Frequent travelers are a climate problem. Should they pay more?

Getting on a plane has long ceased to be anything remotely resembling a luxury experience. But in recent years it has also become something else – a largely unavoidable form of “climate sin”. Although aviation is a relatively small slice of global carbon emissions – around 2.5% – on a personal level, it has a huge footprint virtually unmatched by any other individual action. (Avoiding an international flight from New York to London, for example, could prevent 600 kilograms of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, roughly double the effect of going vegan for a year.) The climate activist Greta Thunberg once chose to take a high-speed racing yacht across the Atlantic rather than board a plane; in his home country, Swedes started using the word flygskamwhich means “flying shame”.

But despite the best efforts of activists and climate scientists, most people are unlikely to give up flying. A new report from the not-for-profit International Council on Clean Transportation suggests another way forward: a global tax on those who travel the most – the proceeds of which could be used to fund research and development of clean aviation fuels. emissions.

“We say, ‘If you want to fly more, that’s fine,'” said Sola Zheng, a researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation and lead author of the report. “You just have to pay a little more.”

The report suggests a frequent flyer tax that starts on the second flight each individual takes per year, at a rate of $9. It would then steadily increase, reaching $177 for the 20th flight in a single year. (A “flight” in this case, is a single takeoff and landing, i.e. half a round trip.) For most Americans – who take two or fewer flights a year – the tax would cost about the same as buying a drink and a bag of crisps at the airport. But business travelers and other frequent flyers making dozens of flights every 12 months would face higher costs.

Such a tax, according to the study, could fully fund the transition from fossil fuels to sustainable aviation fuel. According to the International Civil Aviation Organization – the United Nations agency that coordinates international air travel – switching to sustainable fuels and improving the efficiency of other aircraft will cost an estimated $121 billion a year. until 2050. (Sustainable aviation fuels, which are biofuels made from things like corn, oil and grease, exist but cost two to five times more than equivalent jet fuels made from fossil fuels).

It’s an elegant-looking solution to what has sometimes seemed like an insoluble problem. Despite their significant carbon footprint, medium or long-haul flights (often defined as flights over three or four hours), have few viable alternatives. Unlike Thunberg, most people can’t snag a super-fast yacht to cross the Atlantic Ocean. In the United States, forgoing the plane entirely means indulging in a life without much international travel and the ability to easily visit family members across the country.

But flying is also very unequal. In the United States, research has shown that only 12% of people take 66% of flights. Globally, this picture is even bleaker: according to the ICCT report, low-income countries represent 9% of the world’s population. but take only 0.4% of global flights.

Zheng says the tiered tax has the benefit of allowing low-income people, who typically travel less, to still be able to catch one or two flights a year relatively cheaply. “It’s not about creating an unbearable burden for anyone,” she said. Zheng argues that people in developing and poor countries should always be able to fly cheaply, so they can enjoy the benefits of air travel, such as tourism and cross-cultural experiences.

According to the study, the top 10% in the world would represent 90% of tax revenue. That’s much better, Zheng argues, than something like a flat tax, which would charge each person about $25 per flight. Although the authors did not attempt to include private jet travel, due to a lack of data, Zheng said including a similar tax for those who use private jets could still shift the burden on the world’s wealthiest consumers.

And because the tax is levied per flight – instead of per mile flown or per kilogram of carbon dioxide emitted – it could also have the added benefit of encouraging travelers to take trains or other forms of transport to short-haul journeys. Consumers might try to “book” their plane tickets for longer trips, like transatlantic flights, where there really aren’t any good alternatives.

At the moment, the report is only an idea – not a full-fledged policy proposal. The International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, has just announced its long-term goal to eliminate fossil fuels from aviation, aiming to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. implementing a global tax would be difficult, to say the least; this would require international coordination and a centralized system to track passports and other forms of identification to count the number of times each person flies.

But Zheng says it shows a way forward that doesn’t rely on a complete halt to flights — and it doesn’t add to the burden on low-income citizens. Some countries have already considered similar policies: the UK, for example, has a flat tax for short and long-haul flights, but some climate groups have suggested that the tax be replaced by a tiered frequent flyer tax.

“If you wanted to fundraise for decarbonization, this is one way to do it,” Zheng said.

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