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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.  


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.

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