Think back to a time when you could travel, when you could waltz right into Changi International Airport without scanning a QR code or knowing your temperature, when you could feel the gentle breeze of the air conditioning on your whole face, when you could bound off to your departure gate to soon find yourself in another place.
For now, those times are on hold
Yet even before these turbulent times, the aviation industry was already leaving a sizable carbon footprint on the environment. To be exact, 2% of all human-induced Carbon Dioxide (CO2 ) emissions was attributed to it (Group, 2020). Like a large woolly blanket, CO2 traps heat within the earth’s atmosphere, contributing to rising global temperatures (Agency, 2018). This means that our little red dot will gradually become hotter and hotter, with the soothing cool days slowly becoming a thing of the past.
Aircraft are also known to emit other harmful pollutants, such as Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), Carbon Monoxide (CO), and Hydrocarbons (HC) (Energy, 2005). These pollutants are known to have adverse health impacts and can cause severe diseases like lung cancer, stroke, or heart disease (SKOUFIAS, 2020). They also form that putrid, choke-inducing haze that leaves an everlasting stench of cigarettes in your nose. Thankfully, this is not the norm in Singapore. However, in other crowded corners of the globe, air pollution remains to be a major environmental and health issue.
For a time, the global aviation industry was set on an upward trajectory of growth. As trade and travel between countries grew to be more commonplace, airlines rushed to meet this new demand. More planes were produced and more flights were scheduled (Group, Aviation Industry reducing its environmental footprint, 2008). Air travel became the string that weaved the different fabrics of the world together. But on the environmental front, this surely would have led to an increase in CO2 emissions and pollutants. A worrisome causal relationship that would surely have led to the exacerbation of the climate crisis.
As it crept from country to country, the COVID 19 pandemic induced lockdowns and travel restrictions worldwide, shackling aircraft to the tarmac. As people hunkered down in their homes and dismayed travellers (including this writer) cancelled travel plans and trips, passenger demand soon evaporated. Global air traffic in April 2020 alone was 95% below that of 2019 (Association, 2020). Many airlines had no choice but to ground their flying machines.
With fewer planes in the air, fewer emissions were produced. The skies once darkened with foreboding smog, soon cleared. In India, satellite data showed a 15% reduction in Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) concentration levels. This decrease is said to have occurred at the approximate time of India’s shutdown (15/3/20 – 30/4/20) (SKOUFIAS, 2020).
Such a trend was a surprise to be sure, and a welcome one for India’s citizens!
Yet this trend was not limited to one country. According to several studies, there has been a significant reduction in air pollution, especially in the concentration of NO2, in several European and American countries (Kasturi Devi Kanniah a, 2020). China is also experiencing this phenomenon (Kasturi Devi Kanniah a, 2020). In a way, the lockdowns induced by COVID 19 have literally and figuratively given the world room to breath.
This post is not meant to celebrate the downturn of the aviation industry nor herald in a new age absent of aircraft. Far from it! For any globalized nation, aviation plays a vital role in its development and should not be discounted. Besides, this writer still has places to see, and new faces to meet!
The aviation industry will remain and restructure. It is in the latter that the environmentalist in me sees opportunity. the aviation industry has already made great strides in environmental sustainability, halving the amount of fuel consumed and CO2 emitted per flight since 1990 (Group, Aviation Industry reducing its environmental footprint, 2008).
It can now build on this foundation and find new ways to improve their environmental efficiency and sustainability! This way, when the pandemic ends and the passenger jets soar over the horizon, the skies can still remain clear and clean!
What measures and actions can the aviation industry take to reduce their environmental footprint during this time of restructuring? Share your thoughts with us below!
Written by: Joseph Wee
Group, A. T. (January, 2020). Facts and Figures. Retrieved from Air Transport Action Group: https://www.atag.org/facts-figures.html#:~:text=The%20global%20aviation%20industry%20produces,carbon%20dioxide%20(CO2)%20emissions.&text=Aviation%20is%20responsible%20for%2012,to%2074%25%20from%20road%20transport.
Agency, U. S. (2018). Green Gas Emissions. Retrieved from United States Environmental Protection Agency: https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases#:~:text=Carbon%20dioxide%20(CO2)%20is,gas%20emitted%20through%20human%20activities.&text=Larger%20image%20to%20save%20or%20printThe%20main%20human%20activity,changes%20also%20emit%20CO2.
Energy, F. A. (January, 2005). Aviation and Emissions, A Primer. Retrieved from Federal Aviation Administration Office of Environment and Energy: https://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/policy_guidance/envir_policy/media/AEPRIMER.pdf
SKOUFIAS, U. N. (4 August, 2020). In India, air quality has been improving despite the COVID-19 lockdown. Retrieved from World Bank Blogs: https://blogs.worldbank.org/endpovertyinsouthasia/india-air-quality-has-been-improving-despite-covid-19-lockdown
Group, A. T. (2008). Aviation Industry reducing its environmental footprint. Retrieved from Aviation Benefits Beyond Borders: https://aviationbenefits.org/environmental-efficiency/climate-action
Association, I. A. (9 June, 2020). Industry Losses to Top $84 Billion in 2020. Retrieved from Association, International Air Transport: https://www.iata.org/en/pressroom/pr/2020-06-09-01/#:~:text=IATA%20%2D%20Industry%20Losses%20to%20Top%20%2484%20Billion%20in%202020&text=Resources%20for%20airlines%20and%20air,during%20the%20COVID%2D19%20pandemic.
Kasturi Devi Kanniah a, b. N. (25 May, 2020). Science of The Total Environment. Retrieved from ScienceDirect: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969720331788
Yong, C. (3 Dec, 2019). Temperature drops to 21.4 deg C on Monday, lower than initial forecast by weatherman.
Borwankar, V. (17 September, 2019). Mumbai’s air pollution is now 50% above permissible limits Read more at: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/71159380.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst. Mumbai, India: The Times of India.