The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted global air traffic, reducing demand by an initial 30% or more in all regions (Climate Action Tracker). The significant reduction in emissions due to reduced demand for passenger and freight aviation during the pandemic is expected to be inconsequential in reducing climate change. While grounding fleets can reduce negative impacts of the least efficient aircraft, the pandemic is also likely to reduce or postpone needed low-carbon investments. The pandemic has reduced ambition in ICAO’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) and could lead to other negative trends for climate action in the aviation industry (OECD).
Many passenger airlines have reduced prices and increased flexibility in bookings to attract passengers following the onset of the pandemic. Airlines have also mandated protective masks, enhanced sanitation protocols, and improved air filtration systems in an effort to increase on-board health and safety and reduce the spread of COVID-19 infections. Air transport administrations have also adjusted protocols to bolster traveler safety in airports, through strategies like maintaining distance at security checkpoints, enhancing sanitation in facilities, and introducing touchless technologies.
Many airlines have sought government bailouts due to the pandemic (Transport & Environment), and some governments have linked airline recovery packages to renewed sustainability efforts. For example, Austria granted Austrian Airlines a EUR 450 million bailout subject to reduction of total emissions 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. In France, a proposed EUR 7 billion loan to Air France is contingent on environmental advances, including cutting domestic flights, and revenues from France’s planned aviation eco-tax are to be spent on boosting local train services (SLOCAT). Recent COVID-19 driven airline bailouts in lower-middle income countries (LMICs) such as Kenya and South Africa have not been tied to known environmental conditions. Some aviation support in LMICs has come from international financing institutions; for example, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has granted a $354 million loan to support Morocco’s state companies, including its national airports operator (AfDB).
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored both threats to the long-term economic viability of the global aviation sector, as well as opportunities to advance its environmental sustainability.
Investing in cleaner aircrafts and fuels and establishing more efficient operational and safety protocols can contribute to long-term resilience in the industry by increasing performance and reducing costs (OECD). Governments should consider linking forthcoming airline bailout packages to the measures described above to achieve needed climate action (Guardian).
Government interventions in aviation should also consider promoting shifts from short-haul flights to more energy-efficient modes of travel such as high-speed rail where feasible (OECD). Strengthening these linkages can help governments to achieve industry imperatives that are favourable to both national budgets and broader sustainable development objectives.
This section was developed by SLOCAT Partnership on Sustainable, Low Carbon Transport with contribution from Transport & Environment.