NEW research shows just 20 airports produced the equivalent CO2 emissions of 58 coal plants Launched today, the 2024 ‘Airport Tracker’ – an update to the first global inventory of CO2 and local air pollutants from passenger and freight flights – shows the scale of...
A multitude of measures have been discussed in the report Degrowth of Aviation. How do they fit together? What is necessary to bring them forward? Which actors are key in promoting them? Choosing a combination of measures must take into account cross-cutting concerns like social justice. The systemic change needed in order to avoid climate crisis is complicated but achievable step by step, when building a strong movement.
To reduce the negative impacts of aviation, we need to reduce aviation, that is, the amount of flights and planes. There is no alternative. As this report discusses, we have a wide range of measures to choose from for constructing the most effective strategy. They vary from fiscal measures, such as taxes and subsidies, to regulatory law, like absolute caps and bans. They can be either top-down or bottom-up strategies, but a combination would probably be most effective. Measures can include incentives that are negative (e.g. taxes on flying) or positive (e.g. inspiring more meaningful tourism and travelling). Fundamental to applying any of the measures is the importance of widespread communication about the need to reduce aviation.
Each measure has advantages and disadvantages in how easily it can be implemented, and to what extent it might help address wider systemic issues such as climate justice and transitioning to an ecologically sound mobility system. Some measures might work within the current system, while others might challenge it. If measures are only bottom-up and small-scale, without tackling the power and privileges of the aviation industry, they will not result in slowing down our current climate crisis. In formulating a strategy for degrowing aviation, one needs to think about how these measures can best be combined, how they can be brought forward, and by whom.
The role of fiscal measures
While flying is virtually tax free, other forms of transportation are subject to excise duty, value added tax, and other levies. Hence, a main argument for introducing fiscal measures is to counter the ongoing, massive indirect subsidising of the aviation sector. Conventional economic theory holds that taxation will decrease demand for a service. However, a much discussed question concerns how high aviation tax rates have to be to cause a significant decrease in flying. For example, levying a standard VAT (Value Added Tax) on kerosene could lead to an 18% reduction in CO2 emissions in Europe. A smaller tax would merely cancel out some of the (indirect) subsidies that the aviation industry receives, without having much impact on emissions reduction.
Market and price instruments have been the most favoured environmental instruments during the era of neoliberalism that started in the 1980s. From a social perspective, taxes on goods and services are often disfavoured because they apply equally to everyone—wealthy or poor. The wealthy can continue to consume, while the poor cannot. The frequent flyer levy (FFL) or the air miles levy (AML) attempt to address this social injustice, by making frequent or far flying progressively more expensive. Because lower income groups fly much less often, the FFL would mainly affect wealthier persons or companies that pay for work travel. This would be especially effective if the FFL or AML levy would increase for business or first class. For campaigning, it would be a key advantage. This suggests that the FFL or AML might be among the introductory measures of policies for shrinking the aviation sector, being much more socially acceptable than other policy proposals. Since the focus of the FFL is on the number of flights, rather than distance travelled, it favours people with a migration background who have families living far away and those wealthy enough, despite the levy, to continue taking many long-distance flights per year. Reducing the number of flights is also the key demand of communities impacted by noise around airports. The AML escalates with air miles travelled rather than simply the number of flights taken. It more effectively discourages long-haul flights, shifting travel to surface transport—or to shorter distance flights. It is more closely linked to emissions and falls more heavily on those polluting more. An additional idea related to taxation is that the revenues generated could be earmarked and redirected towards developing more sustainable modes of transportation. The revenues collected in countries of the Global North should also be used to support climate friendly alternatives in the Global South (see Info Box 2 on Climate Justice). Earmarking of taxes, however, is not common practice. Therefore, this part of a tax or levy policy might be more difficult, and in conflict with the legal system in some countries. Additionally, the aviation industry seeks to ‘ring-fence’ the revenues for its exclusive use, when tax or levy proposals are under consideration.
VAT, kerosene or ticket taxes, as well as a carbon tax, fit with current economic policy and the use of economic instruments, and could easily be implemented technically. Such taxes already exists in many countries. An advantage of ticket taxes is that they can be introduced at the national level without significant legal hurdles, and can be designed freely regarding rate, distance bands, and other features. A carbon tax would in theory apply to all fossil fuel use, while the other taxes would be specifically targeted towards aviation.
More generally, one disadvantage of a tax-based approach fundamentally ties in with the limits of market-based approaches and, as a result, fall short of offering a profound critique of systemic problems. Given the modest goal of any tax, it is not of utmost importance what kind of tax is introduced. The vital aim is that aviation is not given an unfair advantage over other transport modes. It should be feasible to receive support for levelling this competition. The FFL or AML would indeed tackle flying habits more than usual VAT, ticket or kerosene taxes, and should be applied in addition. Increasing the price for flying can by itself give a boost to alternative modes of transport, making them relatively cheaper. On the other hand, fiscal measures will not go far enough in terms of the needed emission reduction. Hence, to really have such an effect, it is necessary to also foster sustainable alternatives, and to implement regulatory measures like limits to the numbers of flight, moratoria on airport projects, shutting down certain airports, limiting air travel advertisements or other measures discussed in this report.
