Aviation and Global Sustainability, Pt II

Aviation is a force for good.  It broadens the mind. It connects people with new cultures, experiences, places and opportunities; and it underpins the global economy.

Yet, its dependency on fossil fuel is harmful.  What, then, to do?

Aviation currently contributes around 3% of global carbon emissions and, over the past decade, was the fastest-rising source of emissions.[1]

The impact of COVID-19 on the aviation industry is potentially shading some of the measures that should, in any event, be considered for a sustainable recovery.  Yet concern is mounting over the business cost, and devastating environmental impact, of losing sight of effective action towards climate change.

Restarting aviation will play a key role in the recovery of the global economy.  More broadly, climate change remains the greatest long-term challenge we face.

The convergence of these crises – the pandemic alongside climate instability – offers an unprecedented opportunity to ‘build back better’. Decisions taken now over the direction of, and investment in, the industry will ultimately impact the resilience of the sector, and thus aviation’s future viability.[2]

Pre-COVID shift

Even before the pandemic, the airline industry was facing increased public pressure with ‘the Greta effect’ of flygskam (flight shame), as well as the school strike-movement, and direct action by the Extinction Rebellion group.

This was not confined to the growing sphere of social awareness. Corporate environmental responsibility was also gently testing the waters: sustainability policies, carbon audits, carbon-accreditation schemes, and declining number of business flights, were all obvious targets for emission savings.

The joined-up issue of aviation and climate has made its way through to the UK Court of Appeal (27 Feb. ’20) which upheld the High Court’s decision to block the expansion of Heathrow Airport.  The judicial decision, of course, was on a point of law: whether the designation of the ‘Airports National Policy Statement’ (new runway capacity and infrastructure at airports) was unlawful by reason of a failure to take into account the Government’s commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The Paris Agreement ought to have been taken into account by the Secretary of State in the preparation of the ANPS. An explanation was given as to how it was taken into account, but in effect it was judged not, and so the runway expansion application was denied.[3] The case awakened judicial conversation on how to address climate responsibility.

COVID shift

The impact of COVID-19 may be to further highlight the tension between current aviation fossil-dependency and the global climate crisis.

For one, there may be a generational shift in which consumers are prioritising travel following COVID-19. We know the virus poses a greater risk and higher mortality rates for those over 70. There is speculation that low demand, along with the psychological after-effects of confinement may be leading consumers to modify their behaviour, particularly those facing higher health risks. It may be that there is a generation of people that do not return to travel in the way they did before COVID-19.  When considering the expectations of future passengers, moreover, carbon reduction is known to be a priority.

Another shift has been the rise of Zoom and other electronic means of communication. Many businesses, having now hosted and attended meetings online, view such virtual events as a convenient method for saving money and carbon. Where businesses previously had the ‘ESCR’ vision and stated intentions, their employees are now well-practised in the zero-carbon alternative.

Yet alongside this, aviation has a history of not only rebounding from crises quickly but surpassing previous demand levels. It is difficult to know what will happen with passenger demand this time. But if New Zealand’s experience is any indication, the return to Level 2, re-generating regional movement, resulted in strong early growth of domestic passenger numbers.

Growing discourse

COVID-19 has accelerated a growing discourse challenging the status quo. Discussion increasingly focuses on the question: how do we rebuild in a way that benefits the economy, the environment, and improves equality?

A recent report from the Oxford Review of Economic Policy nicely captures post-COVID-19 reconsiderations;

“Public support for action on climate change increased to a peak prior to the pandemic; government and corporate action was also gathering momentum. COVID-19 has clearly slowed this momentum, not least in delaying the international conference on climate (COP26) from 2020 to 2021. However, the momentum could find new impetus if, humbled by the ability of ‘natural’ forces to shock the global economy, humans recalibrate our sense of omnipotence. Furthermore, opinion polls in many countries show that people are noticing the clean air, uncongested roads, the return of birdsong and wildlife, and are asking whether ‘normal’ was good enough; could we not ‘build back better’? The shape of COVID-19 fiscal recovery packages put in place in the coming months, once lockdowns are eased, will have a significant impact on whether globally agreed climate goals are met.”[4]

Whether these opportunities are realised then becomes a political question.

Political considerations

To what extent is the issue a tension between the economy and the environment?  Consider, at the national level, the approach taken during COVID-19 in relation to public health vs the economy. For those countries showing signs of relative success, they approached health and the economy as interdependent, not competing concepts in a zero-sum framework. In short, we need healthy people to have a healthy economy. The same can be said for the environment.

For those governments that accept the premise of an interdependent environment and economy, the debate revolves around the best methodology for supporting our economy and environment – whether it be government-led or market-led solutions.

In New Zealand, the current Government believes the way to effectively regulate emissions is at the national level. This is supported by the work of the Climate Commission, the Ministry for the Environment and the Environmental Protection Authority, all of these supported by a National Emissions Budget and a National Emissions Reduction Plan that together address New Zealand’s UNFCCC obligations.

In terms of government stimulus packages, this would ideally mean investing in projects with high potential for both economic recovery and climate impact, the requirement being to satisfy both boxes (i.e. clean physical infrastructure, building efficient retrofits, investment in education/ training, natural capital investment, and clean research and development).[5]

The alternative approach is to allow market-based solutions to solve the climate crisis and rely on the aviation industry to be wholly responsible for developing technology-based solutions.  At a time when the industry is facing around 90% revenue loss, this is simply implausible.


The aviation sector is at a crossroad, and the pathway chosen needs to be modern, progressive, and climate-conscious.

Continuing as it was before the health pandemic will, in light of the climate crisis, be neither possible nor acceptable. The future for global aviation depends upon it being an active participant in climate action.  The good news is that there is a sectoral awareness of this.

There is no future for an industry that does not address fossil-fuel dependency and, despite the global pandemic, it is imperative that the aviation sector does not lose sight of its carbon-reduction goals.

Yet the sector cannot do it alone. International climate frameworks addressing aviation will need to back the ambitious options, and governments will need to include environmental strings for all sector loans or bail-outs.

Finally, and perhaps above all, individual consumers will need to accept, if they wish to fly, that they should be paying the true cost of flying – which must include finding a way out of fossil-fuel dependency.



[1] Watts, J. ‘Something in the Air: Could COVID-19 crisis be the catalyst for greening our airlines?’, The Guardian Weekly, 22 May 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/17/is-covid-19-crisis-the-catalyst-for-the-greening-of-worlds-airlines

[2] ACI Europe Working Paper – “Off the Ground”; Report of the WS1 – Sustainability – Climate Change

[3] UK Court of Appeal on 27 Feb 2020 https://www.judiciary.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Heathrow-summary-of-judgments-26-February-2020-online-version.pdf

[4] Hepburn, C; O’Callaghan, B; Stern. N; Stiglitz, J; and Zenghelis, D. (2020), ‘Will C-19 fiscal recovery packages accelerate or retard progress on Climate Change?, Oxford Review of Economic Policy.

[5] Hepburn, C; O’Callaghan, B; Stern. N; Stiglitz, J; and Zenghelis, D. (2020), ‘Will C-19 fiscal recovery packages accelerate or retard progress on Climate Change?, Oxford Review of Economic Policy.

Author: Claire Waghorn

Claire is a sustainability advisor in the aviation sector; and barrister & solicitor of the NZ High Court with a focus on international law. She has an MSc in International Relations (LSE, London); and an LLB and BA (Hons) in Diplomacy & International Relations (Canterbury University). Claire was Secretary for the Centre (2012-15) and was appointed to the Board in July ’20.

June 19, 2020

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