Planes, nationalisation and climate change: can Coronavirus inspire a greener future?

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About a month ago at a trade conference in Brussels , Michael O’Leary, group chief executive at Ryanair, prophesied that “the immediate short-term panic about travelling will erode very rapidly. It will erode over the next two or three weeks.”

He went on to add: “Will families continue to travel on their Easter school break? Yes, they will unless there is some unforeseen event.”

As with many statements on the then-blossoming outbreak, O’Leary’s comments have not aged well. Flybe collapsed a few days following, on the 5th of March, and in the subsequent weeks daily life as we knew it was altered for the foreseeable future. For the aviation industry, a trail of financial losses followed. Global air traffic demand fell by 14% in February, and the expected figures for March are going to be undoubtedly worse. Hoards of former easter holidayers cancelled their bookings out of pandemic-fuelled fear, and businesses barred from flying for international meetings have turned to video conferencing. As a consequence of the downturn, carriers including easyJet, and regional airlines such as Loganair and Eastern airways, are hoping for a taxpayer-funded cash injection that could prevent them following Flybe into administration.

Most recently, Virgin Atlantic, backed by Airbus and Rolls Royce, has lobbied the government for £500 million in support. However, as Nils Pratley of the Guardian has argued, ‘a begging letter from an island-dwelling billionaire doesn’t gain sympathy’; Rishi Sunak has already stated that the aviation industry overall will only receive ‘bespoke support’ from the government. There are “obvious reasons why Virgin (and easyJet) aren’t the first in [the government’s] wish-list of companies to help,” according to a government figure cited by the Financial Times, who mentioned the ‘perennial questions’ over Richard Branson’s tax affairs, along with Stelios Haji-Ioannou, founder of easyJet, paying his own family £60 million of dividends last month.

[blockquote author=”” ]concern with climate change… seems like a dead topic in the face of a far more pressing global pandemic[/blockquote]

During their appeal, both Rolls Royce and Airbus emphasised Virgin Atlantic’s “key” role in assisting the UK aviation industry’s efforts to meet its targets of net zero emissions by 2050. Such a concern with climate change, a problem that is comparatively distant (despite the global warming-induced Australian bushfires only burning out in January), seems like a dead topic in the face of a far more pressing global pandemic. However, at least where aviation is concerned, one issue could act as a springboard for another. Unprecedented times such as these can often be a catalyst for change, and with airlines’ carbon emissions potentially dropping by more than one-third this year as travel demand sinks, it could be time to adequately put pressure on an industry that collectively emitted 918 million tonnes of CO2 last year. Governments need to use this opportunity to adapt to a more insistent kind of environmental politics, and use any financial assistance on offer to pressure airlines into implementing practices that adequately reduce their damage to the planet. “Green financing” is a practice already encouraged by institutions such as Deutsche Bank, which leased commercial planes that released 40% less CO2 to French firm ATR.

[blockquote author=”” ]Governments need to use this opportunity to adapt to a more insistent kind of environmental politics[/blockquote]

Before the pandemic-related bankruptcies and layoffs, the pressure to gradually switch to sustainable fuels had risen in the wake of the climate change crisis becoming more urgent and air travel more common, with the longer-term outlook being for air traffic to double from 9bn passenger trips in 2018 to almost 20bn by 2040. In the face of this pressing need, the commercialisation of biofuels has been dragging its heels, at less than 1% penetration of the market, likely due to them being considerably more expensive than conventional fuel – not an insignificant matter when fuel is the biggest operating cost. With the current situation being the “biggest crisis that the industry has ever faced”, according to IATA’s Director General Alexandre de Juniac, airlines have “little to do except cut costs and take emergency measures in an attempt to survive”. Representing around 290 carriers, the IATA has warned that airlines could lose $252 billion in revenue this year.

It may be that, in a post-pandemic world, we assess our overall need for travel entirely, by plane or otherwise. “If we can work well together online now, perhaps it will permanently reduce the need for business travel,” suggested Richie Merzian, climate and energy program director at the Australia Institute. This alone could make a substantial impact; commercial aviation accounts for about 2% of global carbon emissions, according to IATA. That being said, air traffic bounced back within months after SARS in 2003, although that outbreak did not have the international reach nor societal impact of the coronavirus. It seems that, at least for now, “sustainability” for aviation is probably more about keeping a business going rather than examining its impact on the planet – unless they are incentivised otherwise.

Image: Victor via Flickr

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