Coronavirus Could Slow Efforts to Cut Airlines’ Greenhouse Gas Emissions

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The coronavirus outbreak is pushing the world’s airlines toward financial crisis — and that is starting to complicate efforts to tame airlines’ greenhouse gas emissions, which had been growing rapidly in recent years.

Even though, in the short term, airlines have seen a sharp decline in air travel, and therefore emissions, demand is widely expected to bounce back eventually as the world resumes its embrace of flying. But in the meantime, the airline industry, an increasingly important contributor of planet-warming carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, is citing the financial pain caused by the heath scare as reason to weaken longer-term efforts to fight global warming.

At least one major carrier, Air France-KLM, has cited the virus in calling for European countries to delay upcoming policies designed to curb air travel and reduce emissions. “In view of the coronavirus outbreak, we are asking governments to suspend the introduction of new flight taxes,” Benjamin Smith, the airline’s chief executive, said at the Airlines4Europe conference in Brussels on Tuesday.

“We definitely don’t need new taxes right now. It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever to burden airlines and passengers with higher prices,” said Jennifer Janzen, a spokeswoman for Airlines4Europe, which represents 16 airline companies. “Environmental taxes are just going to make this bad situation even worse.”

France plans to put an “ecotax” on nearly all flights starting in 2020 and the Netherlands is preparing a similar policy. In November, nine countries asked the European Commission in November to tax the carbon dioxide emissions from airplanes. And in February, a British court blocked the government’s plans to expand Heathrow Airport in London and add a third runway on the grounds that the plan did not take climate change into account.

In response to the growing concerns about air travel’s climate effects, a number of airlines in Europe and the United States have also recently pledged to clean up their act. Delta Air Lines announced in February that it would invest $1 billion over the next decade on technologies to help the company become carbon neutral.

British Airways, Air France and JetBlue have announced they will purchase carbon offsets to blunt the effect of their domestic flights starting in 2020. Other companies, like United Airlines and Virgin, have started to invest in biofuels that would have lower emissions than jet fuel.

But while airlines are not publicly saying that they are reconsidering those plans, observers warn that those investments could falter as airlines struggle for financial survival.

The crisis will “definitely affect airline climate actions,” said Adam Klauber, a technical advisor at the Rocky Mountain Institute. “Any sound business will prioritize their existing liabilities and payroll over voluntary investments in future sustainable aviation fuel volume.”

Oil prices have also been falling sharply, which helps airlines because fuel is one of their biggest expenses. However, lower prices could also deter airlines from investing in more fuel-efficient aircraft, which could also be a setback to long-term efforts to rein in airline emissions.

“If fuel prices keep sliding and stay depressed, taking on newer, more efficient, cleaner jets will lose some appeal, and older jets will be kept longer,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at the Teal Group, an aerospace consulting firm in Fairfax, Va.



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