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Solving the climate challenge is easy, acting sustainably is hard

Climate change is beyond doubt the biggest crises humanity faces today. Which, in a middle of a pandemic is quite a daunting fact. The good news is that we are starting to understand the mechanics of it, and we know what we need to do to ensure temperature rise staying well below two degrees. 

A321 Sharklet
Anne Larilahti

The bad news is that climate change is not our only challenge. Decisions cannot be made in a vacuum. We cannot tell people that have been rising from poverty that they cannot have a moped or a car while others already have them. We cannot close all coal plants tomorrow and ignore the millions of unemployed in coal mining alone. We cannot stop heating buildings.

And we cannot stop flying. Make no mistake, aviation needs to shape up and take its contribution to climate change even more seriously. But despite airplanes seemingly being the illustration of choice for articles on climate change, the impact of aviation in the grand scheme of things is  limited. During the pandemic, there hasn’t been noticeable change in CO2 emissions globally, even though airports across the world are mainly used as parking lots for airplanes.

In the long term, of course, the impact would most likely start to show. Aviation accounts for about 3% of global CO2 emissions, and if that is cut in e.g. half, the 1,5% reduction could be possible. Even though small, it would still make a difference. The trick is, how do you get to that reduction. Reducing flights permanently by 50% would be a beautifully simple solution, but here we come to the dilemma of sustainability.

Sustainability has been traditionally described as standing on three legs: environmental, social and economic sustainability. Each one of these is easier to tackle by itself, but finding the right balance is complex. And if balancing three seems easy, the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals provide 17 goals and 169 related targets that all have an impact on each other, either positive or negative.

Finnair presented its climate strategy in March 2020, including very ambitious climate targets of reducing CO2 emissions by 50% by end of 2025 and reaching net zero in 2045. The targets still hold, but life in the middle of a pandemic and the expected slow recovery from it has highlighted the need for the balanced sustainability approach. 

Our responsibility towards our employees and customers is front and center. Flying and working for an airline needs to be safe. Even though there is growing evidence that due to efficient air conditioning and filtering airplanes themselves are not very likely places to catch the virus, many airlines, including Finnair, are requiring passengers and crew to wear masks. Airlines are finding ways to minimize interaction between people on board and changing boarding procedures to avoid congestion. It is all about staying safe and feeling safe.

Economic sustainability is an often overlooked part of the sustainability work. As the pandemic has thrown airlines to an unprecedented economic crisis, it is becoming clear why this part of the triangle is equally important, and closely related to environmental and social sustainability. Finnair has 7000 employees and layoffs touch everyone. As the company is in the epicenter of a cluster of companies, the indirect economic impact reaches over 100 000 people. This all translates into reduced taxes, increased need for economic support, and of course, stories of uncertainty and difficulty from thousands of families.

There are certainly times when the balancing act seems impossible, but we need to try. If there is a silver lining to the corona cloud, it is the way it has helped us see the interconnectedness of the world and the challenges within. We will know, not just estimate, what the impact of cutting flying dramatically is. But we will also know the social impacts, from individuals losing their dream jobs to the economic and social peril of societies due to international trade slowing down and the rising nationalism.

So how do you reduce the climate impact of aviation sustainably? There’s no quick fix, so we need to be patient and take actions that lead to real CO2 reductions. We need to listen to all stakeholders, so that our decisions are widely responsible.

Focusing on developing viable alternative fuels, optimizing the way of flying, cooperating with rail and other land transport and working on fuel efficiency will all have an impact on emissions with a more reasonable cost to social and economic sustainability. You need money and resources for all of this, which depends on the financial success of the company.

We will learn from this, and hopefully come out with an increased understanding and willingness to move from black and white one-cause advocacy to cooperation and joint quest for systemic, sustainable solutions.


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