Air travel and COVID-19: An opportunity for lasting emissions reductions
Editor’s Note: This story was updated March 3, 2021 with updated analysis by the author.
By Guest Columnist LALITH POLEPEDDI, a research scientist at Georgia Tech’s Global Change Program
Efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 have radically transformed travel patterns across the globe. Between April and September 2020, global air travel dropped by 58% compared to the same time period in 2019. In the US, air travel dropped by 79% in that same time period. The steepest reductions occurred in the US in April, when air travel fell by 95%, and globally in May, when air travel fell by 68%.
While these changes have been disruptive, they also have led to a 17% reduction in daily carbon dioxide emissions from air travel, which accounted for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions in the most recent years. Most organizations have benefited from an accompanying reduction in air travel costs, which extend beyond the cost of the plane ticket to include hotel stays, ground transportation, and per diem costs.
At the same time, changes in air travel have had ripple effects on the tourism and hospitality sectors, especially in Georgia with Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as a major hub for the southeast region and the primary hub for Delta Air Lines. Therefore, as organizations work to adapt and streamline their business practices for post-pandemic operations, they must consider the costs and benefits of a more permanent shift to reduced air travel armed with quantitative data about the scale of COVID-related reductions in air travel emissions and costs.
A recent analysis of Georgia Tech’s COVID-related air travel reductions illustrates the potential for large greenhouse gas emissions reductions and costs savings with even modest long-term reductions in post-pandemic air travel.
A major decline in Georgia Tech’s aviation emissions from business travel took place in the second week of March, when governments began placing restrictions on travel. By April 1, nearly all flights had ceased and by the end of April, air travel emissions had reduced by 98%. During the month of April, which saw the lowest number of flights taken, over 790 metric tons of CO2 were averted together with over $800,000 in flight ticket savings.
While the cost savings are appreciable, it is important to note that the majority of these air ticket costs were associated with Georgia Tech’s sponsored research programs, while a smaller fraction reflects state funding for travel. However, the CO2 savings are significant – the April 2020 CO2 savings are equivalent to erasing the annual CO2 emissions of over 39 Americans, assuming 20 metric tons each per year.
How long will this trend continue? Data would indicate that air travel reductions will continue for some time, likely long after a vaccine has allowed for a slow return to pre-pandemic lifestyles and business practices. Even in October 2020 air travel remained a fraction of October 2019 values, with observed 88% reductions in flights taken at Georgia Tech.
That said, some of the COVID-19 work restrictions underpinning these air travel emissions reductions are unsustainable and costly. For example, some Georgia Tech scientists whose research involves fieldwork have been unable to travel, and have been limited in their research activities. Likewise, the wholesale shift to virtual and remote conferences has resulted in a patchwork of platforms and technology that has hampered the sharing of ideas and networking that underpins much of research- and academic-related air travel by Georgia Tech faculty, students, and staff.
While permanent and blanket caps on air travel are unlikely at most organizations, including Georgia Tech, a strategic approach to enacting targeted air travel reductions can be designed and implemented as pandemic travel restrictions ease. At Georgia Tech, our analysis identified two such opportunities where the costs – in terms of emissions and revenue – of air travel may outweigh its benefits, pointing to areas where virtual meetings would deliver significant emissions and cost savings.
Single-day trips. At Georgia Tech, single-day flights comprised 29% of all flights and generated 15% of all air travel emissions in 2019. Ninety-two percent of all single-day flights were mostly domestic; if these flights were replaced with teleconferencing, Georgia Tech could reduce air travel emissions by over 1,200 metric tons CO2e per year (equivalent to the emissions of 60 Americans), save over $1.7 million on flight tickets alone, along with tens of thousands of dollars on hotel stays, ground transportation, and per diem costs.
The most frequent of frequent fliers. At Georgia Tech, the top 11% of fliers were responsible for 50% of all air travel emissions in 2019.
If this group of frequent fliers replaced 50% of their travel with teleconferencing, Georgia Tech could achieve emissions reductions of over 2,400 metric tons CO2e (equivalent to the emissions of 121 Americans).
While reduced air travel can deliver significant benefits in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and cost savings, its impacts on certain economic sectors, vulnerable employees, and workplace equity and satisfaction merit consideration. Most notably, disruptions in air travel have led to job losses in the airline industry as well as tourism and hospitality sectors. Relatedly, low-wage workers represent the bulk of the workforce at airports, hotels, and transportation service companies, and face the prospect for dramatic increases in unemployment commensurate with any large-scale shift to telework models.
Therefore, changes to flying behaviors must be accompanied by investments tied to carbon neutrality commitments in the travel industry that ensure low-wage workers are not disproportionately affected by job loss. For organizations that are considering significant long-term reductions in air travel, it is important to consider the negative impacts to early career professionals, who are more reliant on in-person networking opportunities than their senior counterparts. Likewise, while some employees welcome the opportunity to travel less, some employees consider travel a cherished perk and highly productive component of their job.
In order to meet emissions reductions targets in line with international goals to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, organizations large and small must commit to developing and implementing evidence-based policies to accelerate low-carbon operations. In many cases – as in the case of air travel – these changes can be revenue positive while delivering a host of other co-benefits such as increased worker satisfaction, positive brand image, and higher productivity. The COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity for organizations to develop strategic reforms to their operations that recognize this once-in-a-generation opportunity for deep and lasting structural change towards a more equitable, sustainable future.
Notes to readers:
In his role as a research scientist at Georgia Tech’s Global Change Program, Lalith Polepeddi works at the intersection of computer science and sustainability.
Acknowledgements: Kim Cobb, director of Georgia Tech’s Global Change Program, reviewed earlier drafts. Linda Wilkinson and Natsu Green (Travel Inc.) compiled Georgia Tech flight records analyzed here.