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Opinion

Airlines can have greener future after COVID-19

Pandemic and flight-shame movement must lead aviation to respect environment more

| China
Boeing 747 climbing after take-off: some jurisdictions are putting a price on aviation emissions.   © Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Hongming Liu is Manager, Global Climate Change, at advocacy group the Environmental Defense Fund.

No one in the aviation industry expects air travel, which slumped as customers shied away and countries brought down their borders on pandemic fears, to recover to pre-COVID-19 levels any time soon.

This collapse coincides with a growing shunning of flying on environment grounds in Europe. The so-called flygskam, meaning "flight shame" in Swedish, movement, personified by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, had already started having a measurable effect even before COVID-19 as people switched from planes to trains. Such a shift is not likely in regions like Asia and North America which lack extensive rail infrastructure.

The roughly $85 billion in government bailouts for airlines around the world may bring temporary relief, but will not fundamentally rescue the industry. Perhaps surprisingly for an environmental advocacy group, however, we do not want the industry to collapse. The cost in jobs and to the broader economy if mass travel were to cease would be intolerable. Instead, COVID-19 should mark a turning point toward more sustainable aviation.

This year, the industry expects the total distance flown by passengers to fall 55% compared to 2019 and CO2 emissions to fall 37%. At least 10 airlines have filed for bankruptcy, administration or ceased operations permanently. Others have suffered painful losses and are downsizing, like AirAsia Group. Lost jobs and revenue will affect aviation and the hotels, travel agencies and communities that depend on tourism.

People will want to start traveling again, at least in some places, but to convince them, airlines must prove not only that it is safe in the time of COVID-19, but also that flying can be compatible with climate protection. So what can they do?

A flight attendant of Buddha Air wearing a protective suits is seen during a mock safety drill on June 25: people will want to start traveling again.   © LightRocket/Getty Images

First, they must maintain and should deepen their climate commitments. Countries and their airlines had been preparing to join the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or CORSIA, a program administered by the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization to help airlines achieve carbon neutral growth from 2020. It would cap their emissions from 2020 and address emissions above a baseline, derived from 2019 and 2020's figures, through carbon credits and sustainable alternative fuels.

But when COVID-19 hit, airlines lobbied to change CORSIA's emissions baseline to 2019 levels because 2020's have been suppressed by COVID-19. A majority of governments in the ICAO Council agreed to this for CORSIA's first three years, effectively suspending airlines' obligations to offset greenhouse gas emissions above the original baseline. If air traffic does not recover to pre-COVID19 during that time, airlines do not need to pay for their emissions.

As the aviation industry recovers in the longer term from COVID-19, CORSIA could be an important element in its carbon-neutral journey toward alignment with the Paris Agreement on climate change. But it must be implemented effectively, strengthened and integrated into a program of progressively more ambitious emission reduction targets that leads the sector to net-zero climate impact by 2050.

Second, technology can play an important role in reducing the aviation industry's emissions, and it can create jobs too.

Airlines can retire older, less efficient aircraft and replace them with much more efficient new planes; make all possible materials, from seats to carts to bins and other components, as lightweight as possible; and use sustainable alternative fuels that emit much less carbon than conventional jet fuel over their entire life cycle.

But financing these technology changes will be challenging. Because of COVID-19, the price of conventional jet fuel currently is low and, in the absence of a strong global limit on emissions, airlines may find it difficult to justify these expenditures.

That is why it is so important that some jurisdictions are putting a price on aviation emissions by including the sector in regional, national or subnational carbon markets. These include the EU's emissions trading system, China's local carbon markets in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and China's forthcoming national emissions trading system.

Finally, as airlines receive government bailouts, they should agree to environmental sustainability. Well-designed green conditions for financial aid can help airlines by directing the bailout funding to support the transition toward sustainability.

If airlines can successfully navigate the post-COVID-19 world by bringing back passengers and jobs and giving them a more sustainable flying experience, the aviation industry could be a role model for other sectors to follow.

Annie Petsonk contributed to this article.

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