Frequent flyer levies to decarbonise travel

Nick Bowett proposes introducing a frequent flyer levy in the UK to offset unsustainable decarbonisation and ensure longevity for the travel industry.

Airplane on runway
Nick Bowett

Excess carbon equivalent emissions are making many parts of the planet effectively uninhabitable and lowering levels of biodiversity worldwide. Against this backdrop, we need to think about cutting carbon equivalent emissions in every sector, including those that are difficult to decarbonise – such as aviation – in a culturally sensitive way. Introducing a frequent flyer levy would force frequent fliers to think more about their aerial carbon footprint and give them a financial incentive to lower it.

The freedom to fly at will to almost any country in the world – in hours – is an incredible privilege which is now largely overlooked as travelling far afield has become so commonplace, but unfortunately, aviation is notoriously difficult to decarbonise. Currently, aviation contributes to about 2.5 per cent of global carbon emissions. When the UK is considered in isolation, the figure is much higher as carbon emissions are falling in many other sectors of the UK economy and plane journeys are frequently taken from the UK. Globally, contrails (the science is unclear about exactly how much these contribute to global warming) and other greenhouse gases that are emitted from planes make it so that aviation is estimated to contribute to approximately 5 per cent of global warming. As more people reach the global middle class more people want to fly so passenger numbers are expected to increase substantially in the coming decades if nothing is done to curb sky-high growth in the sector. 

At present, fossil fuels, which emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, are used to propel most aeroplanes. Using biofuel made from biofuel crops doesn’t solve the problem because growing them takes up vast amounts of land that could otherwise be used for carbon storage, growing food and holding biodiversity. Using waste materials, such as cooking oil or waste plastic, to make jet fuel avoids having to extract more fossil fuels from the ground or grow biofuel crops, so it is a good way to create aviation fuel until other methods of jet propulsion are shown to work at scale. Hydrogen and electric technologies have been used to propel small planes with a few seats so far and projects are afoot to make these technologies power bigger planes. On the downside, hydrogen-powered planes will create bigger contrails which could significantly contribute to global warming. Powering large electric passenger planes so they can travel long distances will require much progress to be made in battery technology because currently the available batteries required to propel them are too heavy and large. Suffice it to say, numerous steps need to be taken to make mass aviation sustainable.

Travel can inspire people to admire nature when they see the wide range of glorious habitats on earth, hence live in more ecologically sensitive ways, so can – on balance – be good for the environment. Nonetheless, too much air travel is taking place which is warming our planet, hence damaging ecosystems which we rely on for food, and so forth. More British people travel abroad each year than any other nationality, so it is entirely fitting for the UK to show leadership on tackling this aspect of the climate emergency. The Climate Change Committee has said that approximately a third of emission cuts must come from changes in behaviour in order for the presiding government to meet its 2035 interim net zero targets. 

Currently in the UK, in any given year, approximately 15 per cent of people take 70 per cent of flights, while over half of people don’t fly at all. 1 per cent of people in the UK are responsible for about a fifth of overseas flights. For less developed countries, the disparity between those who fly and those who don’t tends to be even more stark.  Roughly, 80 per cent of people who are alive today have never travelled on an aeroplane. Taking a first class seat on a long haul flight leads to the emission of about four times more greenhouse gasses than taking an economy seat, so the flying sector really is a sector where the wealthy are passing on their costs to the less well off or unprivileged members of our global community. 

Instead of hiking the price of all flights a fairer way to counter the burgeoning demand for air travel is to impose a frequent flyer levy. Under well detailed Green Party proposals, this would allow people to take one return flight a year, with no extra levy, so people could go on annual holidays and visit any family they may have abroad. A frequent flyer levy will make people consider if the trip they want to make is necessary and incentivise them to consider taking less carbon intensive forms of transport. Furthermore, the implementation of such legislation would mark a necessary change in normative values. Train can be used to get to Continental Europe instead of plane. Video conferencing can be done online. Longer stays at destinations of choice could be arranged so multiple visits aren’t necessary. I contend that, when properly explained a frequent flyer tax will be fully endorsed by the public, if set at quite a low level, because voters are keen on policies which follow the well-established climate science and still manage to preserve the liberties they are accustomed to – balance is key.

Global warming facilitated events are lowering the quality of travel destinations, so putting in place a frequent flyer tax to curb aviation works in favour of the travel sector, when the long-term future of the sector is considered. In coming years, natural disasters such as flash floods will afflict more and more localities. Vector borne diseases, such as Zika virus, will be caught on more frequent occasions because warmer temperatures increase the geographic area in which vectors can survive. Ecosystems, such as coral reefs, will break down, irreparably in many cases, as temperatures increase which will decrease ecotourist opportunities. It follows from this that, a frequent flyer tax, which curbs excess plane travel, would work in harmony with a healthy travel sector. Looking at the wider picture is surely the key to persuading governments around the world to implement forward-looking policies such as this. 

Funds acquired from a frequent flyer tax could be used to improve low carbon methods of transportation, such as railway services, fund environmental regeneration projects, which could in turn improve ecotourism prospects, and fund the development of low-carbon aviation technology. Passengers and aviation corporations that currently pay for carbon offsetting projects should be given due credit, but the travel sector, at large, should do more than provide a financial boost for change in other sectors, it should take steps to help the environment itself by seeing the logic of a frequent flyer levy.   

Ecotourism can help to preserve ecosystems by making it so they are worth more in an intact state than in a degraded state, helps local people to see value in conserving their natural environment, provides a source of income for them and inspires visitors to value nature, as they explore and discover. Wildlife tourism leads to eyes being on the ground so that poaching can be controlled. Nonetheless, a frequent flyer levy is unquestionably appropriate across the board now, largely, because other sectors of the economy – which have been able to significantly decarbonise – haven’t or haven’t done so to a responsible degree over recent years. For example, fossil fuels are still used to generate most of the world’s electricity when renewable energy technology could be used instead. Proposing any legislation which seeks to interfere with liberal free market values will inevitably be met with a reactionary response, from some quarters, but the climate crisis is too serious to allow the status quo to continue. 

Too many flights are taken by a small percentage of the world population. This is worsening life circumstances for others around the world, especially the unprivileged people who cannot even afford to fly. A frequent flyer levy would make people question if the trip they want to undertake is essential, incentivise frequent flyers to think of other less carbon-intensive ways to get to the place they want to go and mark a much-needed shift in normative values. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that ecotourism can be a driving force behind maintaining healthy ecosystems that contain cherished species, but, of course, local ecotourism is better for planetary health, unless low-carbon methods of transport are organised. If sectors of the economy that could have decarbonised had done so sensibly over recent years a frequent flyer levy wouldn’t be quite so necessary, but now such a levy must be imposed so that we are fair to non and moderate flyers.