• Once this crisis has passed, we must start designing an aviation sector that fits with the low-carbon future we need.
  • To begin with, financial stimuli to airlines must be linked to sustainability measures - but design innovation can play a huge part, too.

The COVID-19 pandemic will have significant financial implications for most communities around the world. But it is also amplifying a few truths of which we were all aware, but which we have never reacted to with the urgency they demand.

One is the truth about pollution. Coronavirus sufferers who have been affected by severe air pollution their whole lives are at a higher risk of death from the disease, for example; but even so, according to the WHO, fumes from vehicles powered by internal combustion engines alone will cause more deaths due to their negative effects on both respiratory health and climate change than COVID-19 ever will. And it is in this context that we should discuss how we react to the crisis - that is, by addressing the root causes. Across multiple sectors we should use this opportunity to accelerate the creation of a better world through design.

We now have a global opportunity to declare war on climate change and to link our efforts to sustainable growth. The onus is now on governments and market leaders in the transport sector to make the long-term plans that will prepare us for future pandemics and decide on what kind of world we want after the crisis. It is about making the right progressive choices to stimulate the economy.

If we simplify, there are two ways to go about recovering from a crisis. One is the traditional approach in which we would push economic buttons, where - to a large extent - we know their effect. Examples from the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 were tax exemptions for individuals and companies, bills allowing companies to use losses to offset profits from previous fiscal years, and stimulus packages targeted specific industries. With these known measures, governments would introduce bills and allocate funding, and then await the impact and GDP growth as per usual.

The second approach is the design approach, where we see whether we can create new systems and tools that are inherently better than what we had before.

This time around, both approaches must go hand-in-hand and feed off each other's progress and calculus.

Take the aviation industry as an example. For historic reasons, international air travel – along with the maritime industry - has not been part of government-led international emission reduction agreements such as the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 and the Paris agreement. Efforts are being made to change this through the International Civil Aviation Organization, and hopefully the industry's targets will align with the Paris agreement.

However, the efforts by the aviation sector to reduce emissions are still largely voluntary - despite good intentions from the industry. And now with the industry grounded – some airlines have, at least temporarily, reduced their capacity by as much as 85% – there is an opportunity for governments and airlines to cooperate on the projects that might change the industry, and to explore a world beyond what they could have imagined before the coronavirus.

Once the virus has settled, we should work to build a significantly more sustainable industry than the one we know today. Some airlines function as partly state-owned flagships; they are part of the national infrastructure, and this emphasises the point that they can work with governments to lead the way for the future of aviation.

Number of scheduled passengers boarded by the global airline industry from 2004 to 2021
Number of scheduled passengers boarded by the global airline industry from 2004 to 2021
Image: Statista

We need to link financial aid packages with requirements for the development of zero-emission flight that for instance are powered sustainably - by electrofuels, for example - over time. The key to regulating well is not to decide on the type of fuel or design we want by law, but to make financial support and legislation conditional on the required amount of emission reductions or other such long-term goals that tie into a cleaner and healthier world. And we should be sure to make our response both design and technology-agnostic. Any relevant law or policy should set goals, and then allow designers and engineers to create the innovations that will make a difference.

Financial stimuli across all sectors and industries must be purposed with creating a better world - one in which shareholder value isn't the only driver. Rescue measures should come with conditions attached; the French government's bailout of Air France is a good example. The rescue must be designed in such a way as to serve both public and planetary interests over the long term. Stimuli should be designed to reward value creation instead of value extraction by encouraging investment in sustainable growth and the reduction of carbon footprints. We must invest in design-led innovation so that the return on public investment is for the greater good.

Design innovation is already pushing boundaries in some sectors without stimuli, with an added benefit for the planet. Just look at how social distancing policies have sparked a virtual revolution; already, international companies are starting to step up the use of online meetings and collaboration. If we make it a part of our long-term work culture, we may in the future save ourselves many unnecessary day trips by plane.

Aviation

What is the World Economic Forum doing to reduce aviation's carbon footprint?

As other sectors proceed to decarbonize, the aviation sector could account for a much higher share of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by mid-century than its 2%-3% share today. With the number of air travel passengers expected to double by 2035, there's a strong urgency for the aviation industry to act to ensure it can meet this demand in an environmentally sustainable manner.

Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) can reduce the life-cycle carbon footprint of aviation fuel by up to 80%, but they currently make up less than 0.1% of total aviation fuel consumption. Enabling a shift from fossil fuels to SAFs will require a significant increase in production, which is a costly investment.

Launched in September 2019, the Forum’s Clean Skies for Tomorrow (CST) Coalition is a global initiative driving the transition to sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) as part of the aviation industry’s ambitious efforts to achieve carbon-neutral flying.

Run in collaboration with the Energy Transitions Commission and the Rocky Mountain Institute, with the Air Transport Action Group as an advisory partner, CST brings together government leaders, climate experts and CEOs from aviation, energy, finance and other sectors who agree on the urgent need to help the aviation industry reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Learn more about the Clean Skies for Tomorrow Coalition's impact and contact us to find out how you can get involved.

We also need to look at what means of transport we use when travelling. Aeroplanes are not necessarily the best option, so why not take the opportunity to launch and accelerate green infrastructure packages that set targets for emission-free electric connections across the world? Let’s get the tenders in for high-speed rails or massive electric charging networks? But why stop there? What about solar cargo airships for freight or hybrid wind-electric ekranoplans for short-distance travel on water? We’re not far away from cleaner mass transport solutions, and in cooperation with national governments and the transportation savviness of the airline industry there is ample opportunity for creating designs and solutions, which only a few months ago seemed far-fetched.

Investing heavily now in new climate-friendly innovations has the added benefit that the innovations might be used to leapfrog existing solutions. Take airships, for example; imagine the impact they could have in countries and regions with less-connected infrastructure. Why wait to build roads for heavy lorries, ports for cargo ships or airports with huge runways, when the airship doesn’t need any of these - and might be cheaper and more feasible in just a few years?

The point is not to favour business as usual or regulatory rigidity, but to avoid getting stuck in industry silos. Airlines are some of the best companies around when it comes to logistics management and optimisation of resources. Why should they restrict themselves to only using normal aeroplanes as their means of transport? Let them lead design innovation and compete with each other, free of their path dependence on aeroplanes.

The pandemic shows that we, as a global community, can change if there is an imperative. The consequences of not acting on the climate crisis will be more expensive than the coronavirus and will cost many more lives. The pandemic will wither regardless of our response; our planet, however, will be saved only if we actively respond. We can adapt if we seize the opportunity to declare a worldwide war on carbon emissions.