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Beyond the Pandemic: A Call for Calmer Skies

By Philip Warburg

Photo credit: Sofia Papageorge

Before the age of COVID-19, a steady drone of jets could be heard on a typical spring morning outside our home, a dozen miles from Boston’s Logan Airport. Today, we hear a chorus of birds. 

With air travel down ninety-four percent and half the US commercial plane fleet grounded, members of my family—like millions of other Americans—have sought new ways to communicate and connect. Once the pall of this pandemic has lifted, will we resort less readily to the hypermobility that, until recently, was so integral to our lives?

Zoom and other online platforms have their frustrating aspects, to be sure, but they have shown us how much we can do without flying across the country or halfway around the world to meetings and conferences. My wife, director of sustainability at an architecture firm, now spends her workdays in a succession of online meetings with coworkers and clients near and far. 

Would she benefit psychically and professionally if some of those meetings were face-to-face? Certainly. Along with closely observing project sites, she would find it easier to bond informally with her colleagues. At the same time, she appreciates not having to cope with plane trips, jet lag, and all those idle hours in airport lines and hotel lobbies.

Our family has logged more than its fair share of air miles for personal travel, too. Last year, one of our daughters traveled to Mexico City for a long weekend with a friend. A highlight of that short trip was her visit to Frida Kahlo’s Blue House—an intimate museum featuring the flamboyant artist’s life and work. On Mother’s Day, she treated our whole family to a Blue House tour. Zooming in from a rented cabin in New Hampshire, our virtual docent led us through the rooms and courtyards of Kahlo’s iconic villa while describing the artist’s polio affliction, her love affairs, and the intensely autobiographical focus of her paintings. 

Was this the same as experiencing all the sounds, sights, and smells of Kahlo’s Mexico City neighborhood? No, but it was its own kind of informed adventure—a mode of tourism that may grow increasingly common as we search for ways to explore this extraordinary planet without racking up thousands of air miles.

Reducing air travel has a major benefit beyond cost-cutting and time-saving: it will help rein in our out-of-control greenhouse gas emissions. Commercial aviation in 2018 generated 2.4 percent of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, with eighty-one percent of those emissions coming from passenger transport. We Americans accounted for nearly a quarter of air miles traveled that year, mainly for domestic flights.

Extrapolating from recent trends, carbon emissions from commercial aviation are expected to triple by mid-century, consuming twenty-five percent of the global carbon budget that we must not exceed if we are to keep global average temperatures within 1.5°C of pre-industrial levels. That’s the internationally accepted threshold for slowing sea level rise and averting other potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change.

In an effort to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN agency, has focused on boosting aircraft energy efficiency and switching to biofuels. An all-out conversion to biofuels might cut aircraft carbon emissions by as much as sixty-three percent, the ICAO estimates, but thousands of industrial-scale biofuel refineries would have to be built to bring about this transformation, and vast farm acreage would have to be converted to produce the necessary crops.

What the ICAO has failed to consider are the prospects for reducing, or at least stabilizing, airline ridership as a means of curbing carbon pollution. Instead, it has assumed that global air travel will continue growing at roughly five percent per year, fueled substantially by upward economic mobility and urbanization in many of the world’s less affluent nations.

Here in the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has similarly shunned any discussion of reduced air travel in its future planning. Will that change in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic?

In the coming months, politicians will bicker over how much federal money should be spent salvaging the US airline industry. Ultimately, though, it will be up to us, the millions whose lives are newly grounded, to set a saner pace for air travel’s future.


About the Author 

Philip Warburg, a Senior Fellow at Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, is the author of two books published by Beacon Press: Harvest the Wind and Harness the Sun.