The Covid-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption to global and domestic air travel, and could result in commercial aviation emissions being cut by more than half in 2020 globally.
It may also complicate efforts to reduce global aviation emissions, after a collective 80 countries, including Australia, committed to capping aviation emissions at 2020 levels.
It potentially sets up a massive win for climate action if airlines honour the deal, or could, more likely, see airlines renege on the commitment given it is tied to a catastrophic year for the sector.
According to analysis undertaken by The Australia Institute, emissions from commercial aviation could be cut by more 350 million tonnes in 2020, as airlines face prolong groundings due to Covid-19.
The think tank pointed to analysis published by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which estimated that global air travel would be cut by 38 per cent in 2020. This would translate to an 8.8 million tonne fall for Australian aviation emissions.
It was estimated that global aviation emissions reductions to date could already top 10 million tonnes, as airlines stop international flights. Under an extreme scenario, where Australian airlines remain effectively grounded for nine months, emissions reductions could reach as high as 13.2 million tonnes during 2020.
Australia’s two largest airlines, Qantas and Virgin Australia, have already announced a cessation of all international flights until the middle of the year, following a federal government ban on such travel.
Qantas said that it would reduce its domestic flight volume by 60 per cent, and Virgin will cut its own domestic routes by 90 per cent.
Last year, Qantas announced its comment to achieving zero net emissions by 2050, along with a cap on the company’s emissions based on its 2020 levels.
Virgin Australia has made a similar commitment for “carbon neutral growth” from 2020 onwards, also under the international CORSIA agreement.
That latter commitment was made in accordance with a global agreement made across 80 countries, known as the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) to stop the growth in airline emissions and which also used 2020 as a baseline year.
Under CORSIA, signatories agreed to cap global net emissions from international aviation to 2020 levels, as well as making ongoing improvements to fuel efficiency in an effort to achieve “carbon neutral” growth within the industry.
If airlines honour the agreement, it represents a massive win for the environment and climate action, with airlines forced to limit emissions increases to a benchmark set while much of the industry was grounded.
However, given the particular situation that has unfolded in 2020, airlines may look to revisit the commitment, but the Australia Institute’s climate and energy program director Richie Merzian said that he hoped airlines and governments used it as a positive opportunity.
“Given the global nature of the aviation industry, it has its own UN deal outside of the Paris Agreement, to go carbon neutral using 2020 as the baseline year. Governments and airlines have an opportunity to work together to ensure that commitment is maintained throughout the COVID-19 response and recovery,” Merzian said.
It is unknown whether Qantas will retain 2020 has its reference year for a cap on emissions, given the current Covid-19 related developments.
Cargo and freight transport via air transport is still continuing and has been largely unaffected by flight restrictions.
“The economic impact of COVID19 on the aviation industry has been no-doubt devastating. Even the three impact scenarios presented in the last month by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) now appear to be optimistic,” Merzian added.
“Australia Institute analysis shows global emissions from aviation in February and the first half of March 2020 are already lower than this time last year. If the cuts to flights announced by Qantas and Virgin continue into Spring, it would more than halve annual aviation emissions in Australia.”
“The question remains as to whether Covid-19 pandemic will permanently change our flying habits, given epidemics like Avian flu, MERS and SARS saw the volume of air travel recover within a few short months.”
The Australia Institute suggested that changes in work practices promoted by the Covid-19 pandemic may mean that travel patterns may never return back to normal.
A rapid shift to working remotely and the increased use of videoconferencing to conduct meetings and deliver training may see these technologies become standard practice, allowing people to avoid the need to travel.
“If we can work well together online now, perhaps it will permanently reduce the need for business travel and so emissions over the long term,” Merzian said.
Both Qantas and Virgin Australia ranked amongst Australia’s largest industrial emitters in 2018-19.
Data published by the Clean Energy Regulator showed that Qantas reported 4.3 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in the 2018-19 year. Virgin Australia reported 2.6 million tonnes of emissions over the same period.
Both company’s figures relate only to domestic travel and excludes emissions associated with international trips.
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