Reducing Aviation CO2
By Stewart Reddaway in GLD Challenge magazine 2019-20
(a) Tax the CO2 emissions. Currently aviation is lightly taxed. There is an international agreement not to tax the fuel. The structure of Air Passenger Duty attempts a very rough approximation to a carbon tax, taxing long-haul more than short-haul, and taxing First and Business class seats more than Economy. (Premium seats cause higher emissions as they take up more cabin area, causing the plane to carry fewer passengers. For many long-haul configurations, an all-Economy configuration could carry over 50% more passengers)
A tax has been proposed (including in the recent LibDem policy paper on the climate emergency) that would tax individual passengers by a fixed amount per flight which would increase sharply according to the number of flights taken. Such a tax correlates poorly with CO2 emissions, because it takes account of neither the distance flown nor the seat class.
1. Flight distance has an enormous effect.
For example, flying Economy from London to Los Angeles causes about 20 times more CO2 than flying to Amsterdam, even allowing for extra emissions during take-off and landing.
2. On long-haul flights, a First-class seat emits about 5 times more CO2 than an Economy seat, and a Business class seat about 3 times more. (The actual CO2 reduction will come from airlines reducing the number of Premium seats.) Hence flying First class to LA emits about 100 times more CO2 than Economy to Amsterdam. A "frequent flyer" tax equates the two, making long-haul flying, especially in Premium seats, grossly undertaxed. Over half of all UK emissions are from long-haul.
Taxing individuals differently according to the number of flights they take would also be difficult to implement fairly. Would non-residents be taxed? Would flights taken by UK residents external to the UK be taxed? If not, many flyers would use nearby non-UK airports such as Brussels or Paris; which would increase total CO2 due to the extra (Eurostar?) journey. There would be considerable admin costs and inconvenience for HMRC, airlines and passengers. If such problems could be overcome, then we could try to tax individuals at higher rates as they build up their CO2 totals. But, in my view, it is simpler to implement the polluter pays principle by either taxing the fuel, or, if this is not possible,by a flight tax on all flights based on take-off weight and distance flown. The effect on CO2 emissions per flight due to Premium seats resulting in fewer passengers, and hence reduced total weight, is small, as the take-off weight is mainly airframe plus fuel.
With a carbon tax, big emitters would pay a lot more than individuals flying once a year within Europe. (If the tax is £100/ton, then a Los Angeles First class return would be taxed about £1000, and an Economy return to Amsterdam about £10.) The tax could be integrated with other carbon taxes, and the revenue used to mitigate the effect of the tax on poorer people.
(b) International cooperation is very important, both in terms of technical improvements (technology is reducing emissions by about 1% per year), and, especially with our neighbours (the EU), on policies to reduce the amount of flying. Two examples are an agreed flight (or fuel) tax, and by banning the operation of Frequent Flyer Clubs. The purpose of such clubs is to increase flying, including in Premium seats, both to earn points, often at an employer's expense, and by using points for more flying. Agreement with our neighbours is needed to prevent long-haul flyers moving to a non-UK airport.
(c) CO2 can also be reduced by rules on public spending:
1. Make it illegal to use public money to fly First class. (Long haul Business class has flat beds that allow a good sleep.) As well as directly reducing CO2, such a law would set an example to the public, as well as reminding people in government of the climate emergency.
2. Force by law central government to reduce annually their total aviation CO2 footprint, including both scheduled and non-scheduled flying, by at least 10% p.a.
(d) The aviation industry plans (the CORSIA scheme) to reduce their declared CO2 by buying, on an increasingly large-scale, "carbon offsets". This is open to abuse, as, to be valid, projects for offsets must cause additional CO2 reductions that would not have happened anyway. Reductions to meet Paris commitments do not count, neither do projects that would have been done anyway because they are profitable. (For example, solar and wind are becoming profitable without subsidy.) There is also a danger of double counting. Planting trees is popular for carbon offsetting, but, as well as the danger of the trees not reaching maturity, the CO2 reduction occurs over 50 - 100 years, whereas the CO2 being offset is immediate. Reducing CO2 is urgent.
Aviation CO2 should be accounted for gross (without allowing for carbon offsets). This would increase pressure to reduce aviation emissions.
(e) Awareness campaigns should both paint "unnecessary" flying as anti-social, and raise the visibility of the carbon emissions, for example by forcing airlines to clearly state, at the point of booking and on all boarding cards, the kg of CO2 for the flight(s).