The European Economic Recovery Plan must become green. “We must not go back to a carbon-spitting economy”, writes Commissioner Timmermans today in an open letter in seven European newspapers. 


Now that airlines are grounding their fleets, traffic has virtually come to a standstill and the industry is running at half speed, emissions from transport and industry have fallen sharply.

Although it is likely to be a short-term decline, there is a risk that the pandemic – which is likely to dominate the debate for months or even years to come – will overshadow climate concerns. International climate talks have already been delayed and new policy initiatives have been postponed. Governments and world leaders currently focus only on the fight against COVID-19.


Don’t let a good crisis go to waste

Don’t let a good crisis go to waste, is a well-known motto. When the governments unveiled their contingency plans for dragging aviation companies through this corona crisis, Stay Grounded, a network of aviation-critical organisations, called on European leaders to reflect. Let’s use this unintended pause to consider what we can do to stop the effects of climate change. A leading example is the measures announced by the US when the automotive industry was rescued from ruin in 2009. Financial support was provided, but it came with a cost: a package of strict requirements for the production of more fuel-efficient engines. This was instrumental in initiating the development of electric cars.

Today, the European Parliament calls in a motion for a transition to a green economy, especially now.

So indeed why not link the financial support to the aviation industry to the mandatory use of climate-friendly fuel and mandatory use of more noise-friendly aircraft and flight procedures? 

“The corona crisis, with the ongoing health crisis and the expected economic crisis, should be used as a catalyst to get the EU on a more sustainable track and accelerate efforts towards climate-neutrality. Greater sustainability is an answer to the crisis, not ‘a nice-to-have’ once it is over” (Annika Hedberg, head of the Sustainable Prosperity for Europe Programme at the European Policy Centre (EPC), a think tank based in Brussels, Belgium).

While the whole world is currently focused on addressing the corona crisis, the other crisis – the existential climate and wider sustainability crisis – has not disappeared. It continues to cast a great shadow on Europe and the world. It is essential that the EU does not lose a track of its global commitments and goals, including for climate neutrality, when addressing the ongoing health and the expected economic crisis. Greater sustainability must be a key as the EU shifts focus from immediate response to recovery plans according to Annika Hedberg.

With travel and traffic heavily reduced, production processes disrupted and people consuming less, we can expect a short-term reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. This is already evident in China as well as in Europe. The expected economic recession can lead to an even greater reduction in emissions – as seen during the last economic crisis.

However, these reductions are happening for the wrong reasons and are not an answer to the ongoing climate crisis. Previous economic downturns have shown that once economies recover, businesses start producing and people consuming, this can accelerate an increase in emissions.

“Mother Earth may be breathing a little more peace of mind now that half of the world’s fleet is on the ground, but don’t rejoice too soon”, warns the British environmental club Transport & Environment. “After every crisis, such as the terrorist attacks in the US in 2001, the SARS virus outbreak in 2003 and the credit crunch of 2008, aviation quickly broke its old records. In passengers and emissions.”


Come out more prepared to address the climate crisis

Thus, the ongoing crisis must be used to advance climate action and get the aviation industry on a more sustainable track. The aim must be to help the continent come out more prepared to address the climate crisis while striving for climate-neutrality that benefits people, prosperity and the planet.

With the oil prices crashing, this can increase the short-term incentive to stick with fossil fuels. This could slow down the green transition as, for alternative fuels still cannot compete with low oil prices. Many stakeholders in the aviation sector may also be calling for relaunching economic growth at any price, even at the cost for climate and the environment.

Amid these developments, it is essential that the policy-makers act responsibly and stay true to the EU’s longer-term commitments. In this context, the EU leaders’ joint statement that the Union remains committed to sustainable growth and the European Commission’s public consultation on raising the EU’s climate target for 2030 provide a welcome signal. Moreover, we need concrete measures.


Stimulus packages

The investors need these signals to know that over time they will get better returns on their investments, for example, from clean energy than fossil fuel projects. New credits, state aid and stimulus packages must also be aligned with the goals of the European Green Deal. We need to see enhanced efforts to support greater circularity, energy efficiency, renewables, and sustainable mobility and agriculture.

For instance, the recent steep drop in oil prices is also a great opportunity for countries to lower or remove subsidies for fossil fuel consumption. There are around USD 400 billion of these subsidies worldwide today, and more than 40% of them are to make oil products cheaper (source: IEA). 

European leaders must be clear about the direction of travel and start to create the conditions for people and business to come out stronger from this crisis with the skills and solutions to face the next one.

The current downshifting could arguably provide a valuable occasion for policy-makers and the aviation sector to guide and enable travelers and consumers to adopt more sustainable and healthy habits, which could last beyond the pandemic. Many may have already discovered that habits with a smaller climate and environmental footprint are possible and can have their merits.

Moreover, the EU must continue to create the conditions for the aviation industry to succeed in developing and deploying solutions for greater sustainability. The demand is already there and may increase even faster than originally envisaged. 


Greening the European aviation industry

The EU’s exit and recovery from the coronavirus crisis should benefit from and contribute to greening the European aviation industry. Enhancing sustainable prosperity will require lasting changes to how we produce and consume. It will require investments in those skills, sectors, products and services that are needed to address the looming climate and wider sustainability crisis.

For instance, throughout the aviation industry it is acknowledged that the only way to achieve the desired CO2 emissions reduction (net-zero growth) in the medium term is to use alternatives to the current fossil jet fuel. Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)is the most realistic option for CO2 emissions reduction today. Nevertheless, eight years after their introduction on commercial flights, they still account for less than 0.1% of total aviation fuel consumption.

SAF will only be able to compete effectively with fossil fuels if they can be produced in sufficient quantities. Currently they are only very poorly available, mainly because it is significantly more expensive than conventional kerosene. Production is not getting under way and too few economies of scale can be achieved. The amount of bio-kerosene is also limited by the availability of sufficient biomass and by competitive demand for this biomass from other sectors. In addition, PTL kerosene is only at the beginning of its technical development. Production and scale up will require a new form of cooperation between research institutes, suppliers of raw materials, airlines, airport operators, aircraft manufacturers, energy companies, financial institutions, government, social groups and customers. Support from the EU is therefore desperately needed.

Clean energy should be “at the heart of stimulus plans to counter the coronavirus crisis”. We have called on governments to launch sustainable stimulus packages focused on clean energy technologies” says The International Energy Agency (IEA). It says hydrogen and carbon-capture also need major investment to bring them to scale, which could be helped by the current low interest rates. 

Valuable lessons

While far from over, the corona crisis provides already valuable lessons for addressing the existential climate crisis. It reminds us of the importance of solidarity and cooperation in times of crisis. It shows that when needed, politicians can act swiftly. It reveals that action may require substantial and even drastic changes to how we live and work. It shows that by communicating the urgency and rationale for action, people can change their habits and contribute to managing the crisis. At times of emergency, countries, businesses and individuals can stretch themselves beyond what was earlier perceived as unthinkable.

Most importantly, the corona crisis highlights the importance of prevention, mitigation and resilience building. It is in everyone’s interest to do all possible to proactively manage the transition to a competitive, sustainable, climate-neutral economy. This is the time to accelerate – not slow down – the work started.

(Sources: Annika Hedberg, Elizabeth Becker, IEA, IATA, GWI, ENADT, Volkskrant, Financial Times)