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Is airline travel a right or a privilege?

From health warnings on air travel to a personal annual flight allowance, new UK proposals and a carbon trading in the EU just might change the way, and how often, all of us take to the skies.

Forget all those low-consuming light bulbs and energy-efficient air conditioners. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IFFC), with just one round-trip flight from London to Perth, Australia, you will have consumed the equivalent of the average Briton’s carbon footprint for the year. Or as stated by the European Commission, someone taking a round-trip flight from London to New York generates the same amount of CO2 as the average Briton heating his home for a year.

This is not just a problem of a few frequent fliers, as low cost airlines make air travel routine, the carbon footprint of air travel continues to grow. European airline emissions, while still just 3% of total EU CO2, have increased 85% since 1990. If they keep growing at this pace, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that by 2050, aviation will be responsible for 15% of man-made global warming.

According to the Tory Party’s “Greener Skies” consulting report, “Air travel is a uniquely greenhouse-gas-intensive mode of transport. Over a single journey of 1,500km, aircraft emit roughly twice as much greenhouse gas per passenger kilometre as cars or high speed rail. Shorter journeys produce even higher emissions per passenger kilometre. Over a distance of 500km, aircraft emit six times more greenhouse gas than high speed rail or cars, and 12 times more than a coach.”

The age of cheap seats

With low cost carriers offering tickets for as low as £1 to travel between European cities (clearly that’s a sale price, but regular prices are often as low as 20£), it’s hard to blame anyone for choosing an hour 20 minute flight from London to say… at random, Bonn/Cologne- currently about £15- instead of paying £68 return for a 6 hour and 40 minute train journey.

The cheap seats aren’t the result of the miracles of aircraft technology (although Virgin CEO Richard Branson has struck a deal with Boeing and General Electric to fly a 747 on biofuel late in 2008), but instead the multiple exemptions that airlines receive. Kerosene jet fuel isn’t taxed (due to international law) nor is there a VAT on air tickets, add to this the omission of air travel from the Kyoto Accords and airlines are left with little incentive to cut emissions, but with a slew of new proposals this age of cheap flights and weekend cross-continent getaways may be about to change.

The new era

The UK’s Tory party has crafted a “Greener Skies” plan which includes such radical proposals as imposing a personal flight allowance. This “Green Air Miles Allowance” would tax those who flew more often at a higher rate. “For example, everyone could be entitled to one short-haul return flight per year at the standard rate of tax, but additional flights would be charged a higher rate.”

Other proposals within the plan include:

  • Taxing fuel for domestic flights. While it is against international law to tax international flights, the US, Japan, India, Norway and the Netherlands currently tax domestic flights.
  • Charging VAT on domestic flights, something that many EU-15 countries already do.
  • Replacing the £10 to £80 Air Passenger Duty with a per-flight tax more closely related to carbon emissions which would penalise the dirtiest, less efficient aircraft the hardest.

“Tax on fun” or “pay as you burn”?

While the airlines and tourism industry are calling these proposals a “tax on hard working families” and a “tax on fun”, the Conservatives insist that air travel is highly skewed toward the better off and that this tax would target frequent fliers and business travelers, calling it “pay as you burn, not pay as you earn”.

It should also provide results. According to a survey by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) airline purchases seem to be quite sensitive to price, which indicates that higher taxes could reduce demand for flights. They estimate that a 10% increase in price reduces demand by 10%, but this figure varies depending on whether they are short- or long- haul flights.

“This overall figure varies from only a 2.5% reduction in demand for long-haul business flights to up to 15% reduction in demand for short-haul leisure flights. The existence of alternative means of transport is clearly an important factor in determining the price-sensitivity of demand for air travel.”

Ticket prices will go up

The European Commission has finally ruled to bring airlines in line with the Kyoto Accords. This past December, the EC declared that all airlines flying within the EU will have to trade pollution allowances beginning in 2011. According to the European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, “Without action, the growth in emissions from flights from EU airports will by 2012 cancel out more than a quarter of the 8 percent emission reduction the EU must achieve to reach its Kyoto Protocol target.”

