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‘Flight Shame’ and the Jet Fuel Tax Threat

“There is only one way to finance costs created by climate change – through taxes”. Swedish Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson’s 20-Jun-2019 comments to a Netherlands-hosted conference on carbon pricing and aviation taxes, represent a growing view among Europe’s politicians and electorates. The conference proposed a jet fuel tax.

The Swedish word flygskam, ‘flight shame’ in English, underpins an anti flying movement that has spread from Scandinavia to other European countries. It reflects a growing sentiment, particularly in the developed world, that flying is a source of guilt and shame because of its climate change impact. Sweden introduced a per trip aviation tax in 2018, but Ms Andersson would like to introduce a tax on jet fuel. Meanwhile, the 2018 tax and public sentiment towards aviation’s climate change impact are depressing demand for air travel in Sweden.

Only a small proportion of the world’s population flies, but for those that do, it can account for a very significant proportion of the CO2 emissions attributable to them individually.

As a result of ‘flight shame’, this is causing a small but growing number of people to reduce or even eliminate discretionary air travel. Global aviation should watch Sweden with care.

This report first appeared in CAPA's  Airline Leader #51, which contains several other valuable analyses of the environmental issues surrounding aviation.
To see the full issue please visit Airline Leader

Summary

  • Aviation can account for a high proportion of an individual’s CO2 emissions. One long haul flight can exceed an individual’s annual emissions budget.
  • Individuals are starting to make big lifestyle changes to reduce their carbon footprint. The Swedish anti flying campaign Flight-Free is spreading.
  • Swedish passenger traffic is falling. Changing public sentiment supports taxing aviation in Sweden. A jet fuel tax could be next.

Aviation can account for a high proportion of an individual’s CO2 emissions

Aviation accounts for only a small share of global CO2 emissions (between 2% and 5%, see previous article in this edition of Airline Leader). 

However, only a minority of the world’s population flies and so, on an individual level, aviation can account for a disproportionate part of someone’s CO2 emissions.

Other sectors create a far higher level of emissions: for example, food production accounts for approximately 25% of global carbon emissions, with animal agriculture generating approximately 15%, but 100% of the population is served by this sector.

The clothing and fashion industry produces something like 10% of all carbon emissions and is growing fast. Textile production alone is highly polluting, creating more emissions than international flights and maritime shipping combined; then there is the disposal of clothing, where some 60% of items is disposed of within 12 months.

One long haul flight can exceed an individual’s annual emissions budget

Depending on the distance of the journey, a single flight could generate more CO2 than all other emissions attributable to an individual in a year. The IPCC has recommended an average CO2 budget per person globally of no more than 2.3 tonnes a year in order to meet the Paris Agreement target of no more than 2C degrees of global warming by the end of the century.

The German non-profit company atmosfair offers a voluntary offset programme and also ranks airlines globally according to their CO2 emissions efficiency through the atmosfair Airline Index. It encourages passengers to use the Index when choosing an airline.

According to atmosfair, a return flight between Munich and New York on an airline in its lowest efficiency category churns out 2.6 tonnes of CO2 per person (including the impact of other pollutants converted into CO2 equivalent emissions).

This significantly exceeds the IPCC sustainability threshold and the 1.6 tonnes of CO2 emissions from one year’s car usage, according to atmosfair.

At the other end of the scale, a return flight between Duesseldorf and Milan emits 210kg of CO2 per person on an airline in the middle efficiency category, or 360kg for the least efficient category.

This is just under 10% of the IPCC annual allowance, but is still more than running a fridge for a year (100kg) and it does not take many such flights to add significantly to an individual’s carbon footprint.

Individuals are starting to make big lifestyle changes to reduce their carbon footprint

A 2014 research paper by academics at Oxford University calculated that a change of diet from medium meat eating to veganism could save one tonne of CO2 emissions per person per year. This saving could quickly be eroded by a few short haul flights or one medium haul flight.

Adopting a vegan diet for environmental reasons is gaining popularity. Similarly, a small but growing number of people are moving beyond offsetting their aviation carbon footprint and they are avoiding flying altogether.

