COVID-19: Planning for a sustainable recovery for the world’s airports

Juliana Scavuzzi by Juliana Scavuzzi | Apr 15, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic and the upheaval it has caused represents an existential threat to the global airport industry.

Global traffic is expected to be reduced by 38% by the end of 2020, and aviation trade associations such as ACI are working in collaboration with other stakeholders to bring to the attention of governments the need to provide financing support for the sector. The entire global aviation sector provides around 10.2 million jobs and of these airports are responsible for more than six million direct and indirect jobs. The induced impact is even greater as trade and tourism are heavily dependent on the aviation sector.

ACI World has published a series of Advisory Bulletins and guidance to support airports decoding some aspects of the new ‘business as unusual’ model, and implementing much needed operational measures from a safety, health, and security perspective.

The sector is still navigating this crisis but elements that need to be planned and put in motion during the recovery phase of the industry need to be discussed.

These elements include environmental protection and sustainability issues.

Reinforcing aviation’s crucial global role

It is undeniable that while most passenger services have been grounded during these times, aviation has continued to play an essential role in meeting people’s most basic needs during this pandemic: from the repatriation of nationals to the provision of essential goods, such as food, medicine, protective equipment, and ventilators, and even using its knowledge to manufacture ventilators.

In addition, the aviation contribution to the global society goes beyond the most apparent elements: for instance, according to the World Meteorological Organization, without commercial aviation, the weather early warning systems, essential to protect lives during extreme weather occurrences, are affected as they are missing up to 700,000 daily air temperature, wind speed, and wind direction readings.

We can continue listing the needs and importance of the sector in so many different ways, but the individual freedom aviation gives, is one attribute that many people would relate to these days, even those like me who work on environmental protection.

The ability to be anywhere in the world in 24 hours or so, allowing us to see our loved ones when they do not live close by, and to bridge gaps among different cultures in a matter of hours, are all things that we so much need these days when we are all confined to our homes.

I have never longed so much for travelling and meeting family and friends living abroad, as I have done in the past weeks. We want to be able to fly again and want it to be both safe and sustainable to do.

Planning a sustainable recovery from COVID-19

Environment experts and sustainability practitioners in the aviation industry face additional challenges on how to keep the work going when other priorities might seem to take over an industry that is facing an existential threat.

The long-term survival of this sector also depends on a fully sustainable recovery. That means it is time to take a holistic approach and discuss the three pillars of sustainability:

  • the economic dimensions
  • the social dimensions
  • the environmental dimensions

There is no doubt that the social and environmental components will be highly dependent on the economic ability to implement them. Still, the other way around is also true, because the resilience of the industry depends on prioritizing the environmental and social challenges it faces.

The industry will not be able to sustain a full recovery if it becomes wedded to short term solutions that, even temporarily, increases the risks to the environment.

We must continue to plan for the long term: otherwise, we are condemned to just survive and not recover, and in the long run, we would be failing the millions of  people that depend on the sector for their direct and indirect jobs and their positive economic impact.

Environmental initiatives can make good business cases.

The price of renewable energy has decreased significantly in the last decade. For an airport, it means lower pay-back periods and potential independence from the electricity grid, which is very strategic for airports, a business that needs to operate 24-7.

Some airports have developed business models where they sell their surplus energy produced onsite, thus producing a revenue stream at times they do not need their full generating capacity.  Others have developed water treatment plants that are so resilient that they can support the city’s drinking water supply during adverse weather events.

COVID-19 and long term climate change goals

The IPCC Special Report from 2018 highlighted the need to transition the entire global economy to net zero carbon by 2050 to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Climate change is an enterprise risk that deserves the same financial and business development attention as other risks that can impede strategic objectives to unfold. It also has the potential to shut sectors down and cause irreversible damage.

Climate change action failure has been rated among the highest risks by the World Economic Forum’s global risk report in 2020. If the economy is not ready in 2050, returning to current “business as usual” is not an option.

It is also known that climate change affects the most vulnerable and the poorest. In the economic recession we will face during recovery, more adverse weather events can have even more disastrous impacts.

