For a EU-wide tax on air travel to fight climate change

Updated: Apr 2, 2019

The European Union should institute high taxation on air travel in all member states.

Ingrid Robeyns argues that right now, air travel companies are grossly and unfairly advantaged over firms that offer transportation via other means (e.g. trains, buses) since there is no tax on the kerosene used by airplanes. This makes it very hard for other means of transportation to compete with airplanes. This is especially problematic in connection with the emission of greenhouse gases by airplanes. Also, under the status quo, airline passengers do not pay for the damage they cause by emitting greenhouse gases. Since it is widely believed that polluters (and not other parties) should pay for the damage they cause, one should increase the price of transport (of people and goods) by air so as to reflect that pollution.


The extremely hot and dry European summer of 2018 confronted us with a first glimpse of the deep changes to the world climate we have to expect. Researchers have been warning for a long time about the ever-more-compelling evidence of an ongoing, manmade climate change. On balance, climate change will have severely negative consequences for human beings. Here are a few of the more salient ones: Sea-levels will rise, flooding both small island-nations and densely populated river deltas, such as in Bangladesh, where many millions of – mostly poor – people live. Storms will become more frequent and more violent, killing both humans and animals as well as destroying homes, production sites, and infrastructure. Furthermore, the change in the global distribution of rain will likely make famines more frequent.

Luckily, after wasted decades of inaction, (almost) all countries are now agreed that in order to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change, we must reduce the emission of greenhouse gases so that the expected average temperature rise stays below two degrees Celsius. Scientific evaluation of climate policy, however, tells us that we are doing too little, too late, and too slowly. At current rates of emission reduction, we only have about 17 years before we will have exhausted the “carbon budget” that would keep us below the two-degrees target. In fact, the average per-person emissions in most rich countries is hardly decreasing at all. In the meantime, huge populations are finally escaping poverty and have, for the first time in their lives, access to meat and dairy products, electricity, or motorised vehicles, thus greatly increasing their per-person greenhouse gas emissions. We are perilously close to the point where we will no longer be able to avoid a global disaster. The dramatic scale of the problem we are facing calls for immediate, drastic policy decisions. Since they have historically contributed most greenhouse emissions, and still emit much more and for more luxurious goods, the richer nations owe it to humanity to lead the way.

The proposal

My proposal is this: The European Union should initiate a process leading to high taxation on air travel in all member states.

Why target air travel? First, air travel is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, exhausting such fumes in the higher strata of the atmosphere amplifies the greenhouse effect. While jet engines that do not burn fossil fuels are in an early experimental stage, for the foreseeable future most air travel will use kerosene, a fossil fuel. Nation-states currently do not tax kerosene to avoid competitive disadvantages for their respective airlines and airports. Since we want to reduce fuel consumption that harms the atmosphere, we should increase taxation on air travel so that its volume decreases. Second, the very limited taxation on air travel distorts the long-distance European travel market. Today, it is much cheaper to fly from Berlin to Madrid than to take the train. Yet it is so much worse for the climate, thereby harming everybody who will live through the climate disaster - which includes billions of people worldwide who will never be rich enough to travel by plane at all, but also those who consciously choose not to take planes within Europe. </p>

So, if all EU countries agree to levy the same climate tax on each flight taking off or landing in a European country, this policy will make the polluters at least pay for the climate harm they are inflicting on others, while also giving the train and bus industries a fair chance at competing with budget airlines.

Why should the EU initiate such a policy rather than leaving the matter to the member states to decide? The answer is that if only some countries introduced this kind of climate tax, it would provide an unfair price advantage to the neighbouring airports. Suppose that Belgium and Germany imposed such a climate tax, but the Netherlands and Poland did not. Then the Belgian airports would lose air traffic to the Dutch airports, and German airports would lose air traffic to Polish and Dutch Airports. This is what scholars call a “collective action problem”: It would be better for everyone involved if there were this kind of tax, as it would help us protect the climate and hence prevent the harm that climate change will cause. However, from the distinct point of view of each individual country, not cooperating is commercially profitable while still allowing them to free-ride on the ecological efforts of others. Hence, the EU needs to initiate a process that makes all EU member states tax air travel at a uniform, high rate. The geography and sheer size of the single market will make it impossible for international airlines to escape this tax. Once the EU has set an example, the initiative can be scaled up to the level of the UN.

Objections

The Twelve Stars online debate raised some objections and questions to this proposal, which requires some refinement and additional explanation.

First, one may worry that this proposal is simply unfeasible, either because the EU cannot impose taxation or because it is unlikely that there ever will be unanimous agreement of 27 national governments. The idea is, indeed, to have every member state agree on the strength of the argument laid out above. Responsible statesmen and stateswomen who show leadership beyond the short-term interests of themselves and their voters simply have to answer a chain of questions:

  • Does climate change require firmer and further-reaching political action?

  • Is air travel a major source of greenhouse gases?

  • Is air travel currently taxed at lower levels than other polluting industries?

  • Is air travel much less taxed than less polluting means of transport?

  • Will taxing air travel by any single country create an unfair economic advantage for others?

