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How to reduce the increasing environmental footprint of aviation

Written by Franca Hoffmann

Long Read

Although the aviation industry emphasizes that aviation is only responsible for around 2.5% of global CO2 emissions (Chèze et al., 2012) there is no denial around the fact that the emissions of this sector have risen by 38% in five years (from 2013 to 2018).  This makes its growth rate 70% higher than predicted by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) (Graver et al., 2019). To effectively measure the total climate impact of aviation, one also needs to include the non-CO2 effects such as H2O and NOx emissions and contrail cirrus (Scheelhase, 2014). This makes the share of aviation in global climate impacts around 5% (Chèze et al., 2012) and with other sectors decarbonising more rapidly, it could make up around a quarter of emissions in 2050 (Graver et al., 2019). Thus, decarbonising this sector will be crucial in the coming years and decades. 

We will therefore have a look at the different policy instruments that have already been applied to reduce the impacts of aviation, discussing why these are not enough to stay below 2° or even 1.5° of global warming and which policies are instead needed to achieve this. We will concentrate on price-based and rights-based Market Instruments (MBIs) as well as voluntary action by individuals and businesses. Their efficacy and efficiency, social, political and economic acceptability and therefore the feasibility of their uptake (if not already in place) will be compared throughout the article. Furthermore, the focus will be on the equitability of such measures since aviation is a highly unequal emissions sector: 70% of flights in the UK are taken by only 15%. Contrastingly, 90% of the world’s population has never taken a flight (Scott, 2012).

The background to why such an increase of air traffic is and has been possible is largely due to the fact that international aviation has never been taxed ( neither the fuel e.g. in form of a kerosene tax, nor the tickets e.g. VAT) (Strand, 2010). Therefore, aviation is heavily subsidized by governments (Devlin and Bernick, 2015). The reason that this is not changing is mainly the fear of economic losses, for instance in sectors like tourism and business (Strand, 2010). Due to the lack of large-scale international taxation it is estimated that 30-40 billion € of state revenue are lost every year in the EU alone (Korteland and Faber, 2013). The two large-scale measures that have been put in place to counter emissions from aviation are the inclusion of aviation into the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) in 2012 and the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA).

The ETS is a rights-based market instrument, which comes into effect for intra-EEA flight capping emissions at 95% of historical emissions (Ares, 2012). It could therefore be described as a mixed instrument of MBI and command-and-control instrument. Faber and Brinke (2011) point out that its impact on demand is small and therefore not effective enough, since demand-side management is seen as the only effective measure to reduce emissions from aviation (Smith, 2019). Technological advances, for example, are not (yet) elaborated enough to result in the high emission reductions needed in the near future (Larsson et al., 2019). The ETS furthermore only includes intra-EEA flights, i.e. is not global, and with the EU accounting for just above one quarter of global air traffic (ICAO, n.d.), this is estimated to be too weak to be effective (Larsson et al., 2019). Furthermore, the ETS and CORSIA schemes do not include non-carbon emissions, which makes them even less effective (Larsson et al., 2019).

But, there are alternative market-based instruments such as different types of taxes. These could be more effective, given they are implemented at the largest scale possible and include non-CO2 emissions. The first is a kerosene tax, which could reduce emissions by around 11% if set at an appropriate level, e.g. 0.33€/l (Korteland and Faber, 2013). The second would be a VAT which, only taxing the final consumer, is especially suitable to create revenues (Strand, 2010). This could (if set at 19%) result in an 18% decrease of emissions (Korteland and Faber, 2013). These taxes would generate between 17 and 30 billion € of revenues worldwide (Korteland and Faber, 2013) and could be used to improve the rail network or alleviate economic losses in regions that might lose income from tourism (Smith, 2019). One of the disadvantages of these types of taxation is that they could further exacerbate the huge distributional inequalities of the aviation sector by disproportionately affecting those of a lower income who already take fewer flights. Therefore, different models such as a Frequent Flyer Levy (FFL) or Air Miles Levy (AML) have been proposed (Smith, 2019). These taxes are designed to increase in alignment with number of flights taken per year (Devlin and Bernick, 2015) or number of miles travelled by plane (Smith, 2019). This could, if set at an appropriate level, not only tackle the projected increase in air travel demand but also be more socially just by leading to a more equitable air travel system (Smith, 2019). They could also meet a higher acceptance among the public and therefore be more politically feasible (Smith, 2019).

The obstacles to impose taxes for aviation are the lack of powerful international institutions to implement these as well as a large resistance from the aviation industry (Smith, 2019). IATA (2019b), for example, states that taxation would lead to negative economic and even environmental consequences because of decreased funds for airlines to investigate in cleaner aviation. However, regarding the unlikeliness of effective technological solutions in the near future combined with the more and more pressing threat of climate change, this can be criticized. Most of the relevant independent literature does suggest MBIs to be the most effective option to curb aviation demand and therefore emissions.

