As a result of the Covid-19 epidemic, global air traffic is expected to have dropped by 66% in 2020 according to estimates by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Despite this major economic crisis, the issue of global warming is still relevant. Will the pandemic slow down or accelerate the aviation industry’s response to this crucial issue? On Thursday 17 December, representatives from the aviation industry, academia and civil society shared their views at an online roundtable organised by the University of Geneva and Genève Aéroport.
Like France and Sweden, Switzerland is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050. A variety of tools are available to achieve this, including a tax on plane tickets. «Taxation is not the solution because it deprives companies of funds that could be invested in more modern, less polluting fleets, for example,» argued Johan Lundgren, CEO of easyJet. «The answer will first and foremost be technological, and investments are essential.» In November 2019, easyJet said it was aiming for neutrality through compensation and announced a research partnership with Airbus on hybrid aircraft.
Lorenzo Stoll, Head of SWISS in French-speaking Switzerland, also believes that incentives will be more effective than taxes, «especially because these present certain risks, such as creating inequalities in access to air transport and encouraging passengers to pass through foreign airports tax-free and therefore extend their trips. The aviation industry must commit to making huge investments in order to physically limit carbon emissions». In concrete terms, SWISS has invested 8 billion Swiss francs to renew more than half of its fleet over an eight-year period from 2016 to 2024.
From electric power to biofuel and eco-flying, the aviation industry is competing for ideas to move towards zero carbon aircraft. But will these fly as green solutions? When asked about hydrogen-powered aeroplanes, Martin Beniston, climatologist and Honorary Professor at UNIGE, pointed out that almost all hydrogen is now produced from fossil fuels: «when a solution is found to produce green, carbon-free hydrogen, and if there are strong financial incentives, renewing a global fleet could be achieved fairly quickly».
Regulating the aviation sector
Last week, the 27 countries in the European Union gave the green light to a net reduction in emissions of at least 55% by 2030 from 1990 levels, in order to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. To achieve this ambitious objective, regulating the aviation sector through restrictions is being considered. Saraly Andrade de Sá, environmental economist at UNIGE, believes that the carbon tax is a good solution, as it has the advantage of sending a clear message to stakeholders to move in the right direction: «in an ideal world, the carbon tax should apply to all sectors that emit CO2, not just aviation, and it should apply worldwide».
Among the solutions at European level is also the Single European Sky. Launched in 1999, this initiative aims to improve traffic management. «This project needs strong political backing if it is to succeed. It would allow CO2 emissions to be reduced by 20% with more energy efficient flight plans», explained Lorenzo Stoll.
Should there be a ban on aviation?
Expectations from civil society are immense when it comes to global warming, particularly among young people. Bea Albermann, Swiss Youth Delegate to the World Health Organization (WHO), made the point that all sectors should be addressing the issue, not just the aviation industry. «There should be a comprehensive and above all immediate response, since the impact on our health is already visible», she explained. «Banning air travel is obviously not the solution, but some proposals can be implemented, such as banning flights of less than 8 hours where the journey could be made by train».
André Schneider, CEO of Genève Aéroport, is also an advocate for immediate action. The airport wishes to shorten the deadline for its carbon neutrality target from 2050 to 2035, and projects have already been set in motion to achieve this result. Preliminary works are underway that will allow Genève Aéroport to be connected to ecological thermal network GeniLac. «We want to take action on our own emissions, but also encourage our partners by bringing in a pricing policy favouring the latest generation aircraft, which consume less kerosene and are less noisy, for example. The goal is to support companies that are making an effor », he said. Genève Aéroport, which is celebrating its hundredth anniversary this year, is looking to the future. «Genève Aéroport will still be here in 100 years. Decarbonising the sector is an investment project both for the company's well-being and its sustainability».
Watch the recording of the conference: «Zero carbon: myth or reality?»