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Reviving Supersonic Flight Would Ground Aviation’s Carbon Reduction Efforts

Recent moves by the aviation industry to get moderately serious on climate action will be undercut if efforts to revive supersonic flight get off the ground, writes Carl Pope, former executive director of the U.S. Sierra Club, in a recent op-ed for the New York Times.

Having “belatedly adopted a global climate plan for commercial aviation in 2016 that is scheduled to take effect in 2021,” the industry’s sudden, surging re-infatuation with supersonic flight is very bad news, Pope warns.

American start-ups with names like Boom and Spike claim technology and design advances have solved the pollution problems that dogged the supersonic Concorde, which “burned two tons of fuel just taxiing and four times as much fuel per passenger as a Boeing 747 jumbo jet,” he writes. But their optimism holds up poorly in the face of a 1999 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which, anticipating such progress, still projected that “introducing 1,000 commercial SSTs [supersonic transport aircraft] more advanced than the Concorde could make the climate impact of airlines balloon by 40% by mid-century.”

Companies like Denver-based Boom have support from the White House, with its current occupant tweeting his conviction that going supersonic would reflect “Great American Spirit,” and directing the Federal Aviation Administration to hasten the certification of SSTs.

More surprising, given his vocal support for climate action, is Virgin CEO Richard Branson’s enthusiastic underwriting of Boom, whose plan to have a 55-seat SST in the skies by 2023 is being given “technical, engineering, and flight test support” by the billionaire British entrepreneur.

Pope concludes that “supersonic flight is an idea whose time has passed” and calls on Branson to show “true leadership”, which would begin “by cutting ties with supersonic aircraft developers before it really is too late.”