CAPA Live: What happens when an existential threat meets a threat to our existence?

11 March, 2021

The future is all about "finding a balance between survival of the world and survival of the aviation and travel industry," explained CAPA - Centre for Aviation founder and chairman emeritus, Peter Harbison, during his monthly address in the Mar-2021 edition of CAPA Live - a monthly virtual summit, offering insights, information, data and live interviews with airline CEOs and industry executives across a next-gen virtual event platform.

Addressing the theme of sustainability, Mr Harbison said finding this balance is "not an easy equation...One is an existential threat, and the other one is a threat to our existence; one is very short term, the other one is short-term and long-term". Sustainability and the recovery of air travel needs to go "hand in glove," he said.

Mr Harbison's enlightening views afforded some important insights on the environmental sustainability pressures that were facing the global aviation industry before and now as we journey into a life after the COVID-19 pandemic.

The existential threat is about travel and tourism, which in 2019 accounted for about one in ten jobs around the world, and one in five of every new jobs, according to the WTTC. And in a lot of cases, from Greece to the Pacific Islands they are even more reliant on travel. As a large part of that traveling inevitably is by air, the aviation system is inextricably linked to travel.

On the other hand, the threat to our existence is real and seemingly inevitable, unless we act. The emission of carbon dioxide from human activity is increasing more than 250 times faster than it did from natural sources after the last ice age, according to NASA. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are at unprecedented levels - and rising - creating a climate emergency.

One of the key underlying issues here is that the focus for government should remain on how to reduce CO2 emissions rather than the sort of short-sighted and ineffective measures such as new taxes. Incentivising the creation of new sustainable fuels for aircraft is a real step in the right direction.

"Sustainability is a critical part of the whole aviation equation," explained Mr Harbison. If there is one positive from the collapse of air travel demand that has seen global passenger levels fall to levels similar to those last seen in 2005, it is that global aviation emissions have reduced significantly and will remain "well below 2019 levels for some years to come."

Long haul international air travel accounted for around 40% of emissions in 2019, but flight levels in this market "will be constrained for at least two years," said Mr Harbison and with airlines operating around half the widebody fleet of 2019 this alone will help reduce previous aviation emissions by around 20%.

"This will logically lead to one of two outcomes," outlined Mr Harbison. "The pressure to reduce emissions in the short-term will be relaxed or pressure will grow to keep emissions at the same level - i.e. to reset the base for growth."

The aviation sector is aware of its emission levels and is one sector that is working hard to deliver a more sustainable industry. But carbon emissions won't get to zero simply by flying or driving less. This was an observation highlighted by Bill Gates in his recently-published 'How to Avoid a Climate Disaster' book and acknowledged in Mr Harbison's presentation.

"The worst climate offenders - and the things that need to change more - are steel, meat and cement. Making steel and cement accounts for ~10% of all global emissions , and beef alone 4%," said Mr Gates in the publication. The focus needs to be on the radical change needed to transportation, buildings, industry, culture and politics. "There is no single breakthrough that can solve all those things," he added.

The reduction in air travel in 2020 was unprecedented, but it is already starting to show recovery as COVID-19 vaccination programmes become more widespread. As the recovery continues, the industry will have to - and be seen to - make much bolder steps, both to produce new solutions and to show progress is being made. What this means is " Governments, businesses and investors will increasingly pressure the aviation industry" moving forward, explained Mr Harbison.

CAPA Live is the most sought-after monthly global aviation event. Taking place on the second Wednesday of each month, thousands of industry colleagues from across the globe tune in for their monthly dose of aviation and travel news, analysis, and in-depth interviews with industry leaders. You can access the latest agenda and register to be part of its growing community to access the latest edition and archive content at: CAPA Live