While it is always risky to make public predictions, I think this year we will see a lot more discussion about aviation and climate change. The reason I say this is because I have recently seen a rapid escalation in various emerging trends, spanning across Industry, Culture, Media, Politics, and Science, which together suggest we may reach a critical mass where flying gets the sort of attention from the travel industry that plastics did last year, animal welfare did the year before, and overtourism the previous two.
Here are the trends and why they matter:
Industry: 2019 is the year that the aviation industry’s official way of addressing its carbon emissions, namely CORSIA, begins. Harold Goodwin wrote at length about the limitations of the scheme in February 2018 on this blog. In summary, it relies too much on offsetting, it doesn’t go far enough, and it won’t be compulsory until 2027. However, the fact it begins this year means attention will be focussed.
Culture: An emerging cultural shift towards flying less (or not flying at all) can be summed up by this tweet from January 13th by a user called The Lucky Heron. “Attitudes towards flying in Sweden have shifted so much in recent years that a new word – “Flygskam” – entered the language in 2018. It translates as “flying shame” and describes the embarrassment felt by climate-conscious fliers.” The last few weeks have also seen the launch on social media of The #FlightFree2019 pledge, which itself follows a similar campaign beginning in Sweden last year that has seen over 10,000 people sign up. There’s also an increasingly active #flyless meme, which works well for those of us who haven’t managed total abstinence, but are working to reduce as much as possible and want to be included in the discussion.
Media: Earlier this month Politiken, one of the leading newspapers in Denmark, said that it was banning domestic air travel for its staff, reducing international air travel as far as it could, and would then be offsetting all international flights made by the paper’s staff from now on. But what was really interesting was Politiken’s announcement that from 2019, as reported in the New York Times, “The paper’s travel section will be refocused to cover domestic, Nordic and northern European destinations easily reachable by public transportation.”
Other media outlets are also picking up on the trend. BBC Radio 4, in a series of programmes on New Year’s Resolutions, dedicated one episode to exploring the question: “What would it mean for the world if we stopped flying?” And my tourism friends in the Netherlands say issues around flying and climate change are rarely out of their national press.
Politics: Interviewed in the Guardian at the beginning of this month, the UK’s shadow Treasury minister Clive Lewis said it was time for politicians to make ‘stark choices’ about climate change. When asked about the Labour Party’s solution to aviation, Lewis was reported as saying the party was “starting to come up with options, including a tax “escalator”, which would have the biggest impact on frequent fliers, who tend to be the wealthiest.” He’s referring to the New Economics Foundation’s Frequent Flyer Levy, which I have supported before on this blog, and whose basic idea is that everyone could have one tax-free flight a year, with each additional flight being taxed at an increasing level. According to NEF, this “progressive tax on frequent flying could play a significant role in restraining demand for flights, while at the same time tending to distribute those flights more equally across the income spectrum.”
Science: If there’s one sign we really should pay attention to, it’s the science. For once I am not referring to the science of climate change, or of the harm we are causing our planet. No, it’s the science that says there is a solution available right now. Towards the end of last year a report was published by Transport and Environment that dismissed the focus on developing electric flight over the next 20 years, and instead stated that: “near-zero-carbon electrofuels can be produced today and deployed immediately using existing engines and infrastructure.”
Last week I spoke with Professor Paul Peeters, one of the world’s leading experts on tourism, transport and climate change. He agreed with the report’s findings (as it turned out, he’d been involved with drafting it). In fact he made it forcefully clear to me that it was the only solution worth focussing upon.
The trouble is not the science. It’s the economics. According to the report, “running aircraft entirely on synthetic fuels would increase the cost of a plane ticket by 58% assuming kerosene remains untaxed, or 23% if a proper carbon price would be levied on kerosene.” For many people, the discussion ends there.
However, I think we will only really start to solve aviation’s impact on climate change if we are willing – as politicians, media, industry, and individuals – to accept the need to put the prices up. Ideally we’ll use some version of the Frequent Flyer Levy / tax escalator so as to implement the necessary effect on demand in as socially equitable a way as possible. We can then spend the money on electrofuels, subsidising railway development and ticket prices, and whatever else it takes.
Maybe you disagree. So let’s talk about it.