The role of absolute limits
Setting absolute limits on aviation is, in principle, the easiest and most secure way to guarantee that the aviation industry does its fair share for climate mitigation. Arguably, setting limits is also preferable from a fairness perspective as hard caps and bans affect all concerned parties equally, rich and poor alike. The main challenge is that implementing absolute environmental limits does not seem to be politically feasible currently, as straightforward regulation or limiting people’s freedom are generally opposed. However, impacts of climate change are now worsening at an increasing rate, meaning a social tipping point might be in the near future. Moves in recent years to attempt soft caps through taxation, offsetting or emissions trading (cap-and-trade schemes) are examples of reluctance to set absolute limits. They allow the possibility (for those wealthy enough) to buy themselves out of the commitment. Still, the idea of banning especially easy-to-substitute short-haul flights has gained support in recent years and should be pursued.
Limits are necessary for more than just the number of flights or their specific distances. Chapter 8 proposed banning frequent flyer programmes, low cost airlines, state funding for aviation and industry lobby in certain democratic institutions. Other regulatory measures might include limiting the amount or presentation of air travel advertising, or restricting the amount of available aviation fuel. In addition, we have to start limiting tourism, especially in areas heavily affected by it. Such limitations could be formed through regulating the construction of new hotels or through a tourist tax. Also, divestment campaigns demanding limits to fossil or aviation investment, or campaigning for uninsuring harmful industries are possible strategies.
A red line also needs to be put on airport expansions. Currently, 550 new airports or runways are planned or are being built around the world, plus runway expansions and new terminals etc.—all in all, more than 1200 infrastructure projects. Constructing new airports is the aviation industry’s surest way to secure its future growth. Effective resistance against airport projects can prevent ‘stranded investments’ in a hopefully soon outdated infrastructure. In some of these sites, local resistance is already large and organised. Making alliances with stakeholders like trade unions might be a challenging but necessary strategy here. An advantage of a moratoria on airport expansion is that it is a direct hard stop on the local problem and does not necessarily involve extensive national or international legislative processes in order to be established. Calling for regulations on flying can also support the struggle against an airport project, as well as demanding alternatives to aviation.
Developing sustainable alternatives to aviation
Boosting the use of alternatives to flying requires investing in expanding the network of long-distance inter-city train and bus routes, including larger numbers of and more comfortable night trains and buses. This does not necessarily mean building high-speed train lines, which should be avoided due to climate and environmental damage during construction, along with high operational energy use. Ferries should become an alternative to flying; however, they need to be modernised with vessels having renewable propulsion (wind, solar, batteries, etc.) and reopening closed routes should be considered.
The degrowth of the aviation industry will therefore combine with a certain growth in other climate-friendly sectors. Jobs will not be lost, but be directly transferred in a ‘Just Transition’. This requires negotiations and collaborative planning, and includes improvements in the quality of work, including a reduction of work hours. Privatisations should in most cases be replaced with climate-friendly local initiatives, public ownership and democratic accountability.
A maximal shift in patronage from flying to long-distance surface (and sea) transportation requires the establishment of integrated and user-friendly international booking systems and improved transfers between trains, buses and ferries. A decline in air freight is also necessary to help stabilise the climate. Successes in reducing air travel by any of the means discussed in this report will contribute to that decline by reducing the airlines’ aggregate belly-freight capacity. However, aviation is not only about transporting people, but also about transporting goods. Efforts to make economies more local for providing food and goods, ongoing in some places, need to be replicated elsewhere and will undercut some of the demand for air freight (as well as problematic sea shipments). Working for the relocalisation of economies is one way to challenge the massive international transportation of goods. Given the close links between the current fast mobility system and our current economic system based on constant growth, international free trade and globalised structures, such a measure will necessarily be viewed as problematic by those in favour of upholding the economic system in its current form. Military aviation is yet another aspect of aviation that must be addressed both due to its environmental impact and its humanitarian side.
The role of behavioural change
All the above mentioned strategies need to be combined with raising public awareness of the fact that aviation is the fastest way to fry the planet. Communicating the total impact of aviation, and including the climate effects additional to CO2 in different accounting is core for this (see chapter 8). For campaigning, language that uses metaphors, creates concrete pictures of problems or alternatives, and the ability to formulate new narratives and visions (see Info Box 4) are important tools for both seeking support for policy changes as well as incentivising individual behaviour change.
Seeking lifestyle changes by individuals that include less flying or even reducing one’s overall amount of travel is a campaign strategy already practiced by flight shame and flight free organisations. These campaigns challenge the aviation industry’s dominance by creating different narratives about travel and tourism. The aforementioned improvements to long-distance surface transportation, in addition to measures limiting aviation, are enablers of this shift in norms and practices.
Among the progressive narratives are, when possible, do not travel far if at all (e.g. stay local, use video conferencing); make fewer trips but with longer stays; enjoy the benefits and reduced stress of slow travel, as well as the opportunity (for a professional or student) to do productive work while en route. The need is to create a positive vision and desire for environmentally sound tourism and travelling.
