Why we need a flight tax

The UK should target frequent flyers to reduce carbon emissions.

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Personally, I dislike aeroplanes and haven’t flown since August 2018. Still, I understand the thrill and convenience flying represents: zipping across the planet to new places, sometimes to be united with loved ones. But jet fuel emissions threaten our very existence. It is high time for a new national conversation around flying, which faces the hard environmental facts.

Jet contrails that streak across our skies are not a romantic feature of our modern landscape. They are toxic vapour trails high up in the atmosphere made up of carbon and non-carbon compounds that contribute significantly to global warming. Per passenger, one long-haul flight contributes as much CO2 as the entire yearly carbon footprint of people in 56 countries. Even relatively short return flights carry a carbon footprint per passenger that is more than the average produced by citizens of 17 countries annually.

And demand for flights continues to soar – it is up 300 per cent from 1990 and is expected to double or triple again in the next three decades. By 2050, aviation is expected to make up at least 25 per cent of the UK’s total carbon emissions as we successfully phase out other sources. This is a frightening prospect – a danger to our planet so great, we risk sleepwalking into a catastrophe.

The good news? We can tackle aviation demand and emissions now and there is no need to punish the majority. Indeed, reform has the potential to benefit everyone in the UK while achieving crucial climate action. Just 15 per cent of people here in the UK take a staggering 70 per cent of all flights, according to Transport for Quality of Life, which advises the Department for Transport. Aviation is also exempt from fuel duty and plane tickets are zero-rated for VAT. In other words, flying benefits from huge public subsidies that no other form of transport enjoys.

The Liberal Democrats’ policy on reducing aviation emissions includes plans to oppose any further expansion of London airports to ensure there is no net increase in runways across the UK and to encourage advanced technologies like synthetic electro fuels and hybrid planes.

We are also the only party to have detailed, sector-by-sector plans to get the UK to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. The Green Party advocates an impossible target of reaching net zero by 2030. And the Tories still back a moratorium – not a ban – on fracking. Labour’s plans are still sketchy at best.

A crucial part of our aviation emissions policy is to reform the current Air Passenger Duty to target the most frequent flyers and stop the system of unfair subsidies that cost the Exchequer more than £10bn each year. Our proposed reforms would change the duty for the first international return flight a person takes to zero, rewarding infrequent flyers. Far from punishing the majority, our reform would actually make that precious annual family holiday or urgent business trip cheaper than it is currently. Those few – less than 15 per cent – who fly multiple times each year would bear the progressive costs. So, how would it work? The New Economics Foundation published a paper in 2015 which provides a useful basis on which we would model our policy, subject to review in government.

They proposed that the second return flight would be charged an additional £20, a third flight £60, rising to roughly £420 for a ninth annual return flight. In other words, the wealthiest, most frequent air passengers would pay the most. This is fair and necessary.

To administer this reform, HM Revenue and Customs would need access to data currently collected by the Home Office on international passenger movements and airlines would need to record customers’ passport numbers at the point of ticket sale instead of the time of boarding. This reform would raise an estimated £7bn in annual revenue for the Treasury over time, making huge sums available for rural bus services, reopening branch rail lines, converting rail to ultra-low-emissions technology and investing heavily in renewable energy and carbon-zero, affordable homes.

There is already huge public support for policies that seriously tackle the climate emergency. Tens of thousands of people have signed up to www.flightfree.co.uk. Even KLM, the Dutch carrier and one of Europe’s oldest airlines, has asked passengers to fly less – a sign that aviation’s contribution to climate change is too serious to ignore.

Like Veganuary, which people and businesses have embraced as a way to cut our food carbon footprint, we believe personal pledges to fly less or to give up flying altogether are also a crucial first step for individuals. And yet, even these measures will not be enough. That’s why our manifesto will pledge to support renewable energy, zero carbon transport, heating, and housing efficiencies as well as planting 60 million trees every year to remove carbon from the air.

The final piece of the green aviation puzzle is jet fuel. Research into cleaner burning waste fuels, like the kind being developed at Herriot Watt University in Scotland is vital. These green alternatives are unlikely to entirely replace oil-based aviation fuel, but they could massively reduce the industry’s carbon footprint.

Norway announced in October that as of 2020, all airlines operating there must incorporate 0.5 per cent advanced biofuel into jet fuel. This will mean 6 million litres of biofuel – made from waste and leftovers, not palm oil – will be used by planes operating in Norway. It will cost more, but Norway’s government has recognised the need to start cutting greenhouse gas emissions from aviation immediately.

Fixing aviation will not be easy, but we must do it. Britain has a chance to lead the world on this urgent task. Imagine our beautiful planet safe from the catastrophe of climate change, where future generations can enjoy the natural beauty and security we might easily take for granted. Now that is thrilling.

Wera Hobhouse is the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for climate change.