According to the Swedish Flightradar24 website, which tracks commercial air traffic, there has already been a 10% decrease in flights this year compared to 2019 figures and the International Air Transport Association (Iata) this month calculated the crisis could wipe out $113 billion of airline revenues. “That scenario did not include such severe measures as the U.S. and other governments (including Israel, Kuwait, and Spain) have since put in place,” wrote Iata.
The crisis has already led many airlines to lean on national governments.
Cancellations of commercial flights began in Wuhan, China, following the December announcement of the outbreak of Covid-19 to the World Health Organization, and have since spread across the globe as travel restrictions begin to take effect. Based on current trajectories, the situation will not ease up any time soon.
Two of the biggest consequences of the impact of Covid-19 on the aviation industry inspire differing responses: interrupted events and cleaner air.
Let’s focus on the former first. From live concerts and film productions to St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and the Euro 2020 football finals – and even Solar Power Mexico – major events have been, and are continuing to be disrupted. For many businesses, that has meant postponement or cancellation; for others, though, creativity has flourished.
Here at pv magazine, we have had to rethink how we interact not only with one another but also our wider client and reader networks. Last month, for example, we decided to hold the announcement of our Storage Highlights ceremony via webinar, rather than in a face-to-face insight session, after events company Messe Düsseldorf announced the cancellation of the Energy Storage Europe trade show.
We are also looking into innovative ways companies can continue to showcase their wares in the absence of key trade shows and conferences; and we are dedicating editorial space to understanding how Covid-19 is affecting the solar and energy storage industries; and what innovative business solutions people are coming up with to cope.
The digital landscape has expanded dramatically in recent years and in the wider world we are seeing virtual trade shows popping up, resplendent with livestream talks, discussions, fireside chats and virtual tours. For networking, Chatroulette-esque apps are being deployed and algorithms devised to help match people for “cocktail party” video calls.
Who knows what virtual reality developers will be delivering in the months and years to come in this area? The sky’s the limit.
It is essential, however, equality remains an important consideration, particularly with regard to poorer countries which experience problems not only with bandwidth but also lack of equipment. It is important those regions are not locked out of any new, virtual solutions.
Let’s come back now to the second consequence of the commercial flying crisis: cleaner air. Last year, Flightradar24 says it tracked 68.9 million flights – more than 188,000 per day, for a 10% increase on 2018 and equating to around 4.5 billion passengers over the course of the year.
According to the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (Icao), airline traffic accounts for around 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. For 2018, that added up to 918 million metric tons and represented a 32% increase over the previous five years. Then there’s the nitrogen dioxide (NOx) emissions released on landing and take-off to take into account.
Icao projections state, on a business-as-usual trajectory, CO2 emissions will roughly treble by 2045, and NOx emissions will rise 2.4-4.4 times, leading the aviation industry to potentially account for 25% of global emissions. That is despite efforts being made to develop sustainable aviation fuels. Demand for flights is simply outpacing such innovation.
U.S. non-profit the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT)* said last year: “Greenhouse gas emissions from commercial aviation are rapidly increasing. If the global aviation sector were treated as a nation, it would have been the sixth-largest source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from energy consumption in 2015, emitting more than Germany.”
Perhaps the only silver lining to the unfolding crisis – due to grounded flights, a reduced transport sector, measures such as self-isolation and quarantines, less manufacturing and declining fossil fuel consumption – is that air quality has markedly improved since Covid-19 tightened its grip.
Data from China and Italy show dramatically lower levels of harmful CO2 and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions being released into the air. U.K.-based climate change website Carbon Brief, for instance, estimated the first two weeks of China’s Covid-19 quarantine saw a 25% drop in energy use and emissions. NASA reported a “significant decrease in NO2” levels in China between the pre-quarantine period of January 1-20 and February 10-25, after movement restrictions were applied.
On March 13, just days before China announced no new Covid-19 infections, independent research organization the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air tweeted: “Levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution are inching back up over China. Definitely not a surge above pre-crisis levels, just factories and transport starting to run again. Steep drop in northern Italy.”