Another campaign opportunity is behaviour change by organisations whose climate and environmental footprints include a large component from travel. The objective is getting them to adopt a progressive travel policy that leads substantially to travelling less and using the least impact mode of travel for each trip (even if the cost may be somewhat higher). Examples of such travel policies are already operative, and expectations for the content of a satisfactory plan should increase over time as societal travel norms shift for the better.
It is likely that for now only a few progressive organisations will adopt good travel policies. But these can be exploited as showcases, toward increasing acceptance of this new kind of thinking and practice. Collectively, voluntary behaviour changes by individuals and organisations can lead to a stampede of others making similar changes and eventually to the feasibility of achieving systemic changes that greatly diminish the aviation industry. For climate activists, campaigners and scientists, or people struggling against airport expansion, it is also necessary to stay grounded in order to be coherent and credible.
Only opting for campaigns targeting individuals or institutions to change their consumption are not enough—they need to be combined with the push for the structural changes mentioned above. The Let’s Stay Grounded Campaign! is aiming to do just that.
Incorporating social justice
The report suggested ways for taking social justice into account in campaigns for reducing aviation. It is vital that climate mitigations do not harm or burden the already vulnerable groups in society, for example through unfair taxation or through destructive projects (e.g. biofuels plantations that put food security of poor people at risk). Some measures discussed in this report, like the FFL or AML, specifically address the topic of social justice, while other measures have a more indirect impact. Fiscal measures could create revenues to achieve more climate justice, including financial payments from countries of the Global North for liability and redress. At the same time, none of the measures discussed in this report will, alone or in combination, lead to social justice. Unequal distribution of wealth and power has to be tackled by other means, such as directly taxing the wealth.
One of the unresolved issues is how to take into account the needs of migrants. While migrants may desire to see family on other continents regularly, the relevant question in this era of climate crisis is to what extent it is reasonable to accommodate this special need. The dilemma cannot be ignored that forced migration will also most likely skyrocket with worsening climate catastrophe. Further, most refugees currently are excluded from taking flights because of exclusive visa and border regulations, and economic status. When discussing this topic, we also need to keep in mind the global injustice of the climate crisis at large. Still, the Frequent Flyer Levy is a measure that could allow regular visits to family living far away. Other strategies include contingents for every person, higher contingents for those with close family in other continents, or the possibility for applying for urgency-flights might be possibilities to explore for the future.
Strategy, actors and systemic change
Aviation is closely linked with our transport system, with tourism, energy and global trade, and with our economic system based on constant growth and competition. Fast mobility is a key element of globalised capitalism, yet the faster the mode of transportation, the more climate-harmful it is. Climate justice can only be achieved by challenging this model, by reorganising mobility, regionalising the economy, and overcoming global inequity. This sometimes seems too big of a task – but step by step, with many different civil society actors, social tipping points are possible.
Until recently, flying was not viewed as a problem. However, in 2018 and 2019 a shift in the debate began in Europe and other parts of the world, due to the Fridays for Future movement, the Flying Shame debate, the Stay Grounded network, and rising media attention to the issue. In aYouGov poll, conducted in the United Kingdom in August 2019, two thirds of those interviewed said that air travel should “definitely” or “probably” be limited to handle the climate crisis. Scientists, decision-makers and public figures are starting to raise the issue—even though problematic measures like offsetting, biofuels or beliefs in technological miracles still hold and shift away attention from the needed reduction.
When reviewing the various measures outlined in this report, we see that they complement one another. Hence, working to implement a fiscal tax, while also calling for regulation of aviation activity as well as promoting alternatives makes sense. However, campaigns usually require focus and concrete demands, especially if brought forward by only a few stakeholders. Not everything can be done at the same time. It is important to choose demands and strategy carefully, while also allowing others to have their strategies, but also to keep the overall vision in mind when communicating about the specific case. This report, for example, recommends that we do not discuss ‘green’ or ‘decarbonised’ aviation, but a needed reduction of flights. It also makes a strong case for continually checking the proposed measure for its social justice implications.
The measures promoted in this report to reduce aviation are in line with those of the wider social movements for systemic change, including airport resistance groups, environmental NGOs, the tax justice movement, the climate/environmental justice movements, land and indigenous rights movements, and the degrowth movement. Additionally, reaching out to new alliances might be necessary: trade unions demanding a just transition; migrant organisations; human rights organisations; doctors calling for fine dust regulations, or others.
Tactics can range from raising awareness to organising affected residents of airport noise; effective media work (social media, press, adbusting, etc.) and working together with critical journalists in order to change discourses; looking for allies in policy making institutions; direct action and civil disobedience; creative, funny or artistic initiatives; lawsuits; petitions and more. When the movement becomes strong enough to challenge corporate interests, repressive tactics can be expected from the industry, as well as attempts to divide the movement. Special attention needs to be paid to not allow splits in the movement for climate justice and aviation reduction, but to respect different tactics or campaign focuses, and exchange experiences. Building solidarity through networking is key to bringing about the systemic change needed.