The coronavirus outbreak has a huge economic impact on various sectors, such as the heavy industry, auto manufacturers, tourism industry and travel business. Several airlines for example all across the US and Europe are now putting pressure on the governments to provide them an emergency aid package. Governments are giving in, however, these agreements could now also provide major opportunities to combat climate overheating. Could this be an opportunity to support airlines that bring benefits from both the economic and environmental perspective?
Please also read: The future of the fossil fuel industry
The biggest crisis in the history of aviation
Starting last week, airlines are halting operations, laying off flights and making unprecedented cuts in costs and staff, following the lockdowns and travel restrictions concerning major flight routes. Taking measures to reduce up to 90% of their capacity, this collapse is threatening a cascade of bankrupcies.
As a result, last week about 60 of the world’s major airlines and some of the world largest C02 polluters announced an urgent plea for government support. US airlines are requesting direct financial aid as well as load guarantees of up to $60 billion dollars to prevent bankrupcy. Shares of European airlines have fallen drastically and more and more airlines announce the need of financial aid for their survival. In response, the German, French, Dutch and British governments have all already announced that they are working on ways to help the industry.
The question arises: Why is it so easily possible to allocate such huge amount of money for the fossil fuel industry but on the other hand we are still not able to make urgent changes to save our planet?
An opportunity to combat climate overheating
Air travel is undoubtedly a big contributor to climate overheating. Currently, air travel is responsible for 2.4 % of the global CO2 emmisions. Together with other gas emissions produced by the aircraft that trap additional heat, aviation is responsible for about 5% of climate overheating. Not to mention that flying significantly increases an individual’s ecological footprints. It might not seem like a huge number, but according to official reports, the climate impact of a single flight is currently equivalent of 254 g of CO2 per kilometre. In comparison, traveling by train generates approx. 40 g CO2 per kilometre. Airplanes contrails also reduce the sunlight by up to 15%.
Although there are several things individuals can do to lower their ecological footprints, we should not fall into the trap of believing all responsibility lies on our shoulders. Current reports estimate that by 2050, emissions will triple in the aviation sector. In parallel, many carriers have not yet made significant improvements for fuel-efficiency. Therefore, it is highly questionable whether public funds should simply be allocated to subsidize the already cheap fossil fuel industry.
Is there a climate-friendly bailout?
Climate experts say that from now on, financial aid to airlines should be seen as a once in a lifetime opportunity to couple strict conditions to reduce their greenhouse emissions. Daniel Rutherford, director for aviation and marine programs at the International Council on Clean Transportation in the US, listed a few ideas on Twitter that focus on climate-friendly options.
Tax breaks/incentives to retire older, less fuel-efficient aircraft that are no longer needed on marginal routes
Long-term contracts for difference to support advanced biofuels and synthetic jet fuels that provide at least a 50% lifecycle reduction in GHGs compared to conventional jet
Aim to improve the fuel efficiency of US airline fleets by 2.5% annually. This could be supported by a CO2 standard for in-service aircraft under the Clean Air Act.
Pursue absolute limits on greenhouse gas (GHGs) from aircraft, above and beyond offsetting. An initial goal could be to cap well-to-wake greenhouse gas emissions from airline fleets at 2020 levels by 2035, and to reduce those emissions by at least 50% from 2005 levels by 2050.
Commit to support an international long-term climate goal at by 2022.Dan Rutherford, ICCT Shipping and Aviation director
As he emphasised, air travel is going to bounce back after the crisis. We are going to see emissions continue to rise in the following years, with or without any change in the underlying status quo. The fossil fuel subsidies will be skyrocketing, while countries still wrestle with the problems of setting much needed goals for climate finance. Without massive transformations, such as a climate-fiendly bailout would bring, it will be impossible to shift the world to a low-carbon future.
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