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Covid-19 is solidifying interest in tougher environmental regulation. Are airlines prepared?

Maggie Wang
September 25, 2020
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When was the last time you heard about a drop in greenhouse gas emissions? Maybe it was during the global financial crisis in 2009 (when emissions decreased by 0.46Gt). Or maybe it was after the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1998 (when emissions decreased by 2.02Gt). But the Covid-19 pandemic has caused an even greater drop in emissions—the largest since the burning of fossil fuels began: 2.5Gt, or 4.6% as of late May. The most polluted places on the planet have seen some of the most drastic changes: in China, emissions fell 25% in the first quarter of 2020 alone, and air quality in major cities increased by over 11%.

With the global slowdown in economic activity and the switch to remote working in many sectors, emissions from airplanes, vehicles, manufacturing, and even agriculture have decreased.


However, despite these developments, climate change remains a substantial threat. The 20 warmest years since the beginning of the industrial period have occurred within the last 22 years. If current trends continue, temperatures may rise by 3-5°C above pre-industrial temperatures by the end of this century. Limiting temperature increases to 1.5°C, as the Paris Agreement encourages countries to do, may still not be enough to prevent substantial sea level rises and changes in weather patterns.


Covid-19 could have two possible effects on climate change. Some experts predict a decrease in emissions-intensive behaviors, such as driving. Especially if employers continue their work-from-home policies, the public may travel less in the long run and instead spend more time at home. Alternatively, emissions may increase, as they did in 2010 during the recovery from the financial crisis. Postponed travel plans, combined with a successful economic rebound, would pose renewed threats to Earth’s climate.


In either case, emissions regulations and targets will likely remain unchanged. For one major contributing industry, aviation, airline industry agreements to pursue carbon-neutral growth from 2020 or to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 remain as ambitious as ever. Aviation is still projected to increase upon its current contribution of 5% to the global warming issue. This is because major technological advances are occurring and scaling in other industries (e.g. renewable energy, or electric road vehicles). So what can we do now in aviation?



Greenhouse gases are still being emitted, and a more comprehensive, immediate solution will be necessary moving forward. Photo by Dawid Matyszczyk


A variety of technical carbon abatement solutions is being developed for aerospace, including sustainable aviation fuel and hydrogen planes. However, none of these are currently produced in quantities viable for commercial use, and it may be many years before major airlines will be able to rely on such innovations - all while fuel prices are rising. For now, many airlines have chosen to purchase carbon offsets and encourage passengers to purchase offsets.


While carbon offsetting has made some contributions to the fight against climate change, it is not enough. Greenhouse gases are still being emitted, and a more comprehensive, immediate solution will be necessary moving forward.


In our team’s initial research with Virgin Atlantic Airways, we demonstrated the lowest-ever abatement cost for carbon, saving around 1% of total fuel usage. Whereas carbon offsets require the airline to pay, our platform actually saves airlines money while also cutting emissions. We hope the aviation industry will reach net zero as soon as possible, but financial difficulties in the Covid-19 recovery make Signol a much more viable immediate solution than any other emissions-reducing technologies, which come later down the line as ‘headline acts’. By taking small, but important steps to improve fuel efficiency using insights from behavioral science, Signol caters to the needs of pilots and managers. Going green is hard, but not as hard as you think. Cutting emissions is more important than ever, and Signol is prepared to help. Let’s do this together.

Top image by Mitsuo Komoriya

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