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Linking aviation emissions to climate justice

Author: Thorfinn Stainforth

The UN Climate Action Summit on 23 September highlighted and confirmed the significant gap between current climate action and the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) cuts needed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The summit launched significant initiatives in several sectors, including, shipping, food, insurance and finance. However, one area that continues to defy calls for significant action is aviation.

Aviation emissions make up only about 2.5% of global emissions, but they are rising uniquely quickly (and their contribution to climate change may be even higher than that due to non-CO2 warming effects).

Aviation is a particularly problematic area for climate action because we do not have technological solutions that can significantly reduce emissions per flight, yet we need to respond to rapid growth in demand. In addition, air travel raises major climate justice issues.

Aviation – still a luxury

For the moment – and historically – aviation is primarily an elite phenomenon, and, in the absence of major technological breakthroughs, it is likely to remain that way if we are to avoid it becoming a “carbon bomb” that consumes more and more of the world’s carbon budget (If we fail to mitigate airline emissions, they could use up as much as 27% of the global carbon budget by 2050).

It is estimated that only between 5-20% of the global population has ever flown on a plane, and even among those who do fly a small percentage are taking the bulk of flights.

Only between 5 to 20% of the global population has ever flown on a plane

One estimate shows that about 60% of flights from the UK, for example, are taken by only 10% of the population. More recent numbers show that 1% of English travellers take a fifth of all flights.

Roughly 50% of the UK population does not fly by plane in any given year, and the number of flights taken is correlated to income. Leisure travel is the overwhelming reason for air travel and is growing faster than business travel.

However, there are complicating factors concerning climate justice and equity. Limiting access to aviation, or making it more expensive, could have negative effects in isolated, peripheral or tourism-dependent communities, and in families (including in migrant communities) that are geographically dispersed.

Ideally, any attempt to address aviation emissions should take these factors into account by ensuring that viable alternative transport links or industries are established or enhanced, or by ensuring that peripheral communities have preferential treatment.

Mitigating emissions

For now, stabilisation – let alone reduction – of aviation emissions will involve demand mitigation – that is to say, reducing mobility or displacing trips to other modes of transport.

Ultimately, this implies increasing the price of flying to individual travellers. Beyond ending public subsidies to airline and airport operations, there are many possible ways to approach this, both in terms of the specific pricing tools and how to use the proceeds.

Instruments that could be in the mix include:

Inclusion of aviation in the EU ETS has so far had limited impact

Inclusion of aviation in the EU Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) has so far had limited impact, and the International Civil Aviation Organization’s proposed CORSIA system for addressing aviation emissions is regarded by most environmental analysts as inadequate or counterproductive.

See our blog post “Reducing aviation’s impact on climate change in Europe” for an overview of the current policy discussion in the EU

It makes sense to use the money raised from aviation to address the world’s climate policy challenges. A report by CE Delft estimated that between € 20-30 billion could be raised annually in the EU simply by applying VAT and kerosene taxes to aviation without today’s exemptions. Additional revenue could be generated with additional charges.

One possible use is in researching technologies to mitigate the climate footprint of aviation – new fuels, lighter materials or new designs. However, these speculative, and potentially expensive investments should be secondary to the proven route of investing in alternative modes of transport, such as trains or low-emission buses. Such investments can improve access to alternate forms of low-emission mobility for inter-city travel starting in the immediate to medium-term future.

Another approach would be to invest in protecting, developing and rehabilitating carbon sinks, such as the world’s forests or other natural sinks. Nature-based solutions can be effective to a certain extent, but these often need funding through instruments such as REDD+ or other programmes. This could help to balance the impacts of aviation on the climate.

However, it would be difficult to ensure that aviation revenues are genuinely funding additional mitigation, instead of just displacing other sources of government funding for such projects.

Climate justice and climate finance

One way of tackling both the climate justice and mitigation problems of aviation emissions would be to use proceeds towards funding climate adaptation or compensation for climate losses and damage in the developing world. Ideally, these should be agreed internationally, but can also be implemented unilaterally by countries.

Adaptation and compensation for loss and damage in developing countries are currently severely underfunded

Adaptation and compensation for loss and damage in developing countries are currently severely underfunded, despite widespread recognition of the need to support the countries that neither have the resources to fund adaptation nor bear responsibility for climate change. 

See IEEP’s background paper on climate justice for a fuller discussion of historical responsibility for climate change.

Adequate funding from those who have benefited from historical emissions to those who are enduring the worst of its effects is the minimum that can be expected as part of a fair climate deal.

Relying on specific contributions from individual countries at the mercy of domestic political cycles has proven unreliable and insufficient.

By linking aviation expenditure – which will tend to be focused on the wealthiest – to funding for adaptation in the most climate-vulnerable places, we could make a big step forward to addressing climate justice issues, adaptation and mitigation at the same time.

The current state of negotiations in ICAO shows that a genuinely international approach to aviation taxation is not, at present, a practical option. But if parties like the EU implement pricing mechanisms for the carbon impact of aviation in ways that generate new revenue for developing country adaptation, we can create a broader base of support for serious responses to the aviation mitigation and climate justice challenges.

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