Why COVID might save travel

By Linsey McNeill
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A new international report warned this week that the global population has only a very brief time to avoid irreversible damage to the planet.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said countries need to act immediately to ensure that global warming is kept below 1.5C, otherwise billions more people are at risk of life-threatening climatic conditions.

Such stark warnings could panic people into scaling back their travel plans to reduce their carbon footprint, especially as flights account for around 2.5% of global carbon emissions and contribute around 3.5% of global warming.

Before the pandemic, a flight shaming (flyskam) movement, which started in Sweden in 2018, was gathering momentum.

While operators and agents attending ABTA’s Delivering Sustainable Travel conference this week said they hadn’t seen much evidence of customers requesting ‘sustainable’ holidays, surveys show that holidaymakers are becoming more conscious of their carbon footprint.

MSC Director of Sustainability Linden Coppell said: “Clients are much more aware of climate change now. The COP26 (climate change) conference in Glasgow made a difference.”

And Alison Wareham, Senior Ski Operations Manager of school trips operator Club Med Europe said one school client had refused to travel to a resort by plane, preferring coach and ferry travel instead.

But Dr Andy Jefferson, Programme Director of Sustainable Aviation, a coalition of UK airlines, airports and aircraft manufacturers, says that with greener flights there would be no reason why people can’t continue to fly more.

Speaking at the ABTA conference, he said the UK’s aviation industry is working towards achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

He said removing carbon from aviation can be achieved through a combination of strategies, including replacing kerosine with sustainable aviation fuel, such as food waste and hydrogen.

Dr Jefferson described the challenge to reach net zero by 2050 as ‘one hundred percent doable’, adding that the aviation industry already has the technology to replace fossil fuels with green energy.

What has this got to do with COVID?

The aviation industry needs governments around the world to work together to approve sustainable aviation fuels so manufacturers can attract the investment they need to scale up production – and governments are notoriously unwilling to collaborate.

 “What could block us is geopolitics,” said Dr Jefferson.

That said, COVID has shown that countries are capable of putting self-interest aside and working together to manage a global crisis. Dr Jefferson said this could lead to a more collaborative approach to tackling global warming.

“The blueprint is there now, they’ve shown they can do it, they worked together on COVID, we need them to work together on aviation too.”

The UK Government will ask the International Civil Aviation Organisation later this year for a commitment for global aviation carbon reductions, Dr Jefferson added.

With the right support, hydrogen-electric aircraft could be in service within two year, and the UK could have enough sustainable aviation fuel to power all domestic flights by 2030, with UK aviation reaching net zero emissions 20 years later.

Already, there are three companies ready to begin manufacturing sustainable aviation fuel, but they need government funding, he said.

“Within the industry we believe that as long as we demonstrate we are taking carbon out of flying, we should not be penalised,” he said. 

“Our view is that as long as we demonstrate to society that we are on the path to net zero we should be allowed to grow.”

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