Angeli Mehta reports on growing pressure to end frequent flyer schemes and tax air travel in order to cut aviation's CO2 emissions
When the boss of the 100-year-old airline KLM suggests you take the train instead of a domestic flight, you wonder what’s going on. Is it a marketing ploy or the beginning of a conversation: a sign that airlines have realised it’s no longer enough to say their aircraft are more efficient?
“Airlines are under pressure,” says Andrew Murphy, aviation manager at campaign group Transport & Environment. “The Paris Agreement was economy-wide … It’s taken a while to realise what the implications of that are, but governments are recognising they can’t ignore aviation emissions.”
In July, the French government announced it would levy an eco-tax of €1.50 (£1.30) on all outgoing domestic and European flights; rising to €18 for business-class travellers flying outside Europe. The tax, to come into effect next year, is intended to fund less polluting transport projects.
Offsetting doesn’t address the growing numbers of people flying – and that’s really what’s needed to address the net-zero challenge
Some airlines offer passengers the choice of paying to offset their emissions, but last month British Airways (BA) announced it would start offsetting the 400,000 tonnes of carbon emissions generated by its UK flights, at a cost of £3m a year. It pledged the money would go into verified emission-reduction schemes.
However, as environmental campaigners have been quick to point out, offsetting doesn’t address the growing numbers of people flying – and that’s really what’s needed to address the net-zero challenge.
Aviation’s share of emissions continues unabated: while other sectors start to decarbonise, aviation will be responsible for an increasing share of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions.
That knowledge is behind a movement called Flygskam, which is Swedish for “flight shame”. It began when several Swedish celebrities committed to give up flying, explaining that we know enough about climate change to feel too ashamed – or embarrassed – to take a plane.
Is it working? Sweden’s airports have been reporting a steady drop in domestic passengers over the past year. At Stockholm’s Arlanda airport, passenger numbers fell 11% in August, compared with 2018. The picture is more mixed for international flights so, overall, passenger numbers continued to grow. At the same time Sweden’s rail operator reported a near-doubling of passengers over 18 months.
In the UK, transport campaigner Anna Hughes is trying to persuade 100,000 people not to fly in 2020 through the Flight Free UK campaign. Making the pledge “is not saying you can never fly again. It’s just saying have you considered traveling in a different way? Just like Veganuary, it might rub off in other areas of your life.” So far around 3,700 people have committed.
Maria Wolrath-Söderberg, a Swedish researcher investigating the gap between knowledge and action, is exploring what motivates people to give up flying.
Many of those who’ve taken part in the research have experienced an emotional tussle between knowing the damage flying is inflicting and acting on that knowledge
From research carried out in 2019, she says, “We could see that a common way to justify flying, for example, was to imagine a personal climate account. If you bike to work, sort your waste and eat vegetarian, you deserve a trip to Asia over Christmas.”
Many of those who’ve taken part in the research have experienced an emotional tussle between knowing the damage flying is inflicting and acting on that knowledge. “It can be quite stressful,” says Wolrath-Söderberg.
Some academics and NGOs have started to take a stand. Last month, a panel at Edinburgh University discussed the pressures on members of the business and academic communities to fly. Zero Waste Scotland, meanwhile, is on track to meet a 40% reduction in flights. Staff avoid flying within the UK; or to the Benelux countries or Paris.
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has suggested a ban on frequent flyer programmes and an air miles levy that would increase with the number of miles travelled by an individual passenger. The levy should factor in larger emissions for first class and business tickets. A separate scheme would be needed for business flyers.
Figures show 70% of flights are for leisure and 19% for business. While half the UK population doesn’t fly at all in any given year, just 15% of Brits take 70% of flights.
We need to create a system where we reduce demand and invest in future technology to bring forward the date when we can fly guilt-free
So it argues that those who pollute the most are the very people who benefit from the UK’s generous tax regime, which puts no duty on aviation fuel, or VAT on flights. The report’s author also suggests that the government should mandate that all marketing of flights show emissions information, expressed in meaningful terms, such as the proportion of an average household’s annual emissions now and under a future net-zero scenario.
For Justin Francis, co-founder of Responsible Travel, such a mechanism sounds too time-consuming to set up. “We need to create a system where we reduce demand and invest in future technology research and development to bring forward the date when we can fly guilt-free.” That means increasing and ringfencing the existing air passenger duty, which raises £3.4bn a year. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for aviation to be exempt from fair taxation. And for governments to pass responsibility to customers.”
A European Citizens' initiative is running a petition calling for EU member-states to end the tax exemption for aviation fuel in Europe. Indeed a leaked EU report seen by Transport & Environment shows that imposing a 33 cent (28p) fuel tax on all departing flights would lead to a 10% rise in ticket prices, an 11% fall in passengers and emissions, and raise an extra €17bn, with no overall impact on jobs or GDP.
Angeli Mehta is a former BBC current affairs producer, with a research PhD. She now writes about science, and has a particular interest in the environment and sustainability. @AngeliMehta.
This article is part of the in-depth Sustainable Transport briefing. See also:
The long haul to getting aviation biofuel off the ground
High hopes for hydrogen to get sustainable transport on track
Two and three wheels good as India aims for electric mobility
How digital is easing the pain of public transport in Africa
Transport & Environment Flygskam Flight Free UK Responsible Travel