Look up. Because there are those who think it’s “blimp to the rescue” on climate change. According to the normally somewhat conservative Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the Telegraph, “It may not be long before we can start eating air-flown vegetables from Peru or blueberries from Kenya without feeling pangs of guilt. Fresh food may reach us in cargo Hindenburgs without the unconscionable CO2 footprint of jet freight.” It’s fitting that the latest climate scheme is already being styled a Hindenburg, perhaps a nod to their inevitable end. The simplest solution to your pangs of guilt over imported blueberries is to realize that their carbon footprint, far from being unconscionably large is unmeasurably small. But if they must in future come by blimp you won’t be eating them anyway because you won’t be able to afford them.
Apparently blimp designs are much better today than in 1937 including on safety, for instance using helium which does not catch fire and advanced materials not cow guts to contain it. But they are still big bags of gas vulnerable to getting blown about by wind. So if you set out from Peru to London you may get to Paris literally if not metaphorically.
We do not wish to mock blimps too much based on old black-and-white films of them flopping around or burning up, or their funny name. Evidently there’s a new kind of, let’s say the far more dignified “dirigible”, that can boot along at 130 km/h “using the vectored thrust of helicopter technology” (which sounds pretty cool if we only knew what it was), can carry 10 tonnes of freight or 90 passengers, and even with diesel engines emits 75% less than comparable plane freight “and 100pc once hydrogen fuel cells come of age.” Yeah. Once.
Meanwhile let’s do the math. 130 km/h is a little over highway speed for a transport truck, and 90 passengers is about the standing-room capacity (for comparison, if you want them to be seated, a Greyhound bus carries 55 people). We can already move produce and everything else by truck, so taking into account time for loading, unloading and local delivery, the dirigible doesn’t offer any improvement on either speed or capacity. And compared to air or rail freight it is much worse. So the clever people are proposing at great cost to develop a fleet of transport dirigibles that cost more, carry less and move far more slowly than current methods. And that still require trucks at either end to complete the process. So you can be sure that if this blimp scheme takes off, it will be puffed up by government mandates not market forces and it will be carried aloft by subsidies and inflated consumer prices. That the helium doesn’t burn will not prevent the inevitable flaming ruin.
But speaking of wind, we would not object if some way were found to move ocean freight by sailing ship, which among other things would reduce noise pollution harmful to marine life. And we imagine traveling in a zeppelin with, say, a restaurant-lounge and big sight-seeing windows, would be a lot more pleasant and civilized than flying steerage in an airplane. But, once again, it would cost a lot more. We can already fly business class if we want to pay for it, or take the train if we don’t mind the long travel times, so the popularity of discount economy-class commercial jets serve as yet another reminder that people value their time and money and don’t like throwing away either one.
So we mock blimps not for their ungainly shape or ancient history. We mock them because it’s just not credible that there’s this overwhelming existential crisis that will burn up our planet unless we make massive lifestyle changes like… flying in fruit from Africa in some other manner than we currently employ.
In reality decarbonizing the economy will require sacrifices rather more serious than not eating turnips from Peru unless you are in Peru. Or even going vegan to save the planet. Which turns out to be another swing and a miss, at least according to the UK Sustainable Food Trust, which just delivered the sockdolager that your soy latte is not saving the planet after all because of the ironic discovery that feeding the soy to cows lets them produce more actual milk than chemistry can extract from it directly. (Also it tastes bad. Just saying.)
If you’re crushed by the thought of giving up virtue-signalling lattes to save the planet from the dreaded GHGs brace yourself because it gets a lot worse. A post-petroleum world will be a far cry from Ambrose-Pritchard’s shining British-led utopia (we sense a subsidy coming) where possibly “scale can eventually cut airship costs low enough to eat into trucking, overflying congested roads in Europe, India or China” while an endless jet-stream-driven loop of blimps circles the globe “to transport cargo on transcontinental routes without any need for power beyond the initial lift and descent… on high winds above 40,000 feet at an average speed of 160 km/h, displacing fleets of container shipping at sea…”
Wait you say, didn’t their giant computers tell us global warming will make the jet stream wavier and unpredictable? Not to worry, other giant computers will come to the rescue: “These unmanned super-Hindenburgs controlled by artificial intelligence could be over a mile long, spectral airships passing far overhead in caravans along regulated bands near the troposphere, emitting no sound or CO2.”
Excuse us. We have to go now. Laputa is calling us with the news that sunbeams cannot in fact be extracted from cucumbers.