100% of the race time.
The sail’s drag is one-third to one-half that of four years ago, while producing about twice as much power. The control system comes from the Airbus A350 XWB airliner, compiling a terabyte per race collected from as many as 1,000 sensors fed into the Oracle Exadata supercomputer for instant analysis. Oracle will predict wind patterns (within half a knot accuracy) all the way down to 100-meter or even 50-meter grids on the racecourse. The sailors — a six man crew (down from 11 in 2013), need only glance at smart watches connected to a small onboard Linux server, to know what they need to do.
Speeds approaching 60 mph are possible in the Bermuda races — about 20% faster than in 2013. That would get us down to a two day Atlantic crossing.
More importantly, the days spent on crossing by sail put nothing into the atmosphere except the breath of the sailors. Today’s commercial passenger fleet is responsible for 3 to 5 percent of climate forcing, on its way to 15 percent according to some IPCC projections. Clearly it is going in the wrong direction.
In October 2016 the UN agency International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) finalized an agreement among its 191 member nations to address the more than 458 Mt (2010) of carbon dioxide emitted annually by international passenger and cargo flights. The agreement will use an offsetting scheme called CORSIA (the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation) under which forestry and other carbon-reducing activities are directly funded, amounting to about 2% of annual revenues for the sector. Rules against ‘double counting’ should ensure that existing forest protection efforts are not recycled. The scheme does not take effect until 2021 and will be voluntary until 2027, but many countries, including the US and China, have promised to begin at its 2020 inception date. Under the agreement, the global aviation emissions target is an 80% reduction by 2035 relative to 2020. NGO reaction to the deal was mixed.
The agreement has critics. It is not aligned with the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which set the objective of restricting global warming to 1.5 to 2°C. A late draft of the agreement would have required the air transport industry to assess its share of global carbon budgeting to meet that objective, but the text was removed in the agreed version. CORSIA will regulate only about 25 percent of aviation’s international emissions, since it grandfathers all emissions below the 2020 level, allowing unregulated growth until then. Only 65 nations will participate in the initial voluntary period, not including significant emitters Russia, India and perhaps Brazil. The agreement does not cover domestic emissions, which are 40% of the global industry’s overall emissions. One observer of the ICAO convention made this summary:
Airline claims that flying will now be green are a myth. Taking a plane is the fastest and cheapest way to fry the planet and this deal won’t reduce demand for jet fuel one drop. Instead offsetting aims to cut emissions in other industries, although another critic called it “a timid step in the right direction.”
But now imagine what happens when the ring wraiths start to arrive. On one side we have peak oil — for conventional liquid fuel production that happened in the US in 1969 and globally in 2005.
Dmitry Orlov explains:
[S]ustained and even slightly increased levels of per capita energy use have been enabled by constantly increasing debt that has temporarily compensated for the rising costs of energy production. The overall effect of this has been to depress both energy consumption and economic growth. Energy prices are low because that is all the consumers can afford and energy producers are forced to borrow to make up the difference between their production costs and their earnings. When economic growth stops and goes into reverse (what the French call décroissance) the debt burden becomes unsupportable, energy companies go out of business and per capita energy use drops precipitously. Thus, the phenomenon that has allowed per capita energy use to set some modest new records has produced an Olduvai plateau, which will be followed by an even steeper Olduvai cliff once this scheme, essentially one of attempting to borrow against the collateral of a nonexistent future, eventually fails. This moment is not far away: as I write this, the energy business has largely stopped being profitable, and there is a growing wave of energy companies entering bankruptcy.
Engineers like to work with physical quantities, and are loathe to admit that something that is essentially a game played with numbers on pieces of paper — which is what debt is — nevertheless can act as a physical motive force by forcing people to act. Its most dramatic physical manifestation is in depleting nonrenewable natural resources more rapidly and more fully.
There are still pockets of oil fields that have not yet peaked, mostly in the Middle East, but on average, we are now into the decline phase. Ponzi land schemes support the popular fiction of a gold rush in “unconventional” liquids (fracked gas, shale oil, and the like). Prices at the pump are kept artificially low at this stage of the grift, as bigger fools are drawn into ever-more-risky real estate plays in the fracking patch, offshore, in the Arctic, and to the ends of the Earth, but sooner or later the real costs of these expensive, low-octane plays will bubble to the surface.
Petroleum explorer Colin Campbell many years ago compared our current moment in geological history to arriving at the tavern after final call and being so thirsty you take out your pocket knife and cut up the carpet to squeeze out any last drops of spilled beer (and whatever else might be there).
