When Marylanders talk about maglev — the proposed magnetic levitation train that could whisk passengers from downtown Washington to Baltimore in 15 minutes, and eventually on to New York in an hour — they tend to think local. Would Baltimore instantly become a much more affordable bedroom community for D.C., or even Philadelphia and New York? Would it bring gentrification that would displace long-time residents, or would it be the shot in the arm the city needs? Would the super-high-speed train disrupt communities along the route with noise, vibration or electromagnetic fields? Could the financing of a project expected to cost $10 billion to $15 billion possibly be viable? Would tickets be so expensive that it would only benefit the well-to-do?
All those are important considerations. But there’s a global context to this as well. Wide-scale adoption of maglev technology could provide a missing piece to our efforts to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. Here’s how.
Targets for climate reduction must be stricter than we imagined.
The latest report from the United Nations’ international climate change panel concludes that in order to avoid the most catastrophic effects of a warming planet, we need to hold average temperature increases to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius (or, possibly, to briefly overshoot that mark on the way toward a net removal of carbon from the atmosphere). That means maximizing our efforts across all sectors — electricity generation, energy efficiency, land use and planning, agriculture and transportation.
It would be hard, but we know how to accomplish most of it.
The electrical system is showing progress in decarbonization with the move toward greater use of wind, solar and other green energy sources. Hitting emissions targets would require all but eliminating coal, modernizing the grid and expanding energy storage, most likely a larger role for nuclear energy (though that’s controversial) and a combination of new biofuels (which reduce atmospheric carbon when the source plants are growing) with carbon sequestration technology when they’re burned.
We've also made great strides on energy efficiency, and those must be continued. Land use policies need to minimize commuting and increase opportunities for reforestation. Agriculture will need to shift away from carbon-intensive meat production.
And in much of the transportation sector, we know what to do. Accelerate the adoption of electric cars and trucks (in conjunction with the decarbonization of the electrical grid). Shift as much shipping as possible to rail and aggressively work to maximize efficiency in logistics.
But air travel is a problem.
Aviation accounts for about 5 percent of carbon emissions now, and that could balloon over the coming decades as other carbon sources get cleaner and global demand for air travel increases. By 2050, it could account for as much as a quarter of acceptable global carbon emissions. It’s technologically possible to make synthetic, carbon-neutral “electrofuels” to power commercial jetliners, but it would radically increase the price of air travel. The UN’s climate change report suggests a more feasible if less glamorous option: Shift more travelers into buses and trains, particularly for shorter-distance travel.
We need to change. Maglev could help.
If there’s one thing that should by now be clear about Americans, it’s that we aren’t keen on being asked to sacrifice. Just ask Jimmy Carter how that “wear a sweater” campaign went. We aren’t wired to accept that we once were able to hop on a jet to travel from one city to another but must now content ourselves with something slower and lower tech. Maglev, powered by electricity, has the potential to replace air travel, carbon free, at least for short and medium trips. The top speed of current maglev technology, 311 miles per hour, is well less than that of commercial airliners (which cruise at around 550 miles per hour), but trains don’t have to spend so much time taking off and landing, taxiing to gates, and so on, and maglev stations would likely be in center cities, which airports are not. All that could make them time-equivalent or faster for many trips, not just those along the Northeast corridor. Creating a robust national network of maglev lines may be a daunting investment, but it may be our best option for maintaining the kind of intercity travel we now enjoy.
Obviously, there are many considerations in determining whether the proposed Washington-Baltimore maglev line gets built. But the technology’s potential to solve a vexing climate problem ought to be one of them.