It looks like a spaceship, runs on fuel that up until a few years ago experts were calling “crazy,” and has barely left the drawing board, but in the eyes of one of the world’s leading aircraft manufacturers, it’s undoubtedly the future.

a large passenger jet flying through a cloudy blue sky: ZEROe Airbus zero-emission concept aircraft

© Airbus
ZEROe Airbus zero-emission concept aircraft

Not even the distant future. Airbus hopes we’ll be soaring into the skies on one of its radical new designs in just 15 years, leaving the days of jet engine pollution and flight-shaming far behind us.

The blended wing aircraft is one of a trinity of eco-friendly hydrogen-fueled models unveiled recently by Airbus as part of its ambitions to spearhead the decarbonization of the aviation industry.

It’s a bold plan, and one that just a few short months ago might have seemed fanciful as demand for fossil fuel-powered air travel continued to rise, apparently immune to growing environmental concerns.

a plane in the air: Airbus has released this rendering of the turbofan concept.

© Airbus
Airbus has released this rendering of the turbofan concept.

But the arrival of Covid-19 and its impact on aviation could’ve inadvertently cleared a flight path of opportunity for efforts to rethink the technology of getting the world up into the air.

Airbus has baptized its new program ZEROe. The designs revealed aren’t prototypes but a starting point to explore the tech needed in order to start building the first climate-neutral commercial planes.

“How can you possibly emerge from the pandemic, with climate neutrality as a core long-term competitiveness factor?” Airbus’s chief technology officer, Grazia Vittadini, asked rhetorically, during a briefing about the new plans.

a large air plane on a cloudy day: This is the ZEROe turboprop concept plane.

© Airbus
This is the ZEROe turboprop concept plane.

“It would be impossible not to. Even well before the crisis, it has become an acknowledged and shared view that protecting climate and protecting our environment are key indispensable factors upon which we have to build the

The press release created instant shock waves. On August 27th, Exelon Corporation, one of the biggest suppliers of electricity in the U.S., announced that in a year it would close two nuclear plants in Illinois that together produce four gigawatts of power, even though the plants are licensed to operate for decades more. The two plants — Byron and Dresden — “face revenue shortfalls in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” Chicago-based Exelon said.

State and local officials denounced the move as reckless saber-rattling. Not only would the plants’ closure cost thousands of good jobs, it would also jeopardize Illinois’ clean energy ambitions.

Yet Exelon’s announcement, far from unprecedented, is part of a well-worn pattern. In at least four states from Ohio to New York, a handful of nuclear companies have taken a now-familiar series of actions: announce closures, enter tense talks with state officials concerned about the loss of good jobs and clean power, win subsidies, rescind the closures. 

Some portray this as brinkmanship, arguing that nuclear power companies know states can’t afford to lose them and so threaten premature closures in exchange for padded profits. “We’ve seen this Exelon rate hike and hostage-taking script several times before,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center. A commentary in the Chicago Tribune accused Exelon of “posturing as a victim of the market.”

Backers of this view point to independent studies that have found that several nuclear plants that have asked for subsidies in the past, such those as in New Jersey and Connecticut, are in fact profitable