Swedish campaign Flight-Free is spreading

A campaign that started in Sweden, called Flight-Free 2019 and now updated as Flight-Free 2020, had attracted 15,000 Swedes to sign a pledge not to fly by the end of 2018. In 2019 it aims to have 100,000 signatories. There are similar campaigns in Denmark, Norway, France, Germany, Canada and Belgium.

A UK arm of the campaign has been established, also aiming for 100,000 to pledge a flight-free year in 2020. As at 04-Sep-2019, the UK website of the campaign indicates 3,178 signatories.

Swedish passenger traffic is falling

These numbers are still small, but there is some evidence, at least in Sweden, that flygskam is having an impact beyond its raw signature count and negatively affecting demand for air travel.

After steady growth in passenger numbers in Sweden of 5%-7% every year from 2014 to 2017, traffic increased by only 0.2% in 2018. In the final four months of last year, it fell by 1.7% and, according to Swedavia,  it has dropped by 4.5% in the first seven months of 2019.

A pilot strike at SAS depressed traffic levels in Apr-2019 and May-2019, but passenger numbers had declined in each of the seven months prior to this strike.

Changing public sentiment supports taxing aviation in Sweden

The introduction of an aviation tax in Sweden in Apr-2018 has certainly had an adverse impact on demand, but this has been compounded by what ACI Europe has called “changing attitudes towards air transport in the country” that have resulted from environmental concerns.

Moreover, these same attitudes towards aviation’s impact on the environment provide the motivation for the tax, which the Swedish government introduced to combat climate change by reducing traffic.

When it was introduced, polls in Sweden indicated that it had the support of a majority of the population.

Sweden’s Finance Minister Andersson, the architect of the aviation tax, acknowledges that environmental taxes tend to be regressive rather than progressive and that investment is required to reduce emissions. She concedes that environmental taxes require careful analysis to ensure that the consequences are fair.

A jet fuel tax could be next

Nevertheless, Ms Andersson supports a proposal by the Netherlands that a carbon tax on jet fuel should be introduced. This is currently prevented by international agreement through ICAO and bilateral agreements, but the conference on carbon pricing and aviation taxes in the Hague was aimed at building support for this idea among EU member states.

The conference sought to encourage the European Commission to work on proposals for a European aviation tax, a jet fuel tax and carbon pricing. Dutch, Swedish and French ministers contributed to the event.

The argument is that a jet fuel tax would not only address climate change, but it would also address perceived imbalances between different modes of transport, where there are fuel taxes on cars, but not on aircraft.

A tax on aviation fuel, Ms Andersson argues, would therefore also benefit competition, removing what she calls “a harmful subsidy”.

Swedish aviation is responding

The Swedish government’s approach appears to be adding incentives for its aviation industry to increase its efforts to combat climate change.

The country’s airport authority Swedavia is aiming for its operations to be fossil fuel free by 2020 and supports a goal for air transport overall to be free of fossil fuels by 2045.

Together with Swedavia and the research institute RISE, SAS is supporting research to develop the large scale production of biofuels and aims to use biofuel equivalent to all of its domestic consumption by 2030. The airline has also signed an MoU with Airbus on research into electrically powered aircraft and is offering carbon offsetting to its loyalty scheme members.

Sweden becomes a case study for global aviation - and a call to action for the industry

Of course, the aviation industry already has strong incentives to reduce its impact on climate change, and neither Swedavia nor SAS is unique in the actions they are each taking.

Nevertheless, growing environmental awareness in Sweden, home to the teenage activist Greta Thunberg as well as being the launch place for the Flight-Free campaigns, is perhaps pushing aviation harder than in some other parts of the world.

Sweden serves as a must-read case study for all participants in the aviation industry.

Aviation taxes have been implemented in other parts of Europe. In some countries, they have been reduced or removed, but there is talk of a reintroduction in the Netherlands if a European agreement on jet fuel tax is not reached.

Aviation taxes are damaging to demand, but are a tide that is proving hard to resist.

The threat of increased taxation further raises pressure on aviation to aim for net zero emissions by 2050 (see the previous article), rather than merely halving them, and to catalyse greater and faster progress in the development of the necessary technologies.

Whether this form of government and popular intervention will aid the cause of reducing unit emissions, where the airline industry itself is already bent on doing so, is another question. It certainly sounds an ominous note for many developing markets whose well-being depends on tourism growth.

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