Max Kaplan-Zantopp

Aviation Arrives at a Crossroads

May 17, 2020

The spread of Coronavirus is financially crumbling the airline industry, but will its predicted comeback boost prior carbon offsetting efforts for the sake of the environment, or will its economic fossil fuel associated recovery prevail over climate-conscious innovations?

An entry ban to non-Israeli citizens has caused a 30% drop in passenger traffic and the cancellation of over 2000 flights as of the first week of March and an almost complete halt of commercial aviation by the end of March. Photo by Ethan McArthur on Unsplash

With the spread of Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), the world has been consistently finding itself at more of a standstill than the day before. In late March, the number of total infected people worldwide was less 600,000 with less than 27,000 confirmed deaths. Although now, many countries started to see a slowing trend, to date, infections have reached a staggering 4.6 million, and more than 300.000 deaths have been confirmed. The severity of the COVID-19 disease and public fear have prompted isolation and quarantine protocols as a way to slow the virus’s spread, but it has consequently battered countless businesses and the economy as a result.

One of the businesses taking an enormous financial hit is the aviation industry. In early March, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) expected a $113 billion loss in revenue. Due to increased travel restrictions and rising enochlophobia (fear of crowds) since, 2020 revenue loss is now expected to approach and possibly exceed $252 billion, a 44% drop compared to 2019.

As expected, the industry’s considerable losses paired with accompanying virus restrictions has had a significant effect on Israel’s air travel. The Israel Airports Authority’s decision to ban entry to non-Israeli citizens into the country has caused a 30% drop in passenger traffic and the cancellation of over 2000 flights as of the first week of March and an almost complete halt of commercial aviation by the end of March. Ben Gurion Airport had relieved 70% of its manual workforce due to their partial to entire closure of some of their terminals, including half of its main international terminal. The duration of these changes is still up in the air.

Although the virus is something we all want to get past, it’s presence might reveal a window of opportunity for airline companies to embrace environmentally-friendly innovations to diminish future carbon emissions, which are expected to at least triple from its current levels by 2050.

Ben Gurion Airport had relieved 70% of its manual workforce due to their partial to entire closure of some of their terminals, including half of its main international terminal. Photo by Briana Tozour on Unsplash

Before the Virus

Let’s take a step back to the time before the containment of the virus reached the top of everyone’s priorities, and flying was still in constant high demand. Carbon dioxide emissions from commercial and industrial air travel exceeded 900 million metric tons in 2018, making up 2.5% of global carbon emissions. While that may not seem like a lot in comparison to other GHG contributors like the use of vehicles and agriculture, plane emissions are expected to increase sharply and grow to take up around 27% of the world’s carbon output profile. Even if the aviation sector will meet its targets for 1.5C by 2050, it will still have consumed 12% of the global carbon budget according to a 2016 study.

But to proactively quell the higher projected levels of airline-sourced carbon emissions, governments from nearly 200 countries [signed onto the Paris Climate Agreement] adopted a plan that outlined voluntary measures to reduce those impacts by implementing various methods of carbon offsetting. This entails financially compensating for emissions by supporting projects or programs that involve renewable energy strategies. In this case, this usually translates to an “environmental tax”—airline companies and passengers paying more for the pollutive nature of the fuel.

But even with airline fuel becoming gradually more efficient, the quickly increasing and unceasing demand for flights is nullifying the environmental benefits from the enhanced fuel efficiency. Classic Jevons Paradox.

Carbon dioxide emissions from commercial and industrial air travel exceeded 900 million metric tons in 2018, making up 2.5% of global carbon emissions. Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Complicating Climate Change Responses

Although worldwide data concerning the decreased carbon emissions is still inconclusive because of Coronavirus’s ongoing status, researchers have seen that China’s carbon dioxide emissions have decreased by 25% over a four-week period following their nationwide response. So, while it may seem like a no-brainer to pursue cleaner alternative energies after seeing the positive ecological results, this may be easier said than done, especially in terms of aviation.

Despite the drastic declines in air travel and, therefore, emissions, the airline industry is considering weakening their prior goals to mitigate their contributions to climate change for the sake of regaining their financial footing. Therefore, it is more likely that businesses, including aviation, will prioritize financial recovery by the quickest means possible over continuing their prior obligations towards their sustainable endeavors.  

With oil prices dropping, it may also deter airlines from investing additional funds into more fuel-efficient aircraft projects as oil has been one of the industry’s largest expenses. So, if the cost of fuel continues to plummet, the time it would likely take to adopt more fuel-efficient, cleaner jets is prolonged. And since air travel is expected to rebound with a vengeance after fears of the virus subside, aviation emissions will just continue to worsen, producing a major setback for hitting predetermined climate emission reduction targets.

It is more likely that businesses, including aviation, will prioritize financial recovery by the quickest means possible over continuing their prior obligations towards their sustainable endeavors. Photo by Stéphan Valentin on Unsplash

A Window Seat of Opportunity

But despite the bleak, uncertain future of the aviation industry’s recovery, we should not lose sight of our goals for environmental restoration. Seeing the short-term positive changes our environment has experienced following the reduction of our many human activities should not be taken for granted just for us to slide back into our pollutive wheelhouse.

In Richmond, British Columbia, a small domestic airline, Harbour Air, initiated its first all-electric test flight. Although the flight duration was only four minutes, it was a major step forward in the field of sustainable transportation, which has not seen a significant development change in 50 years. Norway has even promised all of their short-distance flights will be electrically powered by 2040.

While the idea to electrify fleets of aircraft is an ambitious one and may not be quite so promising at this time, it is important to explore its future implications and hurdle its obstacles, such as its currently limited battery capacities. Although we should keep our expectations for recovery solutions grounded and attainable, perhaps there is some middle ground between optimal financial recovery and tending to our environment.

This ZAVIT article was also published in The Jerusalem Post on 05/17/2020.


       







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