If the answer to all these questions is yes, the conclusion is inescapable: We would all be better off if we would act collectively on this. As a philosopher and economist, I can only offer the arguments up for political debate. It is up to the politicians to lead, and it is up to voters to vote for candidates who have the moral backbone to protect humanity from the harm that those who only think about the short-term are inflicting on all of us.

A second objection is that the proposed tax would harm the economy since its explicit goal is to reduce the volume of air travel in order to reduce emissions. The empirical prediction in this objection is partly correct: An aviation tax would have negative effects on some segments of the economy, namely, the aviation industry. Morally, this negative effect is justified because the aviation industry has for decades been allowed to violate the principle that the perpetrator of a damage has to pay for it. Thus, we would only be rectifying a historical economic and ecological injustice. Economically, this is only a partial assessment. On the one hand, the air industry will suffer, although it is hard to tell how badly. On the other hand, one can expect other sectors of the economy to grow if aviation is significantly taxed. For example, locally produced food and consumer goods as well as leisure and holiday options at driving or train-trip distance would become relatively cheaper and hence more competitive. So those industries would benefit.

A particular case of the second objection are the tourist industries that currently thrive on the cheap flights to those countries - think of Greece or Spain. This is a serious worry given that the EU member states most reliant on tourism are also those with the highest rates of unemployment. The EU should therefore also agree to use part of the air-tax revenue to foster new, climate-friendly economic activities in those countries and regions that will be particularly affected. The remainder of the tax revenue should be spent on actually building the pan-European, long-distance, high-speed railway network that has long been planned but only exists along some super-fast lines, mostly in France. With it, Europeans could continue to travel to Greece or Spain for holidays, albeit by train rather than plane.

A third objection would be that if we were to have this aviation tax, only the rich would still be able to fly. That is indeed the case: Many who are now able to fly for any weekend to Venice and back for €39 will fly much less often if the ticket were to cost €390. This reduction in the number of flights is precisely what the proposed tax aims at. Cheap air travel is no basic provision that everyone should have access to at very low cost. Those of us over 40 remember how we travelled when we were young: by long-distance bus, train, and boat, (in my case) all the way from Brussels via Rome to Athens. As long as flying entails harming the atmosphere much more than these other means of transport, we should appreciate that it is a luxury good. Flying has only been turned into a mass-consumption good because of the unfair advantages that the aviation industry has enjoyed for decades, and because those who have enjoyed the benefits of flying have not been paying what the polluter should pay.

A final objection raised in the Twelve Stars online debate was that an alternative policy instrument could reach the same goal. Rather than picking out one particular activity that is polluting (in this case, air travel and air cargo), the argument goes, why not use a general system like the European Emissions Trading System (EETS) to deal with the pollution? Since the EETS already exists, why not try to improve it rather than target one particular sector of the economy? The response is obvious: The goals should be to reduce total emissions and to make more ecologically friendly alternatives more competitive. If including aviation in the EETS can do this, fine. Yet, including airplanes from another continent into the EETS is not feasible without the – so far elusive – cooperation of overseas governments, whereas it is easy to tax them if they land in any EU member state.

Similarly, one could point to the resolution of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to stabilise emissions at 2020 levels. It requires airlines to offset the growth of their emissions after 2020. This resolution, however, is certainly not far-reaching enough, since it does not aim at reducing emissions from their highly damaging 2020 levels but merely to keep them there. The resolution also fails to meet the “polluter pays” principle or, indeed, to guarantee fairness between different transportation sectors. Furthermore, we know that some forms of offsetting (e.g. planting trees) are ecologically insufficient, since they do not actually lead to the total emissions in the near future to go down significantly. Time, though, is what we are running out of if we are to avoid a climate disaster.

Conclusion The air-travel tax I propose is a tool, not an end in itself. It is designed to reach the goals of reducing emissions and of encouraging the use of alternative means of transportation. I want to stand firm on these goals, but the means/policies should be chosen depending on how good they are at meeting these goals. If there are other policies or institutions that are more effective while perhaps also having some additional effects that are more desirable, those policies should be advocated. The advantage of the proposed tax is that once the political actors see the force of the arguments, it could be implemented very quickly. I acknowledge that there will be some short-term economic adjustment effects that will be painful for many people working in air travel and tourism. What we should look at, however, is the much greater harm to those billions of people who will suffer from the climate catastrophe that our generation continues to cause in spite of knowing the deadly consequences of burning fossil fuels, of which our ancestors were unaware. Flying is a dirty luxury, and it would be better for humanity if we would have much less of it – at least until we can fly on solar energy.


Further reading European Commission. Reducing Emissions from Aviation. https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/transport/aviation_en.


Shue, Henry. “Uncertainty as the Reason for Action: Last Opportunity and Future Climate Disaster.” Global Justice: Theory, Practice, Rhetoric 8 (2): 86–103, 2015.


Broome, John. Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2012.


Online Debate

On 6 July 2018, Ingrid Robeyns defended her proposal in the Twelve Stars debate. The main objections are presented below. Rebuttals can be followed in the online debate.


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