Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

We don’t need more runways – we need to tax frequent flyers

Stopping a third runway at Heathrow takes us only so far. A frequent-flyer levy would solve the aviation problem altogether, writes Leo Murray

January 8, 2016
7 min read

cressida-flightIllustration: Cressida Knapp

In the first decade of the 2000s, the UK climate movement fought and won a string of critical victories, from policies such as the Climate Change Act and the feed-in tariff for renewable energy, to key high-carbon infrastructure battles such as over the plans for a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth.

The last and perhaps most iconic of these was the defeat of the proposed third runway at Heathrow airport in 2010 – a triumph of movement building that aligned MPs, green NGOs, local residents and grassroots activists into an unstoppable, coordinated force for change. The fusion of activists and residents born of that collective struggle has since flourished in the shape of Grow Heathrow, the squatted former market garden in the village of Sipson.

Five years on, however, the third runway is rising zombie‑like from the grave – and the climate movement faces the prospect of having to fight this same battle all over again.

Special problem

Flying presents a special sort of problem when it comes to establishment responses to the threat of catastrophic climate change because, unlike road transport or power generation, air travel cannot be decarbonised. Biofuels are a poisoned chalice that would starve people to feed planes and are often worse for the climate than the fossil fuels they are meant to replace, while efficiency gains are incremental and vastly outstripped by passenger growth. Every independent expert that has looked at this problem reaches the same conclusion: the only effective way to reduce emissions from flights is to reduce the number of flights.

As a result, there are no official plans anywhere to reduce absolute emissions from air travel. Globally, the UN body in charge of reducing aviation’s climate impact, ICAO, is instead planning for huge increases in emissions over the coming decades, accompanied by a market mechanism to buy carbon credits from other industries supposedly cutting harder and faster than they would otherwise have done.

This isn’t surprising. ICAO is made up entirely of aviation industry bigwigs from around the world. They’ve had 18 years to come up with a solution, and this is all they are prepared to offer. Even the most ardent enthusiasts for carbon markets would concede that trading a sector that is aiming for perpetually rising emissions isn’t exactly in the spirit of the thing.

Kerosene is the only fossil fuel that is banned from taxation by international treaty, while UK and European aviation fuel is zero-rated for VAT alongside wheelchairs and baby clothes. These tax breaks distort travel behaviour, keeping air fares artificially low, driving demand and denying the public purse any recompense for the uniquely high environmental costs of this form of transport. They also almost exclusively benefit the richest members of society.

Brits fly more than the people of any other nation, and twice as much as Americans. Yet last year, well over half of us (57 per cent) took no flights at all. Most of the rest took just one or two flights. The 10-15 per cent who flew three or more times took 70 per cent of all our flights.

These are not predominantly business flights, which have been steadily declining since the turn of the century and now account for just 12 per cent of international flights by UK residents. Ownership of a second home abroad and household income of £115,000 or more are the strongest predictors of frequent-flyer status. In aggregate, the most popular destinations from the areas with the most frequent flyers are known tax havens.

Consumer air travel is a key frontier in the climate struggle. It is the interface where the implications of climate science for industrial civilisation confront most nakedly the defining myths of late capitalism: that there are no limits that cannot be overcome by technology, that the market always knows best, and that individual consumer choice is the best measure against which to judge human well-being. Flight itself carries such potent signifiers of these narratives – of freedom, ambition, adventure, luxury and technological triumph – that challenging the ascendancy of air travel is a kind of sacrilege against capitalism. It’s uncomfortable for everyone. But it has to be done.  

Confrontation

This confrontation is manifesting itself in the south east of England in the shape of the plans for a new runway. One of David Cameron’s most memorable pledges in 2010 was ‘No ifs, no buts, no third runway’. Once in office, corporate pressure soon mounted to renege on the promise, so Cameron dreamed up the Airports Commission to kick this political hot potato into the long grass until after the 2015 election. The commission’s three-year, £20-million investigation into new runway capacity in the south east has come down strongly in favour of a new runway at Heathrow.

Environmentally, this is the worst of the shortlisted options. But none of the plans considered can be credibly claimed to be consistent with the targets in the Climate Change Act.

Aviation is the only sector of the British economy that is not expected to make any emissions reductions under the Act. Instead, aviation’s target is for a more than doubling of CO2 from our national 1990 baseline. Consequently, every other sector of the economy must make even more challenging emissions reductions to make up for this rise in aircraft pollution – 85 per cent cuts by 2050 instead of 80 per cent. But even this uniquely generous target is on course to be missed.

The Department for Transport predicts passenger demand may triple over this period. The Committee on Climate Change says there is no way that other sectors could make big enough cuts to make up for this kind of growth. The Airports Commission says we need another runway to cater to it.

A fight we can win

But Heathrow is a fight we can win. Cameron is already in a tight spot with Cabinet colleagues, the majority of whom are opposed to a third runway as they look to defend Tory seats in the area. Chief among them is Boris Johnson, heir apparent to the Tory throne, who has said he will lie down ‘in front of bulldozers’ to stop it if necessary. And while Labour has gleefully announced its support for Heathrow expansion in order to further embarrass Cameron, there are dissenting voices in their ranks too. Local MP John McDonnell expects that the third runway ‘will provoke the biggest environmental campaign Europe has seen’.

We need to go further. Climate change has been purposely erased from the facile Heathrow versus Gatwick choice to which the debate has been reduced in recent years. Defeating a runway at Heathrow is necessary but not sufficient to deal with climate impacts from flying. Today’s runway problem is merely a symptom, the cause of which lies further upstream: steeply rising demand for air travel.

Yet there is a solution – and one that could rein in air travel without penalising ordinary holidaymakers or the less well off. This is to impose a frequent flyer levy, the details of which we have been working on for the past 18 months through the A Free Ride campaign. Each passenger at UK airports would be allowed one tax-free return flight each year, with tax rising incrementally for every flight after that.

The New Economics Foundation has modelled the effects on passenger demand. Not only would this allow us to meet climate targets, it would also help to democratise air travel, distributing flights far more evenly across incomes. Tax would disproportionately impact the very rich. Some of the very poor would be able to afford foreign holidays for the first time. Over 85 per cent of the population would be better off. We could use the extra revenue to help fund sustainable alternatives to flying. And there would be no need to build any more runways.

To find out more, visit afreeride.org

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going


130