Seven strategies for the degrowth of aviation

Magdalena Heuwieser, co-founder of the anti-aviation campaign network Stay Grounded, discusses seven strategies to reduce flying and build a just transport system.

Stay Grounded protesters make a red line at Barcelona Airport
Stay Grounded protesters make a red line at Barcelona Airport

Christine Tyler / Stay Grounded

'Stop the expansion of the airport': Protesters form a red line at Barcelona's El Prat Airport to call for an end to the growth of the aviation industry

Magdalena Heuwieser

Since green flying is very likely to remain an illusion in the decades ahead, the only way to counter the harmful climate impacts of aviation is reduced flying. In current discussions, the focus often remains on an individual level, shaming people who fly, but this is too narrow an approach. At the moment, everything encourages people to fly, be it cheap prices, advertisement or simply a lack of alternatives – it is no wonder that the number of flights is growing dramatically. For every one person that decides to stop flying, we might see 50 more start; if this is something we want to avoid, we need structural changes. 

On 12-14 July in Barcelona, the ‘Degrowth of Aviation’ conference discussed seven different measures to reduce aviation. The conference was organized by the Stay Grounded Network and brought together 150 people from all over the world, without a single flight being taken. Present were scientists, climate activists, feminist initiatives, NGOs, trade unions, social movements and neighbourhood initiatives from Barcelona who fight mass tourism and the expansion of the airport, as well as initiatives fostering alternatives like night trains and sailing ships. On the last day of the conference, we took direct action, forming a red line at the airport in Barcelona to show our opposition to further growth. 

While there are many more ways to reduce aviation and build a just transport system, seven of them were discussed in detail.

1. End tax exemptions

While taxes do not solve all problems, it is no option to continue with indirect and unjust subsidies for the aviation industry. Kerosene and flight tickets need to be taxed at rates similar to or higher than other modes of transport. Since on an EU or worldwide level, this is currently hard to implement, countries should take those steps and make bilateral agreements with others to also put taxes on international flights. The revenues should be used to foment alternatives to flying.

2. Target frequent flyers

In addition to ending tax privileges for the aviation industry, the injustice involved in aviation can be targeted by implementing a frequent flyer levy. On a worldwide scale, more than 80 per cent of people have never flown, while for a few, flying even several times a year has become a normality. These are usually wealthy people – and their mode of living is sustained to the detriment of those already facing down the climate crisis. Therefore, it is proposed that a levy (for example €100 [£90]) is implemented when someone takes their second flight in one year – the cost then doubles with each flight taken that year. This way, people who only very rarely fly to visit their family in another continent are not disadvantaged, while everyone is disincentivised to fly more frequently. The revenues would go to making environmentally friendly transport modes like trains more affordable, and to support sectors dependent on tourism and flights to transition towards climate jobs.

Attendees at the Degrowth of Aviation conference

Christine Tyler / Stay Grounded

The Degrowth of Aviation conference attendees

3. End short haul and domestic flights

The above price mechanisms have to go along with limiting those flights that can easily be transferred to trains or buses. This measure can be implemented very quickly in the coming years, and a ban must go hand-in-hand with offering more and better alternatives. 

4. Foster alternatives to flights

In Europe, the train infrastructure has to be improved, offering comfortable night trains, good connections and accessible booking systems. High speed trains are not necessarily the best alternative, since energy use rises exponentially with speed. We have to consider whether a transport system compatible with the limits of our planet and the climate crisis might also mean slower travel and trade. Of course, we should also be researching into the possibilities of a modern shipping industry based around renewable energy, as well as providing good online conference systems in order to avoid work travel.

5. Limits for airports

Expanding airports and constructing new ones both accommodates rising demand for flights and creates a business impetus to boost demand, to fill the growing capacity. There are about 1,200 airport infrastructure projects around the world. Many of them are connected to violations of human rights and destruction of biodiversity or agricultural land. Airports also put people under constant noise and pollution pressure. Putting moratoria on new airport infrastructure, establishing limits for flight numbers and noise and scaling down existing airports wherever possible are all important ways to stop the growth of the sector.

A poster by Stay Grounded at Plaza Espana in Barcelona

Christine Tyler / Stay Grounded

'Stop the expansion of the El Prat Airport, pollution, tourism, climate change'

6. Change tourism

The consequences of over-tourism are hitting more and more cities and countries and are closely connected to low-cost airlines and the growth of the aviation sector. Some cities already put limits on the number of cruisers that are allowed to enter the port or limit entrance to overcrowded areas. In Barcelona, social movements are fighting against platforms like Airbnb that contribute to rising rents and gentrification. Putting different kinds of limits on tourism on a city level is one way to deal with the problem, while another is to support behaviour change and foment other forms of travel. This might include reducing work hours and establishing the right to take sabbaticals, so that the need for quick one-week holidays is reduced.

7. Change travel policies in institutions

While most of the above measures would need to be established at a government policy level, universities, NGOs, trade unions and other institutions could also take the lead and serve as role-models by implementing travel policies that support a more sustainable mode of transport. For now, travel policies mostly follow the pattern that the cheapest and fastest way to travel is given every advantage. This forces people to take the plane even if they don’t want to. Changing the policies can mean committing to higher travel costs, allowing for more time spent on the journey to be counted as working time, and setting clear reduction targets (instead of ‘offsetting’ flight emissions, which is nothing more than a sale of indulgences).

The conference ended with a call to action: “In order to bring about this needed change, a hands-on approach is necessary, and everyone can participate," said Stay Grounded’s Mira Kapfinger. "We need social movements demanding this in the streets, we need direct actions at airports, we need science, institutions, companies and individuals showing the advantages of staying grounded and slow travel, and we need civil society pressuring governments.”