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Post-Pandemic Transport Situation: The Wrong Attitude in Terms of Climate Adaptation?

08.17.22 | Blog | By:

Do you remember these optimistic editorials in 2021, claiming the pandemic would trigger a brave new world, more respectful of the environment and of our planet? Well, somehow, and to an extent, the cynics and the pessimists got it right.

Sure, the world is not back to the 2019 situation, yet: the significant dip in energy demand, in all sectors, during this global health crisis, has been followed by the war in Ukraine, bringing a further major global disruption, contributing to the fossil energy price burst, on top of the rollercoaster between crude oil supply and demand that has not helped either.

Still, the situation of transport in 2022 makes one wonder whether the pandemic was really an epiphany in the global understanding of the situation regarding climate change. In other terms, has a century of accelerating mobility, still very active in the last decade (EU car pool increased by 7.5 % between 2016 and 2020), faced a turning point just because of the pandemic?

Accelerating mobility: From Atlas des Mobilités 2022 (Mobility Atlas), data relative to France: we walked in the 19th century, much less in the 20th. Top graph shows the increase of travel, in km/day/person. Bottom graph shows the share of time spent in travel between the various modes of transport. Needless to insist on the fact that the car civilization has contributed to larger distances between home and work, the development of suburbia and exurbia, while aerospace progress has developed international tourism relying on air transport.

The lockdowns, or is it the depression induced by a fear of an imminent End of Days, be it from climate change or by seeing what Ukrainians suffer when autocrats wage wars on neighboring internationally recognized sovereign states, have generated in 2022 a holiday travel frenzy, culminating this very summer.

Year on year, plane ticket prices have jumped by 25% on average, some have doubled, if not worse, fueled by the increase in aviation jet-fuel price of 150% compared to the low point in the heart of the pandemic, which pushed the share of fuel cost in airlines operating expenses from 19 to 24% on average. For those who cannot afford these tickets, driving, even on long distances and with car fuels prices beyond 2€ per liter in Europe or $5 per gallon in the U.S., is the answer, but a costly one.

Even in France, where taxes represent two-thirds of the price at the pump, filling up is 50% more expensive than last year. Nevertheless, expect more congestion on European roads this summer, and an increase in road fuels demand, already in full recovery after the 2020 lull. The latter is not a good sign for the direction of the price of crude oil, already under pressure from the war in Ukraine and the related sanctions against Russia, the third producer in the world, and from the dive in oil and gas exploration investments in the last 5 to 10 years. The $100 mark for the barrel has been passed in the first half of 2022, it may have softened since, but for how long?

Rail travel? Fully booked in Europe, period. Even the Michelin Guide, the motorists’ Bible for restaurants in France, and Europe, for many years, a must have in each and every car, has published a special edition for rail passengers.

Then, with all this alternative mobility, you would expect air travel would be able to cope: the number of passengers is still well under the record of 2019, though in recovery.

But airports have become the ultimate bottleneck, with massive under-staffing in key activities like security checks and luggage handling, following equally massive lay-offs in 2020 by airport contractors, and a sort of “Big Quit” today for this front-line, mostly underpaid, personnel. Flight schedules shrinkage is the only short-term answer, and will not help airport finances, in poor shape after two years of pandemic.

Ultimate? Airport personnel social unrest, airlines personnel social unrest, caused by inflation and dire conditions in low-cost companies, come next, actually are with us already in Europe.

If you add sustainability, either in the guise of Sustainable Aviation Fuel mandated incorporation or the end of EU Emission Trading Scheme free credits before the end of this decade, and, more generally, inflation, air travel ticket price can only be on the rise, structurally, and we should not be surprised to see a downward revision for the passenger growth perspective, the 2.5 multiplier by 2050 seems to already shrink toward 2. Even Ryanair says the 10€ ultra-low prices for intra-European hops air fares is now history.

Even with all these constraints, travel is not significantly shrinking, and sustainable solutions will not be reducing the carbon footprint any time soon, so, back to pre-pandemic, slightly more moderate, trends, not good news for the planet. A sad conclusion consistent with the findings of a French historian of sciences, energy and environment, Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, who claims there has been, historically, no such thing as an energy transition, as the logic of humanity has always been to pile up resources rather than substitute a less efficient by a more efficient one: so, a future energy transition, from fossil to renewables, is unlikely, according to his findings, even more sad.

Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP).

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