Here’s how a frequent flyer tax could help cut airline emissions

Steven Feather (Tubblesnap) / WIRED

Romantic city breaks in Europe; weeks exploring the beaches of Bali; ski trips to the French Alps, or winter retreats in equatorial sun: for some Brits, jumping on a plane multiple times a year is an unquestioned way of life. But this behaviour is less commonplace than you might think. In fact, a tiny 15 per cent of the UK’s population take 70 per cent of all flights. By contrast, 56 per cent of the population didn’t take a single flight in the year 2012.

“There’s a very big imbalance in terms of where aviation emissions are coming from,” says Richard Carmichael, research associate at Imperial College London’s Centre for Environmental Policy. “It’s not evenly distributed across the population.” A new report commissioned by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) and written by Carmichael, calls for novel measures to curb flying: scrapping frequent flyer programmes and introducing a levy on air miles for the biggest offenders.

At present, the aviation industry accounts for around two per cent of CO2 emissions globally, but this figure is rising 70 per cent faster than predicted, and flying is estimated to become the biggest source of greenhouse gases by 2050 – the year by which the UK has legally committed to achieving carbon neutrality. The reason? While you can take the carbon out of almost everything else – from electric cars to offshore wind farms and solar-powered cities – planes still need fossil fuels to fly. Lots of fossil fuels.

According to the CCC’s modelled scenarios, demand for flights in the UK could increase by 25 per cent and still permit the country to achieve net zero in 2050. This is based on predictions that other sector’s emissions will contract over the coming years. However, if flight demand increases by more than this, the UK will miss this crucial target.

It doesn’t bode well that current predictions put the likely growth much higher than this. It’s forecast that the number of long haul flights taken each year will increase by between 70 and 127 per cent up from 2016 levels. As we reach a critical juncture for the world’s climate, is clamping down on frequent flyers really enough to make a dent in the airline industry’s carbon problem?

The report recommends axing frequent flier programmes on the basis that they incentivise people to fly more. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Transport Geography corroborates this, finding that frequent flyers jump on additional flights simply to maintain their privileged status – what are known as ‘mileage runs’. However, it’s hard to quantify just how much carbon frequent flyer programmes might contribute to the atmosphere, given that the airline industry is tight-lipped about the details of these programmes.

“It’s a kind of black box that airlines are very protective of,” says Scott Cohen, professor of tourism and transport at the University of Surrey. Were the information to be released, it might shock us. “The most frequent flyers can have carbon footprints in the order of thousands of times higher than people who are largely immobile in terms of transport,” he adds.

A spokesperson for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said that the organisation didn’t support the proposal to ditch these programmes. It’s not hard to imagine why. For airlines, frequent flier programmes are a money spinner of dizzying proportions. A 2018 analyst report by Joseph DeNardi at the independent investment bank Stifel studied reports for seven US airlines and found that ‘marketing revenue’ (which covers frequent flyer programmes) made up a large proportion of overall revenue and was steadily increasing. This is partly explained by big banks buying miles and offering them to customers in the form of points.

The report’s other key recommendation is introducing an air miles levy that travellers would have to pay after clocking up a certain distance in flights. The report suggests that a levy be based on a three to four year cycle, providing some flexibility for flyers who need to take long haul flights. It also suggested that the period be calculated from the flyer’s birthday rather than the calendar year, to prevent everyone trying to cram in their flight allowance at the end of the year.

How would this work in practice? It would create the need for a central database where profiles linked to our passports would track the number of miles each of us had flown. Carmichael’s report didn’t propose a certain threshold for introducing the tax, saying that price modelling programmes would be required to calculate the appropriate level and how to progressively tax it. However, the UK’s Green Party has proposed that passengers be given an allowance of just one tax-free flight. The report proposes that the money raised would be directed towards environmentally beneficial projects like renewable energy.

Carmichael says that it’s difficult to estimate what impact the report’s twin recommendations would have, because implementations affecting consumer demand are hard to quantify. The intention, however, is that the proposed policy would be to encourage people to switch from long-haul to short-haul destinations, and from short-haul to rail. “For example, a journey from London to Sydney creates between 15 and 30 times more in emissions than flying from London to Barcelona,” he points out. Other recommendations in the report support this behaviour change – such as reducing rail fares to stimulate customer interest in train travel.

Are there any other ideas on the table? A flat tax on airline fuel has been suggested in the past, but Carmichael points out that this would likely lead to airlines increasing the cost of flights across the board, making it more expensive for everyone to travel. The air miles levy, on the other hand, wouldn’t penalise low income families going on one short-haul trip a year.

But the report acknowledges that a broader change in our attitudes towards flying is required. This includes the commonly held perception that flying is a cheap and inconsequential activity. The report notes research that found up to 60 per cent of the demand for budget airlines may be stimulated by low prices.

“Increasingly, it’s not about the major sites to see in cities in Europe, it’s about what bar you should drink at, or what nightclub you should visit if you have 24 hours in Berlin,” says Cohen. He says this cements the perception of flying abroad as a mundane, rather than extraordinary activity. “It’s like, ‘Rather than drink in your own town, you can go drink in this city’,” he says. To help address these kinds of attitudes, the report calls for specifying the carbon cost of each flight on adverts, to overtly convey the environmental cost. Although low carbon options are now specified on flight comparison sites like Skyscanner, airlines aren’t compelled to specify the volume of carbon emissions associated with a particular flight path.

But, perhaps unsurprisingly the airline industry is more interested in finding alternatives options like less polluting aircraft and more sustainable fuels. “Crude measures such as increasing the taxes on passengers are not the most efficient or effective methods for tackling climate change,” says a spokesperson for the IATA. “Rather than reducing flights, it probably means passengers make reductions in spending elsewhere in the economy.” But despite reluctance in the industry, consumers are likely to be more receptive. Carmichael’s report found that twice as many people agree that a frequent flyer levy is fairer than the current situation than do not.

Instead of cutting frequent flyer programmes, the IATA supports the CORSIA carbon offsetting scheme established in partnership with the UN. At present, this involves commercial airlines voluntarily reporting their emissions annually, but will eventually force airlines to buy carbon offsets for international flights. The desired CO2 output from aviation will be tethered to the 2020 baseline, and any emissions above this will have to be purchased. These fees will then be invested in renewable energy or reforestation activities.

The scheme will be piloted in 2021, before being rolled out in 2024. But while the intention is to cap net carbon emissions, an additional tax might not necessarily reduce the number of flights airlines offer, or the consumer’s desire to fly. There are concerns that this measure won’t have the desired effect of reducing emissions, and merely freeze them instead. A solution that suits everyone will likely be impossible to find: both airline companies and travellers need to prepare for some pain if we can hope to tame our appetite for flight.

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