Regarding voluntary action, the most common effort among individuals is carbon offsetting. This means compensating CO2 emissions of flying by investing in projects that remove the same amount elsewhere, e.g. through clean energy or afforestation (WWF, 2006). However, the effects of carbon offsetting are hugely controversial as pointed out in a joint statement by Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and WWF-UK (2006). Not only does it not achieve net reductions in emissions, but it can also serve both, individuals and companies, as an “easy way out” (WWF, 2006, p.1). It could furthermore promote business as usual and eventually even lead to an increase in emissions (WWF, 2006). In addition, these schemes often lack transparency, e.g. around the issue how the money is used. Reportedly, only 30% of offset money reaches the target project (Kahya, 2009).

The publics awareness concerning the environmental impacts of aviation is one of the factors leading to individual behaviour change. It is essential for reducing air travel and making policies publicly accepted. The Flight-shaming (Flygskam) movement, which originated in Sweden (Hervey-Bathurst, 2019), is an example of how effective and efficient a combination of voluntary action and information-based policy instruments can be. In the past 7 months Sweden reported a decline in passenger numbers of  6 % while train travels increased (Hervey-Bathurst, 2019). Although Flygskam is definitely not the only factor contributing to this and further research is needed to explore a causal relationship linked to the decline, public movements like this or the Flight Free 2020 campaign ( see We stay on the Ground, 2020) are certainly needed to achieve a paradigm shift and help change the perception of the public towards flying or environmental problems more generally.

Voluntary action can also be observed at business level. Most of this again concentrates on offsetting. Easyjet, for example, announced on the 19th of November 2019 that from that day, they would be the first airline to offset all flights (Easyjet, 2019). This is supposed to contribute to their technological roadmap to carbon neutrality (Easyjet, 2019). With one of their initiatives being to gain a green reputation, they aim for a 50 % CO2 reduction between 2035 and 2050 and up to 100 % until 2050 through electrified planes (Easyjet, 2019). This is not an individual case but other airlines have followed suit, e.g. British Airways offsetting domestic flights from 2020 (Ambrose, 2019). While this is a positive trend towards businesses wanting to become more sustainable, its effectiveness is compromised by concentrating on technological changes and offsetting. Ultimately, it does not offer an effective, long-term solution to the climate crisis (Ambrose, 2019).

One of the key international programmes for mitigating climate change impacts of aviation is CORSIA, IATA’s main strategy to reduce emissions. It equally has the emphasis on offsetting and technological solutions to achieve carbon neutral growth from 2020 (IATA, 2019a). Being based on an offset market with voluntary participation until 2027, it does not either constitute a sufficient measure for effective climate protection. Other companies like Lush or the Danish newspaper Politiken have taken a different approach to encourage employees to fly lees by  promoting alternative forms of travel. These include giving incentives for choosing the train over flying or reducing the need to fly overall, e.g. through video conferences (Smith, 2019; Kugoth, 2019). BBC Worldwide prohibited to take domestic or other short-haul flights, i.e. on trajectories that would be only up to 3 hours longer by train (The Guardian, 2009). This can lead to more broad-scale changes than individual behaviour change and therefore be more effective. But overall the impact is still marginal and due to the lack of obligation and oftentimes transparency, there is not enough pressure to achieve improvements on a larger scale (Kugoth, 2019).

Putting this together, some general tendencies can be observed. Similarities between Voluntary Action and MBIs include that they are both relatively cost-efficient and, depending on the type of MBI, have a mostly realistic and feasible uptake. The main advantages of MBIs consist of achieving a higher effectiveness faster and on a wider scale. Additionally, it generates a high amount of revenue for re-investment and continual improvement. To be able to achieve the scale of change, MBIs (e.g. taxes) have to be set at a high level in combination with making alternatives more attractive, for example through rail improvements. Furthermore, to improve the equitability of the current air travel system on a national and global scale, measures would need to include a mechanism that increases the price based on the amount of flights taken by an individual. 

The advantages of VA over MBIs, in contrast, are their availability and easy uptake, the wide acceptance and decreased controversy and that both corporations and individuals can learn from each other and encourage continual improvement. Nevertheless, they lack greater effectiveness and some types might work better with incentives or sanctions to increase compliance. The often-mentioned carbon offsetting, used widely both in MBIs and VAs, furthermore lacks credibility and is set to become an excuse for business-as-usual. This would have detrimental consequences regarding the scale of emission reductions needed.

Obstacles to effectively implement policies can be summarised as the pressure of the aviation industry, a growing demand of air travel and large inequalities within this sector. To address this, a mix of voluntary action and economic instruments might be most effective, seeing that effective command-and-control regulations, e.g. absolute limits to emissions from air traffic, are not seen to be feasible politically or economically at the moment (Smith, 2019). Large-scale changes are definitely needed, given that current policies are hugely underperforming despite the growing share of the aviation sector on greenhouse gas emissions. 



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Franca Hoffmann

Sustainability and Environmental Management