Humanity on a global scale is having to dramatically change its habits – to an extent many of us would not have thought possible just a few short months ago. However, it has shown us that when we have to, we can radically change our lifestyles. While the many who drag their feet when it comes to implementing real climate change measures argue we cannot cope with drastic change, we have demonstrated the opposite is true. Provided there is strong enough political will, that is.
Climate on the back burner?
There are fears, recently voiced on U.S. non-profit environmental website Grist, the COVID-19 crisis will put climate issues on the back burner as governments scramble to bail out badly-hit industries including airlines and fossil fuel conglomerates. Now more than ever, however, we should be pushing for the clean energy transition and other vital innovation such as green finance to drive the recovery, rather than reverting to the destructive status quo.
From next month until the end of June, pv magazine will be diving deep into the topic of green finance and what it means for solar industry players, as part of its UP initiative. Topics will include the European Green Deal, regional growth opportunities, green bonds and the role of the carbon bubble. Stay tuned and get involved!
As we know, the solar and energy storage industries are the keys to help unlock the clean energy transition and a fairer, more just world. It is time for us to show the world not only do we have the solutions to create cleaner air, but we are also taking the lead in actively working to reduce our business carbon footprints by adopting some of the more “radical” changes we as a society have recently been forced to make.
This includes thinking more creatively about how we hold events; about how we can minimize our travel footprint for the thousands of meetings we attend every year; and about how we can deploy online tools to enable us to conduct business without flying
The ICCT said of the 38 million passenger flights it assessed in 2018, 67% were domestic. The top CO2 emitters were the United States, the European Union and China. The organization calculated flights of 500km or less produced almost twice as much CO2 as longer journeys.
Until more sustainable flying alternatives are available, such as green hydrogen-powered synthetic kerosene – and they don’t appear to be on our near-term horizon – we can make a difference by cutting domestic flights and using alternative modes of transport such as trains; by rethinking our need to regularly travel long distance; and by taking advantage of digital platforms.
Glen Peters, research director at the Center for International Climate and Environment Research in Oslo, eloquently wrote: “The coronavirus has forced new working-from-home habits that limit commuting – and a broader adoption of online meetings – to reduce the need for long-haul business flights. This raises the prospect of long-term emissions reductions should these new work behaviours persist beyond the current global emergency.”
We also need to be pushing governments to create stimulus packages to support structural change in our societies, and to promote clean energy.
Finally, to borrow from the succinct words of Mimi Sheller, professor of sociology at the department of culture and communication and founding director of the new mobilities research and policy center at Drexel University in Philadelphia in the U.S.:
“If airlines go bankrupt, if trucking is severely reduced and consumers stop buying new cars, will this actually kick start the transition away from fossil fuels? As countries seek to recover and pull out of this mobility shock, will we seek to return to the high-mobility, high-energy, high-carbon economy of the past? Or will we begin the urgently needed shift to a low-carbon economy, one premised on more resilient, regenerative and circular forms of local exchange? Could this be the push we needed to truly implement the low-carbon transition that scientists have warned us is necessary to stop the global climate emergency? While some might see this as the wrong time to worry about climate change – in the midst of a viral emergency that needs immediate response – for others these two things are connected.”
A common purpose
The academic added: “It is becoming clearer that the response to both coronavirus and climate change share common elements. Proponents of the Green New Deal in the United States, or the Green Deal in Europe have been calling for a massive transformation of our energy infrastructure, housing and transportation systems through public investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency and low-carbon transportation. These proposals are exactly the kind of government stimulus that could also help pull our economies out of the current slump and build more resilient communities with greater social solidarity.
“Mobilities theory is crucial to this planning because we have been focusing for the last 15 years on the problem of low-carbon transitions and understanding how everyday social practices are embedded in complex systemic change. Changing the ways that we do mobilities will be crucial to the post-Covid-19 world. And making sure we do so in a socially equitable and just way will be crucial to the future of the world.”
We don’t have to let climate issues take a back seat; we can use climate solutions to drive recovery. The sky’s the limit.
* The article was amended on March 24 at 09:34 to reflect that the ICCT made the following quote: “Greenhouse gas emissions from commercial aviation are rapidly increasing. If the global aviation sector were treated as a nation, it would have been the sixth-largest source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from energy consumption in 2015, emitting more than Germany.” Not The Air Transport Action Group.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.