By Emily Passmore
If all human activities were ranked by how much pollution they created per hour, flights would be very high on the list: it is between two and ten times worse for the climate to travel by plane than by any form of surface transport. About 6% of UK emissions come from the aviation industry (and between 2 and 5% globally); without intervention, this could grow to 25% by 2050. If we’re to tackle climate change, it’s obvious that we need to tackle air travel.
However, these headline figures can obscure an important complexity in the data; the distribution of flights across the population is incredibly unequal. In the UK in 2018, 20% of all flights abroad were taken by only 1% of the population, and over half were taken by just 10% of the population. Meanwhile, a full 48% of the population did not take a single flight abroad. Furthermore, a single flight from the UK to America produces more CO2 than the average citizen of over 56 countries produces from all their activities in an entire year.
In sectors like agriculture or energy, we all contribute to the total emissions output, so it’s justified to create solutions that either ask us all to change our behaviours or are developed through financial contributions from the whole population. The same cannot be said for the aviation industry. Flights are often a luxury, and many simply cannot afford them. Furthermore, even within the population who take flights, the emissions of a family taking an annual holiday abroad, and those of people who regularly fly for either leisure or work will be massively different.
These observations have two important ramifications. First, they shine a light on the relevance of the no-fly movement, which pushes for people to cut down on or entirely give up flying. Campaigns publicising the environmental damage done by flights are essential if people are to be convinced of the need to change their behaviour. However, for just under half the population, there isn’t any behaviour to change in the first place. Thus, there’s a danger that pushing these campaigns could alienate people from the climate movement, creating an impression that it’s simply not that relevant to their lives.
Furthermore, if the journey is long, alternatives to flights can often be incredibly time consuming and likely far more expensive – travelling to and from China by train takes about a month for example. This is simply not a valid alternative for many people, and it’s asking a lot for people to forsake all international travel, including visits to family. The tone of the no-fly movement is thus incredibly important; whilst shaming those who travel to Davos by private plane to discuss climate change is understandable, shaming everyone who flies is unfair and unjustified.
So, if eliminating all flights is effectively impossible in the short-term, how should we go about funding schemes to reduce aviation emissions? It seems fair that only those who fly should pay for such a scheme, rather than increasing everyone’s taxes in order to offset the environmental damage caused by a few. In fact, such a tax may well undermine the effort to convince people not to fly, creating the impression that they have already contributed to tackling the problem, so they don’t have to feel too guilty about worsening it.
Frequent flyer levies would be a far better solution. Under such a system, for every flight you take, you pay a slightly higher tax on the ticket. Thus, people are required to contribute to help fix the problem in proportion to how much they worsen it. This avoids placing an undue burden on those who don’t fly or have little choice but to fly: it’s a progressive levy, similar to the system of income tax, and it’s possible to set the levy on the first flight to zero.
Of course, this solution would risk building the cost of the environmental damage into the ticket, and thus reducing the moral incentive to avoid flying. One famous study found that where fines were introduced for late pick-ups at a day-care, late pick-ups increased after the fine was introduced; parents could essentially buy off their feelings of guilt for their tardiness. For those who can afford it, these levies may thus materially change nothing, whilst allowing them to feel ethically justified in continuing their polluting behaviour.
Yet something must be done. The number of miles travelled by air has increased by 300% since 1990, and it’s unlikely that technological developments or carbon offsetting can balance out all the associated emissions. Combining a strong and compassionate ethical argument for reducing flights—considering the different relationships of different classes to air travel—with a targeted monetary disincentive could well be the way forward.
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.