Aviation & Emissions
According to an IPCC (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change) report published in 1999 – aviation accounted for approximately 2% percent of global carbon emissions due to human activity, as of 1992.
The International Council On Clean Transportation (ICCT) reports that CO2 emissions from all commercial operations in 2018 totalled 918 million metric tons—2.4% of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use. (This is a 32% increase in emissions over the five years preceding 2018).
The impacts of aviation emissions are thought to be 2-4 times that of direct CO2 emissions due to chemical reactions at high altitude.
Per capita emissions from air travel is one of the highest in comparison to other modes of transportation. As a means to gradually reduce emissions, the global airline industry adopted CORSIA – Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation in 2016. CORSIA was developed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) – an emission mitigation approach for the commercial aviation. CORSIA addresses only emissions from international air travel that exceed the baseline of 2020 levels primarily by carbon offsets and “alternative” fuels.
Even before the pandemic hit, the industry was facing increasing pressure in the fight against climate change. International aviation is forecast to double passenger numbers by 2037 and its share of global emissions may increase tenfold to 22% by 2050.
It may be of interest to recall that almost an year before the COVID19 pandemic started impacting aviation , a climate change movement ‘Flygskam, (Swedish, translates to ‘flight shame’) had started encouraging people in Europe to stop taking flights as a means of transport for environmental reasons.
Sweden witnessed increased rail travel and a decrease in flights in 2018-2019 which may be an indication that consumer awareness towards the environment will have an ever increasing impact.
COVID19 and Bailouts
The aviation industry has been hit very badly by the unprecedented international crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that the global industry will lose $252 billion in 2020. This storm of destruction on our society and economy also has an environmental silver lining. As the volume of passengers and cargo has fallen, so have the carbon emissions and pollutants associated with transportation.
To keep airlines afloat due to loss of business, Governments have already spent billions of dollars world wide as bailouts. However, these handouts will only enable limited short term relief. Unless tied to sustainability, these bailouts will not fundamentally rescue the industry.
Though we do not have an end to the pandemic in sight, gradually things will normalise and it will be business as usual. Unless there is a paradigm shift in policy, emissions from the aviation industry will also resume their upward spiral. At that juncture, it is almost a certainty that the relationship with the consumer, regulators and the Government will be irreparably damaged. We are therefore looking like another COVID-like demand destruction, which will have no recovery.
COVID-19 could provide a unique opportunity for the industry to adapt to a more sustainable model that meets the demands of combating climate change which needs to be a high priority for the world. Airlines need to reimagine their operating models and also invest in technologies enabling them to meet emissions targets. Bailouts therefore need to be linked to adoption of sustainable practices. This is an opportunity for fundamental, sustained change.
The crisis caused by Covid-19 has put a spanner in the CORSIA baseline which was supposed to be calculated based on 2019-’20 flight figures. Since the industry in 2020 is almost at a standstill that baseline will be much lower than expected requiring airlines to purchase many more carbon offset credits, raising operating costs and passing these onto customers.
Bowing to Industry pressure, ICAO recently decided to change the baseline for the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) to 2019. Climate activists have long argued against CORSIA, accusing it of being an eyewash. There are contrarian views to what the industry claims, and aviation may account for 5-8% of global heating. In fact, there are several other pollutants and just tracking just CO2 may not the right way.
The need of the hour is a combination of fuel efficiencies, green technology, improvements in air traffic management and biofuels. Shortfall in emissions can be covered by large-scale carbon offsetting. It may be instructing to see most airlines ditching the Boeing 747 and the Airbus A380 in favour of leaner aircraft.
The actual transformation could lie in fuel taxes and reduction in flights per capita. Statistically, a majority of flights are undertaken by well-off minority, and a majority of these flights are not necessary. Aviation fuels historically have enjoyed much lesser taxation than automobile fuels – the most-polluting form of transport enjoying the lowest taxes. This is non sustainable and certainly questionable. Airline bailouts therefore need to be linked to several other reforms including fuel tax reforms.
Airlines need to continue their work to reduce their emission footprints, including operating newer, fuel efficient aircraft, using more fuel efficient navigation techniques, and employ common sense ideas like eliminating single use plastics from their operations. Airlines also need to stay at the forefront of alternate fuel development.
Sustainability must become a pillar of the aviation industry after the COVID19 crisis as it is the only viable way forward. We need to start actively thinking green, out of the box and realise that a green vision is what will keep the industry in business in the longer term.