There are occasional headlines that some new discovery is a game changer, but those pieces of news never look at the data. Discoveries worldwide peaked decades ago and have not kept pace with extraction for many years. The situation is especially acute in post-peak producer nations like Venezuela and Mexico, the new normal for petrodollar addicts — destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix. Any flare-up in tension in the Persian Gulf or other oil region can suddenly squeeze supplies with serious, world-shaking effects.
As Jan Lundberg of Sail Transport Network is fond of saying, “sailboats will have no fuel supply problem.” Airplanes are another story.
Virgin Atlantic Airways flew a Boeing 747 from London Heathrow Airport to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport on 24 February 2008, with one engine burning a combination of coconut oil and babassu oil. Greenpeace’s chief scientist Doug Parr said that the flight was “high-altitude greenwash” and that producing organic oils to make biofuel could lead to deforestation and a large increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Also, the majority of the world’s aircraft are not large jetliners but smaller piston aircraft, and with major modifications many are capable of using ethanol as a fuel. Another consideration is the vast amount of land that would be necessary to provide the biomass feedstock needed to support the needs of aviation, both civil and military.
Climate change may have more surprises. The second ring wraith can be glimpsed when they spill your drink between you and the serving cart, thanks to unexpected turbulence. A report published in Nature Climate Change by Paul Williams, a researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Science stated:
“[A]ir turbulence does more than just interrupt the service of in-flight drinks. It injures hundreds of passengers and aircrew every year — sometimes fatally. It also causes delays and damage to planes.”
Increasing atmospheric instability is one of the hallmarks of global climate change.
The third ring wraith brings with it the threat to aviation posed by errant cyber-viruses loosed by incautious government and corporate handlers. We were warned by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange on March 9 after he was informed by the hacker community that sloppy spycraft in the cyberwar arena has set in motion open source viruses capable of taking down major infrastructure, anywhere. As of the date of that press conference, 22,000 ISPs in the US had been infected with a backdoor opened by NSA/CIA.
On May 12, that backdoor was exploited by a malware attack beginning with the British National Health System and the German Rail System, and eventually reaching more than 150 countries. “What happened with the Shadow Brokers in this case is equivalent to a nuclear bomb in cyberspace,” said Zohar Pinhasi, a former cybersecurity intelligence officer for the Israeli military, now the chief executive of MonsterCloud, which helps mitigate ransomware attacks. “This is what happens when you give a tiny little criminal a weapon of mass destruction. This will only go bigger. It’s only the tip of the iceberg.”
“The Central Intelligence Agency lost control of its entire cyberweapons arsenal,” Assange said. “This is an historic act of devastating incompetence to have created such an arsenal and stored it all in one place and not secured it.”
Brad Smith, Microsoft president, asked what would happen if the United States military lost control of “some of its Tomahawk missiles” and discovered that a criminal group was using them to threaten some country unless ransom was paid. But why use missiles when you can take control of commercial airplanes, just like in Die Hard 2?
Given the possibility that the air control tower managing your landing might suffer a “blue screen” attack as you make your descent, wouldn’t you rather be sailing?
“Navigare necesse est, vivere non est necesse.” (To sail is necessary, to live is not). — Pompey
This week we have been resuming our talks with the Commonwealth of Nations to devise a strategy and timeline for reversing climate change using the permaculture tool kit. A key factor in the race to scale will be climate finance, and with that in mind we have bought to London a discussion of our concept for a ReGen Fund to issue “Cool Bonds” — lending instruments backed by carbon removal. Some of the projects we’ve discussed in previous posts — the Maya Mountain Research Farm in Belize, Ecosystem Restoration Camps, the Sunshine Ecovillage Network in China, Cool Labs in México and the Dominican Republic, and others — are prime candidates for putting that money to work. But there is another new piece on our chessboard.
Over the past few weeks we have been working with a ship’s architect on the concept for a mobile educational platform we are calling “Noah’s Ark.” The idea is for a research vessel not unlike Jacques Cousteau’s famous Calypso, that could move between moorings in places like New York, Miami and London and bring aboard researchers, activists, students, investors and others to meet with our change agents whom we are now calling Ambassadors. It would be a mobile networking hub, replete with television studio and conference hall.
To introduce our Cool Bond/ReGen Fund and Noah’s Ark, we joined with Cloudburst Foundation and Project Noah to produce a short video.