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Coronavirus fears may affect how airlines curb their carbon emissions in 2021

Greenhouse gas emissions from international flights are supposed to peak in 2020

Concern In Hong Kong As The Wuhan Covid-19 Spreads Photo by Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Efforts to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus are changing the way people work and play — and those changes are temporarily curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Fear of the outbreaks already led to a drop in passenger demand in January, according to the industry group International Air Transport Association (IATA), which called it “just the tip of the iceberg.” Airlines continue to drastically cut flights as more people decide not to fly during the outbreak. Airlines could continue to see between an 11 and 19 percent loss in global passenger revenues through the end of the year, IATA projects.

That dip in travel means less pollution from planes. Aviation currently accounts for about 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but that number was expected to grow through 2050. Now, as both business and leisure travel get curtailed, airlines are facing a near future that is both cleaner and economically leaner.

“The turn of events as a result of COVID-19 is almost without precedent. In little over two months, the industry’s prospects in much of the world have taken a dramatic turn for the worse,” Alexandre de Juniac, IATA director general and CEO said in a statement last week. “This is a crisis.”

This particular crisis is leading to an environmental backlash from some airlines. IATA and airlines including Air France-KLM have called for relief from environmental taxes in Europe. There are also concerns about how decreased air travel this year could affect standards for mandatory carbon offsets that go into effect next year.

The fate of those carbon offsets — which will affect international flights — is expected to be determined this week as the United Nations’ aviation body, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), meets in Montreal. The body adopted a measure requiring airlines to offset their growth in carbon emissions from international flights between more than 190 countries starting in 2021. To meet that requirement, airlines need to spend money on renewable energy or tree-planting projects that help keep heat-trapping gases out of the atmosphere. Back in 2016, ICAO decided to cap aviation emissions at the average of 2019-2020 levels. But thanks to the novel coronavirus outbreaks, this year’s baseline will be way lower than any of the airlines expected. In order to keep their future emissions in line, airlines will need to funnel significantly more money into green projects to offset their excess emissions.

Some environmentalists worry that facing this increased pressure, airlines may backtrack on their climate pledges or push for more lax standards on the quality of carbon offsets they’re allowed to purchase. Environmental groups expect a decision on which carbon offset credits airlines are allowed to buy to come out of the Montreal meeting on Friday. “The sector is aware that while it has to deal with the very near-term disaster of coronavirus which is a huge public health issue with very important and very sad consequences for communities, it also has to keep its eye on the ball of the long term climate issue — which is not going away,” says Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund.

A spokesperson for IATA told The Verge in an email that it was too soon to comment on the full impact of COVID-19 on the industry. ICAO responded in an email that it used two years to set its baseline for capping emissions — 2019 and 2020 — in order to address any “exceptional events” (like the spread of the novel coronavirus) that might skew data.

Aviation has typically rebounded after big global shocks like the SARS outbreak in 2002, which is why environmental groups are keeping the pressure on airlines to fulfill their long-term climate pledges even if it costs them more money in the short run.