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Flight of Fancy?

Updated: Jun 22, 2020

Aviation is struggling and seeking support, but isn't it reasonable to demand for it to give something in return?

Now that the world has discovered the joy of breathing cleaner air, being able to see distant mountains, and the benefits of cycling; and now that Europe is weaning itself off coal faster than expected and, in general, the debate for emerging from lockdown in a better, greener way has caught everyone's imagination, isn't it reasonable to attach green strings to industry's that require financial support from governments?

Thus far, European governments have agreed €12.7bn (£11.35bn) in airline bailouts, with another €17.1bn under discussion. The US approved $25bn (£20.6bn) support for the industry in April.

If public funds are used to save companies, there is a growing argument that society should get something in return in terms of environmental improvements. Hopes were raised when the French finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, said Air France would have to become “the greenest airline in the world” in return for a €7bn bailout. This meant reducing the carbon intensity of their overall operations by 50% by 2030, cutting absolute emissions within France by half by 2030, using 2% renewable jet fuel by 2024 and drastically reducing the number of flights of less than 2hr 30mins duration that compete with rail services.

Although these conditions are currently non-binding, campaigners said they were hopeful they will be supported by new laws in the coming years. Andrew Murphy, an aviation policy officer at the NGO Transport & Environment, said this could be a turning point after decades of inaction.

“Before the Covid crisis, aviation emissions were going in the wrong direction. This is a moment that has shaken up the industry and raised questions about subsidies, tax breaks, and frequent flying. It is an opportunity for governments to think how they support the airline industry.”

He said he was also encouraged the UK has not yet committed public funds to bail out airlines, which would gives them the incentive to put planes back in the sky too soon. A more important step, he said, would be for government to include aviation emissions in their climate targets. “It’s not sexy, but it’s very important,” he said. “Without this, nations’ climate calculations are based on dodgy accounting, as Greta [Thunberg] pointed out when she was in the UK last year.”

Some climate campaign organisations, including Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, say bailouts are only acceptable if they come with green conditions. They say airline companies should pay a fair share of taxes and not rely on offsets to reduce emissions, as they are currently doing.

Among the measures they propose are fuel taxes on domestic flights (which are currently tax free) and the introduction of a frequent flier levy. In the UK, 15% of people take 70% of flights. Globally, only 3% of the world’s 7.6bn population flies frequently.

“If governments want to address the twin challenges of Covid and climate change, the political moment is now,” says Dan Rutherford, aviation director at the International Council on Clean Transportation. “Policies to curb frequent flying could benefit both public health and the global environment.”

He said passengers should also be given information about the carbon costs of their flights, which would allow them to support more efficient airlines. The difference between companies can be as much as 80% on the same city-to-city flight depending on the type of aircraft, load factors and routes.

Even the law in the UK now demans that the government consider the climate in their decisions. Witness the high court decision to block Heathrow expansion because it posed unacceptable climate risks.

The Heathrow chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, said the UK should build back better after the Covid-19 crisis. “The government can accelerate the decarbonisation of aviation, by helping to scale up new energy sources, such as sustainable aviation fuels, just as they did successfully for solar and wind. Any company that is bailed out by the government should commit to net-zero emissions well before 2050.”

The UK chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has said he will not treat the aviation industry as a special case, but might consider bailouts on a case-by-case basis.

What is the best way forward? The strings attached to the Air France bailout are a good start. And, frankly, what's wrong with charging more for flights and, in particular, for frequent flyers? Here are 8 suggestions for cleaning up the aviation sector:

  • Reduce or remove all flights of under 2 hours 30 minutes that could be taken by train.

  • Tax aviation fuel. Initially just for domestic flights so they do not have an unfair advantage against low-emission rail services.

  • Introduce a frequent flyer levy. In the UK, 15% of people take 70% of flights. Globally, only 3% of the world’s 7.8bn population flies frequently. Increasing costs for them would make a bigger difference than asking people to end their annual overseas holiday.

  • Provide transparent data on carbon emissions of flights so customers can avoid less efficient airlines. Few people are currently aware of the data, but the difference can be as much as 80% on the same city-to-city flight depending on the type of aircraft, load factors and routes.

  • Incorporate the aviation sector into national climate targets. Currently the UK’s Climate Change Act only mentions airlines rather than making them part of the country’s emissions calculations, which Thunberg described last year as “extremely creative accounting”.

  • Reduce fleet sizes by scrapping old, gas-guzzling planes.

  • Halt airport expansion. Campaigners won an important victory in February when the high court ruled against Heathrow expansion due to the climate risks. But many other airports plan to open new terminals and runways in the UK and elsewhere in the world.

  • Invest in green fuel and tech. The French government has said Air France must use alternatives to fossil fuels for at least 2% of flights by 2024. Norway is pioneering electric planes and biofuel from waste products. Heathrow says the UK government should also promote cleaner fuel.

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