No bailouts except ‘green’ bailouts

This article was first published in The London Economic.

Aviation co-created the global corona pandemic. And it is destroying our climate too.

The government is currently working out the finer details of an airline rescue package. In practice, this likely means throwing billions of pounds at the industry in the form of loans and tax breaks. Ministers are hoping that this bailout will ensure that the UK still has a functioning airline sector after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

It is worth considering the bitter irony of the UK heavily spending to save an industry that has played such a detrimental role in spreading this virus. After all, it is mass air travel that has enabled the virus to infect hundreds of thousands of people across the globe in four short months – the official figures are 250,000 people, as I write, but we know for certain that that is a vast underestimate, because of the pathetic pace at which testing is proceeding in countries such as the USA and UK.

As I warned publicly a fortnight ago (see here and here), this is the keystone reason why this pandemic is unprecedented and demanded an unprecedented suppressive response: because the last comparable event, the Spanish flu a century ago, travelled at the speed of ships rather than at the speed of jets.

Without normalised mass air travel, we would have stood a far better chance of containing COVID-19 in the first place. Lockdowns and stringent physical distancing measures would have been far more effective if flights were not transporting disease across the world before we even realised it. In fact, they might not have been necessary in the first place. It is simple fact, undeniable, predictable that international flights have facilitated this pandemic. And it was in fact predicted a whole decade ago in by my colleague Nassim Taleb’s bestseller The Black Swan.

Closing international air travel down quickly after the threat became known would have given us a better shot of nipping this pandemic in the bud.

Instead, most countries made starkly individualistic and complacent decisions early on in this crisis to keep air travel afloat for as long as possible. This has had dire consequences by magnifying the speed and scale of death and suffering that we are now only just beginning to witness. Even if containment proved unviable, severely restricting international air travel early on would have bought us precious weeks and months to manufacture ventilators and ICU units and prepare for the coming pandemic.

Alas, countries – unsurprisingly? – have mostly put their short-term economic ‘health’ over the actual health of their residents. Perhaps none more so than the UK, which has turned up irresponsibly late to the party having drunk driven there from a pub that should have been shut down already.

When considering whether we want to inject this industry with vast amounts of money to keep it afloat, we should weigh the fact that seeking to rebuild it as before will simply leave us as vulnerable to further pandemics in future. And of course, pandemics are not the only catastrophe that this industry is turbocharging. The climate crisis has not gone away (even if the drop in travel now has temporarily stalled climate-deadly emissions and air pollution) and threatens of course in the medium to long term to eclipse even COVID-19 in its potential for death and destruction. The experts concur that any even half-adequate response to this requires vastly restricting our air travel.

Aviation is an industry that manufactures catastrophic pandemics and catastrophic climate change. We all know this.

Fortunately, it is also an industry that many workers and businesses are beginning to realise is often superfluous. For this crisis seems to have provoked a profound awakening about the extent to which a lot of labour can simply be done from home. In-person meetings can often be replaced by well-worded emails or videoconferencing. These are preferable from an ecological perspective, more efficient timewise, and often much more family friendly – allowing people with children to work from home.

We should seek to preserve these lessons once the lockdowns end.

Allowing most airline companies simply to fail and turning their resources into a better direction would help to significantly reduce our use of air travel to far more modest amounts. The money earmarked for this industry could be put into alternative industries to create green jobs. Those jets should be beaten into ventilators, solar panels and ploughshares.

Our government now has the opportunity to realign our economy and shrink sectors like aviation. There is near-universal economic consensus that spending is necessary in these bleak times. Let’s make sure we do such spending wisely. Letting aviation fail, and green jobs rise, would be money well spent. Any bailout of any industry should be subject to stringent green tests. The aviation industry is one of the few that is bound to fail such tests.

Aviation co-created the global corona pandemic. And it is destroying our climate too.

We can do much better that.