COVID-19 — airline bailout must also help our kids avoid the next climate crisis
The airline industry is reportedly requesting $50 billion to help it recover from the damage caused by the coronavirus. That is triple the cost of the post 9/11 assistance it received. There’s no question that the virus has delivered a gut-punch to aviation. Any Congressional response should give priority to helping those most affected by this crisis, including aviation workers and their families.
But as we proceed, let’s remember the most profound lesson of the current crisis: the need to listen to the warnings of scientists. That means being mindful of the threat of climate change as Congress crafts its policy toward the airlines.
In short, we need to help those in desperate need today, while protecting our children and grandchildren from even greater harm in the future.
Since aviation produces a lot of climate pollution, assistance for the airlines should include requirements that they cut their emissions. Airlines produce more climate pollution than all but a handful of national economies — and they themselves estimate that will triple by 2050.
Aviation has shown remarkable resilience in the face of past crises. This one is vastly different in scope and depth. But once airlines recover from this one, ensuring they’re on a path to reduce emissions would be a big step in the battle against climate change. Plus, taxpayers, who are facing their own economic hardships, have the right to expect responsible behavior in exchange for bailouts. They shouldn’t have to fund private corporations only to see them create more costs for the public, in the form of climate change impacts.
That’s why any big package of assistance to the airline industry should require that in order to access funds, U.S. airlines must agree to abide by the targets they’ve already identified. They must reduce greenhouse gas emissions attributable to domestic flights by 50 percent by 2050 from 2005 levels, and meet an enforceable downward emissions trajectory with interim targets. To meet their commitments, airlines can use a combination of sustainable alternative fuels (SAF) and offsets, drawing on their own “four pillar” strategy.
One way to enforce this commitment would be for Congress to require that airlines accessing bailout funds file and maintain plans for how to achieve these commitments — and really achieve them — as a condition of receiving and maintaining their air carrier and operating certificates from the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). To see whether these plans are being met, the carriers should publicly report their emissions and their use of alternative fuels and offsets.
To safeguard the environmental integrity of fuels and offsets, Congress should build on the standards for SAF and offsets adopted by international aviation regulators with the participation of the United States and U.S. airlines — that is, the Trump Administration and U.S. airlines have already agreed to these.
The standards include detailed requirements for SAF sustainability and emissions calculations on a life-cycle basis. This approach has long been utilized by the Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies, as well as robust offset accounting to ensure emissions units aren’t double counted.
Under the law, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao is authorized to include terms she “finds may be required in the public interest” in an air carrier certificate. Congress should make clear that leaving our children with millions of tons of additional climate pollution is not in the public interest.
Reducing emissions from aviation will also cut our dependence on oil. The recent turmoil in the oil market is a reminder that we can only protect ourselves, and our national security, by transitioning away from fossil fuels.
Congress can use this opportunity to address two crises at once. Let’s move boldly to deal with the virus, but also heed the warnings of scientists about future crises. Ignoring either threat would cause widespread harm to our economy and our society. Let’s not miss the chance to get this right.
Annie Petsonk is International Counsel at Environmental Defense Fund.
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