Taxing frequent flyers to solve aviation’s carbon problem

3. Toward equality. A key feature of the ICCT proposal is that the taxes generated would flow from those who fly the most – typically residents of highly developed nations – to countries with the lowest per capita income – usually the first to experience the worst effects of climate change. Each country could use its money to develop new aviation fuels and technologies or offset the impacts of aviation locally. “A differential and progressive climate tax is much needed for a sector with unequal participation from around the world,” writes ICCT report author Xinyi Sola Zheng.

• • •

Good idea, but get your head
out of the clouds

1. Get turkeys to vote at Christmas. It is extremely unlikely that the airline industry will support any move that threatens the number of passengers, who are just recovering post-pandemic, or their current, lucrative frequent flyer programs. In 2020, airlines were required to value their loyalty plans to qualify for pandemic relief: American Airlines valued at more than $19.5 billion and United at about $9.2 billion.

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2. Green flights or green washed flights? Airlines are hardly unaware of the concept of “flygskam”, a Swedish word for “flying shame” and symbolized by Greta Thunberg’s trip to the US aboard a sailboat. Some are now courting the more eco-conscious travelers with “Green” loyalty plans that allow passengers to earn points by traveling with less luggage, offsetting their flights or even buying wine from an eco-friendly vineyard. Of course, none of them addresses the essential flaw of plans to encourage additional air travel.

3. Who goes first? It is difficult to see how such a tax would be implemented. If a country went it alone, it would financially discourage repeat visitors as flights became increasingly expensive. And nearly every country in the world has a domestic airline (and its associated frequent flyer program) to protect. Getting everyone to agree would be a huge political and commercial effort.

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• • •

What to keep an eye on

1. Domestic flight bans. In April, France banned domestic flights on routes that could be traveled by train in less than two and a half hours, affecting around 12% of flights. Austria has made some relief from the airline pandemic dependent on similar restrictions. But to make a real impact on carbon emissions, we would need the US (nearly a billion domestic seats sold annually) or, more realistically, China (685,000) to get serious about taxing its frequent flyers.

2. Net zero “aspirations. Earlier this month, 193 International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) countries pledged to support an “aspirational” project. net zero aviation target by 2050. For these thoughts and prayers to become more concrete, they will need better sustainable fuels and a huge amount of compensation. ONE recent report from Carbon Market Watch found that many offsets sold to consumers in Europe were cheap, low quality and unlikely to represent permanent carbon sequestration.

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3. Reduction of taxes through superior technology. The transition to aircraft that do not burn fossil fuels would allow travelers to walk around with a clear conscience, but don’t hold your breath. Battery or hydrogen powered aircraft could start operating in the mid-decade, offering slower – but cheaper and more environmentally friendly – options for regional air travel. Unfortunately, there is nothing on the horizon to replace intercontinental jets.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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