While the current shutting down of the world for a couple of months is having an enormous impact on people’s health, their livelihoods, and the economy, it will also not have a significant effect on the reduction of GHG emissions globally. Since CO2 stays in the atmosphere for more than 100 years it is simply a matter of a pause in their increase. Without doubt, air quality has improved in many locations, but that is because the emissions associated with local air quality such as NOx and particulate matter are not as persistent.

Climate actions must be constant and for the long-term. Rather than shutting the sector to halt emissions, we need to find enduring solutions that will not force the aviation industry to shut down or scale back in the future.

The transition to the global economy to net zero carbon by 2050 is a vital element to consider during the COVID-19 pandemic and its recovery plans. As a transition, it has to be gradual and not a big shock to different sectors, which would bring unemployment to many.

Government support is needed for all sectors

It is a mistake to advocate that some industries should not receive support from the government during these times, because we will not be able to recover the global economy if we do not take advantage of the existing means and businesses.

We need, however, to promote that help comes with the request for stronger collaboration among sectors. Support should not be focused on one stakeholder at the expense of others.

For instance, to transition to renewable sources of energy, combined action by different sectors gives leverage with governments and financial institutions, especially if the proposed solution positively impacts multiple actors. For airport operators, it means identifying opportunities to engage and coordinate action towards sustainable recovery with stakeholders from different modes of transportation promoting overall sustainable mobility. That can be translated from action to support the commercial deployment of sustainable aviation fuels onsite airports to the development of sustainable ground access infrastructure.

Therefore, instead of speaking only about more stringent environmental compliance for bailouts to the sector, we should be talking about more robust requirements of collaboration for sustainable recovery among the different actors of the economy.

“Flattening” the climate change curve requires this massive investment, collaboration, and innovation that should be leveraged by joint action. Instead of competing for scarce resources, and potentially turning to short term fixes that will ultimately harm the environment, we should be identifying ways where we can jointly benefit from investment in gradual shifts to the economy towards zero carbon.

The interdependency of sustainability

The interdependency of the sustainable development goals has never been more evident. If the world had invested more in the sustainable development agenda proposed by the United Nations, we would not only be better prepared for this crisis, but also for the transition we need to implement in the global economy.

For instance, climate change is also been one of the contributing factors to diseases originating in vertebrate animals, and this has been exacerbated by illegal and poorly regulated wildlife trade.  

The world cannot ignore the risk that zoonotic diseases pose to its population. According to the WHO, an estimated one billion cases of illness and millions of deaths occur every year from zoonoses, globally. In addition, around 60% of emerging infectious diseases that are reported globally are zoonoses, and 75% of over 30 new human pathogens detected in the last three decades, have originated in animals.

Wildlife trafficking prevention is one element many airports have taken under their sustainability umbrellas, and ACI Europe has added it to its Sustainability Strategy as part of biodiversity protection.

As we evolve this discussion on how to prevent the abuse of the air transport system by wildlife traffickers, mitigating the risks of zoonotic diseases will have to become an integral part of our work. It is undeniable the need for governments to support the sector to properly and efficiently handle illegal wildlife trade.

Aviation has a role to play in identifying opportunities to supporting that fight, and this discussion will necessarily form part of the social element of sustainability, which includes considerations of the health of staff and passengers, and also the corporate social responsibility towards the mitigation of the risks of a new pandemic.

The world needs aviation

Sustainable recovery has to be sustained over the long-term, and without properly considering issues like climate change, the sector risks not sustaining its development.

The world needs aviation, and we must rebuild an industry that is more resilient than ever. That means following the science and being sensitive to climate change and implementing the necessary transition to the net-zero economy. This is the decade of taking action before is too late.

This obligation belongs to us all – aviation and non-aviation stakeholders, governments, financing institutions, and everyone in this world who has ever benefited from this sector either directly or indirectly – and that leaves very few of us outside of this commitment, if any.

Together, we are stronger.

Juliana Scavuzzi

Juliana Scavuzzi

Senior Director, Sustainability, Environmental Protection, and Legal Affairs, ACI World
Juliana Scavuzzi is a legal and policy expert specialized in International Law, Aviation Law, Space Law and Environment Law. She is also an ACI Observer to the ICAO Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP) and Secretary of the ACI World Environment Standing Committee (WENSC).
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