Aviation has its days counted

Diego Pedraza Lahoz, activist at campaign group Stay Grounded, explains the environmental and social arguments for the degrowth of the aviation industry.

Planes at Seattle airport
Planes at Seattle airport
Diego Pedraza Lahoz

In 2017, aviation accounted for about seven per cent of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions and, with demand for flights increasing, it is set to be the largest source of emissions by 2050. 

These emissions need to be brought down to zero if we are to reach the targets of the Paris Agreement, but we now know that waiting so long for the industry to become emissions-free is too late. Much more radical action is necessary – yet, around 1,200 airport infrastructure projects are planned or currently underway around the world.

Besides the clear environmental argument for the degrowth of the aviation industry, there is also a fairness perspective. Despite the fact that less than 10 per cent of the world’s citizens have ever taken a plane, it is the poor – and therefore the non-flyers – who are already more affected by the Climate Emergency, suffering the consequences of airport expansions such as health problems, land grabbing and noise. A recent survey from the Department of Transport found that in 2018 the 10 per cent most frequent flyers took over half of all flights abroad, whilst 48 per cent of the population did not take a single international flight. 

The Global South, a more adequate term than ‘developing nations’, bears the majority of the brunt without having benefited from the system. The poorest 3.5 billion people on Earth are responsible for just 10 per cent of total emissions from individual consumption but live in the areas most vulnerable to climate change.

Is aviation really that bad?

Aviation is not only an environmental time-bomb, but it also benefits from uncountable undue privileges. For instance, the industry receives large tax breaks and subsidies which allow flight tickets to be artificially cheap, and only a selected number of nations have VAT on airplane tickets.

The aviation sector strongly defends that offsetting and technical improvements for aircraft and operations are the only way forward to reach the Paris Agreement’s goals. The sector already depends on extremely harmful biofuels and relies on intensive industry marketing.

Is there anything that can be done?

Individual action is important but has its restrictions. Limits to greenhouse gas emissions must be put in place right away by governments to reduce the impacts of the looming climate catastrophe. International aviation emissions must be included in national emissions reduction plans inside the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change and binding targets must be established at all levels – locally, nationally and regionally.

A just transition from the most climate-destroying forms of transport to ones that are environmentally-centred, science-based and fairer is required. 

More specifically, this means moratoria on the construction and expansion of airports, aerotropolises and Special Economic Zones. There needs to be strict aircraft environmental standards, stringent caps on the number of flights, a frequent flyer levy (FFL) or a fair tax package comprising an FFL and an aviation fuel tax for domestic – and then international – flights. 

The industry’s advantages, including unchecked connection with the military world, tax breaks, legal protection and subsidies, need to come to an end.

The switch to environmental modes of transportation means replacing most, if not all, short-haul and some medium-distance flights with trains or buses in regions where the basic infrastructure exists. 

Moreover, a paradigm shift must permeate everyday activities: there is an urgency to move towards an economy of short distances. Social and work habits that rely on air travel should be challenged. 

Finally, we must recognise and respect the rights of indigenous groups, local communities and their land to ensure that the ecocide caused directly and indirectly by the aviation havoc comes to a halt.

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