Flying may go from glamorous to scandalous, with the highest level of awareness about climate and carbon
“Flying has gone from glamorous to scandalous, and the industry is scrambling to prop up its fading popularity.” Might aviation soon become something that people are slightly embarrassed about, and mildly ashamed? The level of public anxiety is increasing, about rising CO2 emissions, and the highly damaging impact on people’s lives (even in rich countries like the UK), within the next few decades. That is in the lifetimes of those alive now. Not at some far off future date. Across Europe, campaigns to reduce air travel emissions are gaining traction. Violeta Bulc, European commissioner for transport, said: “In the future, I expect the aviation industry’s license for growth to be linked directly to perceptions of sustainability”. There is little sign of awareness reducing the numbers flying, in the UK – but there is a perceptible change in attitude, by a lot of people. “Politico” says: “A succession of European governments — left and right alike — are mulling aviation taxes, an end to traditionally heavy subsidies, and are reconsidering airport expansion plans. Airlines are on the defensive. Even as they look forward to transporting ever more passengers — carriers worry that the protests could prompt government intervention and jeopardize those projections.”
The popular revolt against flying
Flying has gone from glamorous to scandalous, and the industry is scrambling to prop up its fading popularity.
By SAIM SAEED (Politico)
11th June 2019
This article is part of a special report called Aviation’s Climate Challenge.
Europe’s airlines have a new problem — their customers.
Decades ago flying was reserved for the glamorous few, then it became a mass market for cheap tourism. Now the aviation industry is in danger of joining the ranks of cigarette makers and plastics producers in the business hall of shame.
That’s due to something most passengers ignored until only a few years ago — the industry’s growing carbon footprint. But now it’s a problem in a world where worry over global warming is shooting to the top of political and social concerns.
Across Europe, campaigns to reduce air travel emissions are gaining traction. The sources of the criticism vary widely. In Sweden, where climate activist Greta Thunberg’s decision to abstain from flying has pushed the issue into the spotlight. In France, where Yellow Jacket protesters have called for taxing airline fuel instead of their cars’ gasoline.
“In the future, I expect the aviation industry’s license for growth to be linked directly to perceptions of sustainability” — Violeta Bulc, European commissioner for transport
“A kind of top-down-bottom-up fight is brewing,” said Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund. “And I’m not sure how it will play out.”
So far it’s more hot air than action. Aside from what may be a temporary blip in Swedish air travel, people may be talking a good game when it comes to aviation and climate change, but continued growth in most markets shows they haven’t yet given up on flying.
But politicians — traditionally airline industry boosters — have noticed the change in attitude.
“In the future, I expect the aviation industry’s license for growth to be linked directly to perceptions of sustainability,” European Commissioner for Transport Violeta Bulc told airline CEOs at a summit in Korea earlier this month.
European Commissioner for Transport Violeta Bulc | Stephanie LeCocq/EPA-EFE
A succession of European governments — left and right alike — are mulling aviation taxes, an end to traditionally heavy subsidies, and are reconsidering airport expansion plans.
Airlines are on the defensive. Even as they look forward to transporting ever more passengers — with airlines like Ryanair posting double-digit growth in traffic — carriers worry that the protests could prompt government intervention and jeopardize those projections.
The Swedes have a word for it
Swedes have a word — flygskam, or flight shame — for the guilty feeling of boarding a plane, knowing the flight damages the environment.
“Unchallenged, this sentiment will grow and spread,” Alexandre de Juniac, chief of global airline lobby International Air Transport Association (IATA), told the Korean summit. “Along with reducing emissions, we must collectively engage and tell our story more effectively.”
Ryanair, the Continent’s second-largest airline, is already feeling the hot breath of climate campaigners on its back. A ranking by NGO Transport & Environment puts the airline as one of the top 10 polluters in Europe, in the company of nine coal-fired power plants.
In reaction, Ryanair is now publishing monthly figures on its carbon dioxide emissions — the first European airline to do so. Ryanair’s pitch aims to combat flight shame, arguing that its passengers average less emissions per kilometer compared to the airline’s peers given the company’s efficient fleet.
