Airlines have enjoyed a free ride for too long – it’s time they paid the price for their role in climate destruction

The climate column: Rules on taxing flights haven’t been updated since the Second World War, but now the climate crisis is a greater threat than fascism and we need to act now

Donnachadh McCarthy
Wednesday 22 July 2020 11:57 BST
Bookings are likely to be consolidated this summer
Bookings are likely to be consolidated this summer

Ever wondered why in the middle of a devastating climate emergency, despite flying being one of the most destructive climate actions people might take in any given year, aviation fuel is totally tax free?

The answer is partly an obscure treaty, signed in 1944, at the height of the Second World War. The Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation banned domestic taxes on international aviation fuels that were on board planes arriving in other states. This ban was then expanded by the thousands of bilateral aviation agreements between states across the world, to apply to all fuels taken on board for international flights.

Not only is it tax free but the industry also gets a shocking free ride when it comes to carbon emissions. Inexplicably, international flight emissions are legally excluded from being counted in countries’ official carbon emission totals. For example, international flights emit 93 per cent of all UK flight emissions but all of these are excluded from the government’s 2050 zero carbon target. Domestic flights, which are included, make up only a tiny 4 per cent of the total.

This makes a mockery of the enormous investment to reduce domestic aviation emissions being made by the HS2 high-speed railway line, which is estimated to cost as much as £110bn.

That money could more than pay for the insulation upgrade needed by the UK’s social housing and would eliminate fuel poverty within a generation, reducing far more carbon emissions.

Total UK aviation emissions in 2018 were 39.3 million tons. This is up 129 per cent since 1990, during the time we were supposed to be cutting our national emissions. International flights emitted 36.7 million tons of these, and domestic flights 1.5 million. The UK military air force emits 1.1 million tons annually, which equates to more than two-thirds of all domestic flight emissions.

But it gets worse. As planes fly at high altitudes, their emissions have a greater global warming impact than if emitted at ground level. Some estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) put this radiative forcing – the difference between sunlight absorbed by the Earth and energy radiated back to space – as high as two to four times that of just the carbon emissions alone. For the UK, this would mean that the carbon equivalent of international aviation emissions could be as high as 146 million tons. This would equate to nearly a third of all annual UK domestic carbon emissions, which are 451 million tons.

More Britons fly abroad than any other nationality. We take over 8 per cent of all global flights despite being less than 1 per cent of the global population. A staggering 292 million UK flights are taken each year, and shockingly just 1 per cent of English residents are responsible for nearly a fifth of all flights abroad.

If we could just ensure that the top 1 per cent took just one flight per year, we would, at a stroke, remove the need to waste billions on the current UK-wide programme of climatically suicidal airport expansions.

We need to do three things. We need to drastically reduce unnecessary flights and really speed up research into zero carbon flights. One way of doing this would be to amend the Chicago Convention and introduce an international aviation fuel tax. The UK government sits on the board of the ICOA, the UN body that oversees the implementation of the Chicago Convention. Its assembly next meets in 2022.

The UK should propose at that assembly the introduction of an international tax on aviation fuel, which could fund an ICOA-led global research effort into zero-carbon flying and help fund the huge investments needed by developing countries to protect their populations from the increasingly lethal impacts of the climate crisis.

The tax would also encourage the reduction in unnecessary flights. The next ICOA assembly also needs to agree to a moratorium on the expansion of any airports in the developed world, until we manage to develop truly sustainable zero-carbon aviation technology.

In the UK the fairest way to reduce our enormous international flight emissions would be the introduction of an aviation carbon credit card. Each year, every person in the UK would be allocated a ration of carbon for personal flights, based on the required phased reduction of total UK international flight emissions over five years.

Those who do not want to use their rations could sell them to those who would need to take long-haul flights, with their extra-large emissions, or who need them for urgent visits to family members abroad.

The Chicago Convention was created in the middle of the Second World War. The climate emergency is a greater threat than that posed by fascism. We, therefore, need to act accordingly and urgently update the wartime convention internationally and introduce flight carbon rationing domestically.

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