You wouldn't know it from the history of failed policy responses to climate change in Australia, but stationary energy sources such as from coal fired power stations are one of the easiest sources of greenhouse gas emissions to reduce. Emissions reductions are more challenging in sectors that are more dispersed or in sectors that currently lack the necessary technology, such as aviation. A carbon price and/or emissions trading scheme (Garnaut Climate Change Review 2008), such as that introduced under Prime Minister Julia Gillard, remains the most efficient was to incentivise the market to reduce emissions (see also Australian Financial Review, 26-27 September 2020).
A price on carbon combined with a tradeable emissions permit system would allow sectors that currently lack emissions reduction technology to benefit from sectors with a greater capacity to reduce emissions. Examples might be aviation purchasing permits from agriculture allowing this sector to increase investment in soil carbon or, in the case of stationary energy sources, aviation purchasing permits that may help to support the accelerated retirement of coal-fired power stations.
While aviation is a comparatively small source of emissions globally (about 2% of emissions), if you add up all the sectors that account for less than 5%, and apply the same principles, substantial progress can be made. For example, data centres (such as the one used to serve this website) are also responsible for about 2% of emissions, and shipping stands at about 3%.
In the situation aviation currently finds itself in, in the middle of a global pandemic, the price of permits would have reduced substantially but with a viable tradeable emissions permit system, the sale of permits may have provided a hedge against the current aviation downturn. This may well have been a missed opportunity for the aviation sector.
Climate change is a major long-term problem for the avation sector, arguably of greater consequence than Covid 19. There has been little public discussion about the vulnerability of aviation infrastructure to sea-level rise. There is a need for more public discussion of the impacts on the demand for air travel arising from the rise in Europe of 'flight-shaming'. Rather than being dismissive of these as an 'aberration', the aviation community would be best placed to look at options, including market-based mechanisms. The international aviation sector’s carbon neutral growth goal has been ranked as ‘critically insufficient’ by Carbon Tracker.
Climate change action has been stymied for some decades by the Australian business lobby. The Minerals Council of Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the NSW Minerals Council were named recently as the most responsible for undermining climate change policy in Australia (InfluenceMap Report). Also named in this report was Business Council of Australia, although it also publicly supports the need for a market based carbon price to drive the transition and incentivise investment in low and no emissions technology.
A carbon price together with a tradeable emissions permit system is likely to change the economics of air travel in Australia, but it has already been changed substantially through Covid 19. The new generation of highly efficient regional aircraft may open up new regional destinations provided we support the economics of regional travel. If travel is optimised for least cost taking into account travel time, convenience and emissions, some previous popular air routes may also become more viable and profitable for very fast rail.
In the automotive sector, part of Tesla's significant growth was achieved by selling carbon credits to traditional vehicle manufacturers. It is illustrative of what could be achieved in aviation through the right incentives. Opportunities will open up provided we recognise that carbon pollution is a market failure, that we can no longer treat the atmosphere as an unlimited sink for emissions, and that it needs a comprehensive and clear policy that uses the market.
In the meantime...
Having said all that, I love flying - both as a passenger and as a pilot. We can offset our commercial flights, but there isn't really an equivalent for General Aviation. I like to support the Tasmanian Land Conservancy as I know that there is a professional team of ecologists and other scientists making decisions about how best to invest to achieve conservation outcomes. Internationally, Ecologi is an organisation that can help you to offset your carbon footprint.