According to the NGO Transport and Environment, Ryanair is one of the top 10 polluters in Europe | Toms Kalnins/EPA
“Ryanair is Europe’s greenest/cleanest airline,” Ryanair’s chief marketing officer, Kenny Jacobs, said in a statement.
For now, the first country to feel the sting of flight shaming is Sweden, where the aviation industry contracted by 5 percent so far this year — a change blamed in part on shifting attitudes toward flying.
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has made airplane pollution a focus of her widely-publicized, youth-led campaign, traveling only by rail during her barnstorm of Europe, a habit she encourages others to copy. Online, hashtag campaigns like #jagstannarpåmarken and #tagskryt, and their English versions #stayontheground and #trainbragging, are growing on Twitter and Instagram.
But it may be a blip. A forecast by Eurocontrol sees Sweden’s air traffic rising by 1.9 percent this year and by 2 percent in 2020.
Policymakers change tack
The industry’s PR effort may not be enough to dissuade politicians from taking a harder look at how aviation is taxed. In March, the Belgian government backed a Dutch proposal for an EU-wide tax on aviation.
“It’s not sustainable that we fly for a weekend with some friends all around Europe when we could do it with the train,” said Dutch Secretary of State for Finance Menno Snel.
Clamor for an aviation tax has spread to the European Parliament; all major candidates for the European Commission presidency pledged support for the idea.
“The privileging of the airline business must be stopped,” center-right European People’s Party candidate Manfred Weber said during a campaign debate in May.
“Why is there still no tax on kerosene?” Socialist lead candidate Frans Timmermans asked in another pre-election debate. “That’s crazy.”
“The #ClimateEmergency places a responsibility on us to cut emissions faster” — Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish first minister
And even if politicians balk at making airlines pay more, citizens could force their hand. In April, the Commission registered a European Citizens’ Initiative for an EU-wide aviation tax. It needs 1 million signatures by May 2020 to compel the Commission to act.
That pressure is already visible in France. The Yellow Jackets, who have vehemently protested the French government’s proposed hike on petrol claiming it unfairly targets the working class, have decried the lack of taxes on jet fuel and no VAT on air tickets. They, too, have called for an aviation tax.
Pais has noticed. French President Emmanuel Macron began his tenure promising to make its aviation industry more competitive. Last year, the government cut the air tax from €1.30 to 90 cents per ticket. But the protests have forced a change in tone.
“I want to warn you,” Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne told French aviation industry officials in March, “what is being expressed in this country [are calls] not to support the competitiveness of air transport.” France backs the EU-wide air tax, and Macron’s party campaigned for it during the European election.
A similar shift is taking place in Scotland, where First Minister Nicola Sturgeon reversed her government’s pledge to cut the Air Departure Tax — the U.K.’s ticket tax — as a response to what she called was a “climate emergency.”
Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland | Jack TaylorGetty Images
“The #ClimateEmergency places a responsibility on us to cut emissions faster,” Sturgeon said.
The Scottish government is also reconsidering its support for a new runway for Heathrow airport — part of a broader international rethink on the need to upgrade airport infrastructure.
Many airlines believe the tax proposal will hurt them. They “increase the cost of travel and reduce connectivity,” argues Airlines For Europe, the lobby representing Europe’s largest air carriers.
Some public officials agree. “Tax is punishment,” said Henrik Hololei, director general of the Commission’s Mobility and Transport department. An air tax “will not lower emissions in the long run.”
Aviation’s carbon footprint has grown by 20 percent in Europe since 2005, and continues to increase at an average of 4 percent annually. It currently accounts for about 2.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. If it were a country, aviation would be the sixth-largest carbon polluter in the world, eclipsing Germany.
Both the industry and policymakers are aware of the need to do something. IATA has pledged to cut emissions to 50 percent of their 2005 level by 2050.
Flights within the EU are already part of the bloc’s Emissions Trading System, a mechanism by which emissions are capped and carbon allowances are traded among companies. And while the program has slowed the rise in aviation emissions, it hasn’t stopped that growth, and efforts to make it apply to non-EU flights have failed.
The U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization is finalizing a worldwide scheme called Corsia to curb emissions, which would cap emissions at 2020 levels and require airlines to pay for programs to remove any additional emissions over that level from the atmosphere. But there are complaints it isn’t as stringent as the ETS, and participation until 2026 is voluntary.
