What aviation’s small environmental footprint should and shouldn’t tell us

A well-done feature story organizes lots of information in a logical manner but doesn’t tell you, the readers, what to think. Naturally, different readers will find different insights.

I want to draw your attention to one potential takeaway from our cover story, “The dark side of green.” If you read the article, you know that it refers to a study showing that aviation comprises an incredibly small percentage of the demand for the metals in lithium-ion batteries. The tempting takeaway would be that the aviation industry therefore shouldn’t feel responsible for whatever bad things might happen when people scour the ocean floor or dig up the earth for the metals needed for lithium batteries; it’s really all up to the automotive industry, because that’s where most of the demand for metals is, and there’s nothing that aviation can do about it.

On the merits, I’m not convinced that this low demand relative to the auto industry will always be the case. There are entrepreneurs who aim to have us all zipping around like the Jetsons in small electric aircraft. The revolution, in this view, will start with a few wealthy people flying the first electric air taxis, perhaps in just a couple years. The market would democratize from there over the course of years and decades. Could that happen on the scale of the auto industry? Well, some entrepreneurs are partnering with automotive companies to mass produce their aircraft, so perhaps. And what about those trucks on the highways? Why not divvy the cargo up on electric aircraft and get it where it needs to go faster and cleanly? Everything airborne, or just about. That’s the message.

Do you want to be the one to tell Orville that this vision won’t fly? I don’t. Let’s see if it does.

There is a more fundamental reason that yielding responsibility to the auto industry does not feel right. If I went through life tossing my old fishing line overboard, some birds would get tangled in it and drown. I’d be a jerk for letting that happen, but objectively speaking, the environmental impact of my actions would be limited. So why don’t I litter? Because I am part of a community of anglers that respects the environment. So I discard my fishing line in the trash can and hope it doesn’t end up in the sea anyway. I keep doing this, even though I find evidence of transgressions.

Likewise, the aerospace industry is part of a transportation community that has embraced sustainability. Yielding responsibility to the other guy is not being an upstanding member of the community. All must do their part, and I suspect most in the community feel this way too.

I will be surprised if many come away from our cover story thinking the aerospace industry bears no responsibility for how its batteries are produced.

About Ben Iannotta

Ben keeps the magazine and its news coverage on the cutting edge of journalism. He began working for the magazine in the 1990s as a freelance contributor and became editor-in-chief in 2013. He was editor of C4ISR Journal and has written for Air & Space Smithsonian, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, Reuters and Space News.

What aviation’s small environmental footprint should and shouldn’t tell us