One of the very few positive outcomes of the pandemic last year, when lockdowns around the world were at their sternest, was that air pollution cleared up significantly.
A report last year by the World Bank said that the lockdown, imposed in at least 89 countries, and which affected more than half of the world’s population, had the "unintended consequence of reducing air pollution". In the world's more polluted cities, there were reports of people seeing clear blue skies for the first time in their lives. With drastically fewer cars on the roads and planes flying, satellite data of nitrogen dioxide around the time of the lockdown, compared to levels during the same period in 2019, showed a remarkable drop. In the UAE, too, corresponding to this global trend, between February and April last year, there was a 30 per cent reduction in nitrogen dioxide levels.
With the increased pace of vaccination drives in many countries, people are taking flights again. Consequently, the pressure is back on the aviation sector to slash emissions with an eye to achieving the Paris Agreement, that is, carbon neutrality by 2050.
Now, in what can be heralded as good news, 60 companies in the aviation sector have pledged to increase the share of sustainable aviation fuels in the industry to 10 per cent by 2030. Decisive action such as this shows a willingness by these companies to make tough calls and not shy away from measures that limit climate change. Meeting such ambitious targets is not easy for big businesses. They require a united approach and long-term commitments to clean energy, and putting the collective good over self-interest and profit.
"The time for talking is over," as the Willie Walsh, the director-general of the International Air Transport Association, said earlier this year. “The time for action is now, we want everybody in the industry to play their part and to raise their game significantly to ensure we can meet the targets that are necessary for the industry.”
Last year, in a step for the sustainable future of aviation, Etihad Airways launched a programme to offset emissions from its "Greenliner" flights by purchasing 80,000 tonnes of carbon offsets that would fund a Tanzanian forestry project.
Even before lockdowns, various sectors put in efforts to switch to more sustainable means. Shipping, aviation and steel comprise more than a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions.
Just last week BP, Masdar and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company said they would develop low carbon hydrogen hubs and decarbonised air travel corridors between the UK and UAE.
Much beyond merely appeasing climate activists, companies investing in cutting their carbon footprint is a step in the right direction. At an individual level too, travellers are increasingly conscious about curtailing the damage their choices make to the environment.
The aviation industry currently represents 2 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation, but a predicted increase in passenger air traffic means it could add more pollution to the skies unless timely steps are taken.
The Paris Agreement, signed by 196 countries, has provided most of the world with a goal to work towards. The UAE, for one, has a target to reduce its carbon missions even before that, by 25 per cent by 2030. The country has been active abroad by investing in renewable energy projects worth $16.8 billion in 70 countries, and providing $400 million in aid and loans. Increasingly countries and companies will have to show more their commitments to clean air and clean energy across key carbon-intense sectors.
As the pandemic abates, and more and more people book tickets to hop on a plane, it makes a lot of sense for aviation companies to include sustainability in their mindsets and goals. More companies across more sectors may well have to get on board.