“Growth for the sake of growth cannot be an objective in itself. Aviation has externalities that cannot be overlooked” — Violeta Bulc
In the face of surging demand, those regulatory efforts are unlikely to choke off emissions growth.
There is also no technological rescue on the horizon.
While today’s airplanes are significantly more efficient than in the past — using 24 percent less fuel than in 2005, according to a European Aviation Safety Agency report — overall emissions from European aviation have risen by 16 percent over the same period. The culprit? A 60 percent increase in passenger kilometers flown.
“Growth for the sake of growth cannot be an objective in itself,” Bulc wrote in the report. “Aviation has externalities that cannot be overlooked.”
Ideas like alternative fuels, electric engines and radical airplane redesigns are far in the future.
Fear of flying
That leaves one sure way of cutting aviation emissions — flying less. It’s an idea that keeps aviation industry executives up at night.
Airbus Chief Technology Officer Grazia Vittadini argued that people still need to travel. “We’re working hard on teleportation but it hasn’t happened yet,” she said at an event in Brussels in April. She pointed to the high demand for new airplanes, with Airbus’ projections showing at least 37,000 additional airplanes will take to the skies by 2040.
In an effort to undercut the appeal of flight shaming, Vittadini argued that less flying would impact world peace. “Connecting people is something which should not be underestimated. When it comes to awareness of each other’s differences, to have a world that is more inclusive and open,” she said. “I would not want to take that away.”
But Sweden excepted, the protests have so far not translated into emptier airports. Ryanair’s traffic numbers for May grew by 13 percent year-on-year. For April, Lufthansa’s grew by 3 percent and Air France-KLM by 9 percent. On average, Europe’s air traffic grew by 3 percent last year, and by 2 percent so far this year.
“Talk about mixed messages,” said aviation consultant Andrew Charlton.
This article is part of a special report called Aviation’s Climate Challenge.
Airlines increasingly worried about polluter stigma as “flygskam” -“flight shame” – movement grows
A Swedish-born anti-flying movement is creating a new vocabulary, from “flygskam” which translates as “flight shame” to “tågskryt,” or “train brag.” Many Swedes have stopped flying. There are similar movements in some other European countries. An activist in this movement, Susanna Elfors in Stockholm says membership on her Facebook group Tagsemester, or “Train Holiday,” has reached some 90,000 members – up from around 3,000 around the end of 2017. She said: “Before, it was rather taboo to discuss train travel due to climate concerns. Now it’s possible to talk about this on a lunch break … and everybody understands.” People who do not fly are no longer seen as so odd. It is not seen as such a peculiar sacrifice. But the “Flygskam” movement is worrying the aviation industry. At the ATA conference in Seoul, the head of IATA said: “Unchallenged, this sentiment will grow and spread.” That would seriously damage profits. It must be stopped (obviously). The sector wants to get the public to believe it is not a major polluter, and it doing everything possible to emit less carbon. Trouble is, there are no magic fuels on the horizon, and though efficiency gains of 1-2% per year can be made, the sector entirely cancels these out by expansion of 4-5% per year.
Might rationing the amount people fly be the only fair way to restrict use of air travel?
Chief Leader writer at the Observer, Sonia Sodha writes about how she almost cares about climate change, but not enough to give up flying or eating meat etc. A common attitude. She writes, on the measures needed: “It’s naive to think that we can achieve these sorts of lifestyle shifts by imploring people to do more. I already know we’re fast approaching a catastrophic climate tipping point and yet I’m just not very good at forgoing a steak, particularly when I know plenty of others won’t be either.” Green taxes, (or sin taxes) tend to “hit the least affluent hardest. It’s people on low incomes who are most sensitive to marginal increases in the cost of their food and flights.” … “I need someone to force me to take my carbon footprint more seriously.” …“Rationing to tackle the climate crisis could be given a modern-day makeover. People could be allocated polluting credits to cover activities such as meat eating and flying that they can sell and buy in an online marketplace. If you’re short of cash, or not that bothered about eating meat or flying abroad, you can …sell your credits to someone who is, which makes this far more equitable than green taxes.” it’s surely an idea whose time has come.