(Editor’s note: This article has been updated as of August 23, 2021)
Even if it was already expected that nationwide lockdowns would greatly impact aviation emissions, nobody had foreseen the magnitude of the reduction. Yes, the pandemic has created an enormous drawback in the airline industry. Never-before-seen situations around the world, wherein thousands of planes have been grounded for months, can only mean a devastating effect on the industry. Be that as it may, there’s a silver lining that could counterweight the negative economic impact. For now, the earth has been given a chance to breathe cleaner air.
Coming from a first peer-reviewed study, the drop in global carbon emissions since the CoViD-19 lockdowns exhibited that aviation was the most impacted—based on an analysis of six economic sectors from January to April. Considering that the industry has already accounted for 3% of global emissions, it registered a total 10% decrease, globally, throughout the initial four months in the pandemic.
The study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, the study indicated daily global emissions across sectors, at the height of the quarantine, decreased as much as 17% in early April. That’s equivalent to 17 million tons (MtCO2)—compared to unpleasant daily levels in 2019. The researchers from the universities of East Anglia (United Kingdom) and Stanford (United States) estimated a reduction of up to 7% in overall global emissions for the current year. These researchers also pointed out that depending on the level of remaining worldwide restrictions, including the duration, this rate of drop is what’s needed annually to limit climate change close to a 1.5-degree Celsius warming.
About 1,048 MtCO2 estimated total change in emissions (from the pandemic) by the end of April—that’s equivalent to an 8.6% reduction in contrast from January to April of 2019. So, the aviation sector’s carbon emissions declined by around 60% during the period, which is equivalent to approximately 1.7 MtCO2 per day. That’s a lot considering that the estimated decrease in daily fossil CO2 emissions, from the severe and forced confinement of world populations at its peak, is extreme and probably unseen before, according to the study.
“Population confinement has led to drastic changes in energy use and CO2 emissions. These extreme decreases are likely to be temporary, though, as they do not reflect structural changes in the economic, transport, or energy systems,” said professor Corinne Le Quéré of the University of East Anglia. “The extent to which world leaders consider climate change when planning their economic responses post CoViD-19 will influence the global CO2 emissions paths for decades to come. Opportunities exist to make real and durable changes and are more resilient to future crises by implementing economic stimulus packages that also help meet climate targets, especially for mobility, which accounts for half the decrease in emissions during confinement,” Le Quéré added.
Covid-19 the catalyst for greening?
In a year-by-year comparative chart, statista.com presented the global airline industry’s annual CO2 emissions from 2004 up to the present. Emissions peaked in 2019, when industry emissions peaked at 936 million metric tons. This was reduced to almost half—495 million metric tons—in 2020. With restrictions to air travel gradually being lifted in many countries, the current emissions for 2021 has already exceeded that of the entire 2020—at 580 million metric tons. ( https://www.statista.com/statistics/1186820/co2-emissions-commercial-aviation-worldwide/)
We’ve already seen the economic impact of commercial planes, in thousands, having been grounded since the lockdown. On the other hand, there are benefits, particularly in terms of environmental improvements, which society is getting in return. The Guardian shared an exciting news feature about the pandemic as the needed catalyst for making the aviation industry green, specifically in the UK scenario.
Some of the noteworthy insights were from environmentalist groups: “With 90% of UK planes grounded, and knowing we need to halt polluting industries, there can be no justification for the government to support restarting flights financially. Let’s embed this change rather than bail out this destructive industry and its tax-avoiding owners,” said Extinction Rebellion UK spokesperson, Sarah Lunnon.
According to other climate campaign organizations, including Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, bailouts are only acceptable if they come with green conditions. They pointed out that airline companies should pay a fair share of taxes and not rely on their current offsetting to reduce emissions. Among the measures they propose are fuel taxes on domestic flights (which are currently tax-free) and the introduction of a frequent flier levy. In the United Kingdom, 15% of people take 70% of trips. Globally, only 3% of the world’s 7.6bn population flies frequently.
“If governments want to address the twin challenges of CoViD and climate change, the political moment is now,” said Dan Rutherford, aviation director at the International Council on Clean Transportation. “Policies to curb frequent flying could benefit both public health and the global environment.” He also expressed passengers should also be given information about the carbon costs of their flights, which would allow them to support more efficient airlines.
Meanwhile, the Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye emphasized building back better, post-pandemic. “The government can accelerate the decarbonization of aviation by helping to scale up new energy sources, such as sustainable aviation fuels, just as they did successfully for solar and wind. Any company that is bailed out by the government should commit to net-zero emissions well before 2050.”