Where the Virus and Climate Intersect

Source: By Brad Plumer and John Schwartz, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Should Airline Bailouts Come With Conditions?

A near-empty Delta flight to San Francisco from New York this week. 
Credit…Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Airlines are pressing the government this week for billions of dollars in emergency aid as the coronavirus crisis crushes the travel business. With Congress debating how to help the ailing United States economy, decisions like these could have long-term implications for climate change, too.

The nation’s major airlines recently asked for $50 billion in government assistance, warning that they could soon go bankrupt otherwise. President Trump has endorsed such an aid package, though the idea may prove contentious. On Wednesday, eight Senate Democrats signed a letter saying that any aid to airlines (or cruise ships, for that matter) should come with conditions requiring them to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions over time.

“If we give the airline and cruise industries assistance without requiring them to be better environmental stewards, we would miss a major opportunity to combat climate change and ocean dumping,” read the letter, signed by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, along with seven of his colleagues.

Air travel has become an increasingly important contributor to global warming.

While aviation still accounts for less than 3 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, those emissions are expected to triple by 2050as tourism and travel expand. And airlines have struggled to clean up their act: In recent years, air traffic in the United States has grown three times as fast as the rate of fuel-efficiency improvements.

Some climate experts point out that lawmakers have plenty of options to change that dynamic if they wish, particularly if taxpayers are being asked to save the industry.

One possible model is the 2009 bailout of the auto industry, which nearly collapsed during the financial meltdown a decade ago. The Obama administration rescued GM and Chrysler from bankruptcy but also enacted stricter new fuel-economy rules for cars and light trucks. (More recently, the Trump administration has been working to relax those rules.)

 Daniel Rutherford, who directs the aviation and marine programs at the International Council on Clean Transportation, offered a few ideas on Twitter for what a climate-friendly bailout of the airlines might look like. Congress could require new efficiency rules or even offer airlines tax breaks to speed up the retirement of older, more polluting aircraft in favor of newer, cleaner models. Or, airlines could be required to publicly report the emissions that result from different itineraries so that travelers can more easily choose less-polluting flights.

“The focus right now is on saving jobs and preventing a deep recession, and that should be front and center,” Mr. Rutherford said. “But air travel is eventually going to bounce back after this crisis subsides. And if the industry gets bailed out without any change to the underlying status quo, we’re going to see emissions continue to rise in the years ahead.”