This could translate to a bit higher ticket prices- EU officials estimate that over the next decade passengers will see increases in ticket price of €1.80 to €9 for a return trip within the EU-, but environmentalists claim the plan will hardly effect carbon emissions and call for fuel and ticket taxes. Peter Lockley of London’s Aviation Environment Federation criticized the plan for giving the airlines most of their pollution credits for free and for not forcing airlines to reduce their emissions from 1990 levels like most industries under the Kyoto Accords, but instead simply from present levels.

“Health warnings” for air travel

If legislation and possible airfare hikes aren’t convincing enough to change consumer behavior perhaps health warnings about climate change will.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has issued a report urging the UK government to introduce cigarette-style health warnings on all advertising for air travel, holidays that include flights, and at airports. They argue that by providing consumers with very visible information about the impacts of their flying may help encourage people to give it up. They recommend:

  • Large and clearly visible warnings such as Flying Causes Climate Change.
  • Estimates of average emissions from the flight in question alongside the average individual’s emissions from energy use, to put the flight in context. For example: The average individual in the UK emits 4400 kilograms of CO2 per year. A return flight from London to Perth, Australia, on average emits 4500 kilograms of CO2 per person.
  • For domestic and short-haul flights a comparison of emissions for the same journey if using alternative forms of transport such as rail or coach. For example: A return flight from London to Newcastle on average emits 120 kilograms of CO2 per person while the same journey by train emits 39 kilograms of CO2 per person.

Back to the rail

Recognizing that for people to give up the short-haul flights they must be provided with alternatives, the institute recommends improving rail transport to better integrate the “fragmented European rail network.”

IPPR’s head of Climate Change Simon Retallack argues these measures could produce results. “The evidence that aviation damages the atmosphere is just as clear as the evidence that smoking kills. We know that smokers notice health warnings on cigarettes, and we have to tackle our addiction to flying in the same way.”

Paying for the true cost of flying

So that consumers pay for the true environmental cost of flying, the IPPR report recommends that aviation taxes “should be changed to reflect the true environmental cost of emissions”. Basically, this is what all the new proposals, like the Greener Skies plan, are attempting to accomplish: substituting the current cheap ticket prices which are subsidized by lack of fuel and ticket taxes with more real ticket prices reflecting the longer term environmental damage caused by carbon emissions.

While consumers wait to be forced to pay these new “true ticket prices” in the open market, they are faced with the choice of paying that true price through carbon offset options.

Compensating for your air miles with renewable power in India

Even Tony Blair (and now Gordon Brown) is offsetting after realizing he had lost green points when he responded to those asking him to cut down on his personal flights with, “I personally think these things are a bit impractical, actually to expect people to that”. Now he pays to offset all personal travel for himself, his wife and their 4 children.

Several airlines offer carbon offsets on their websites, like British Airways, Spanair, Scandanavian Airlines and Sir Richard Branson’s Australian offshoot Virgin Blue, but the new British airline Silverjet is currently the only airline that has truly gone carbon neutral with a mandatory contribution included in the ticket price.

Most of these airlines work with independent retail offset providers who make investments in green projects to help offset a traveler’s carbon emissions. For example, British Airways works with Climate Care whose projects include investing in renewable power for schools in India and restoring rain forests in Uganda.

When purchasing tickets with airlines who don’t yet offer carbon offsetting, consumers can still fly neutral by buying directly from these offset providers, but like the companies within any industry, especially one growing so quickly, not all carbon offsetters are created alike, even their prices are different- ranging from $5 to $25 to offset a ton of CO2- and the quality of what you’re buying can vary.

Where to buy your offsets

The non-profit climate change alliance Clean Air- Cool Planet warns that “many retail offset marketers provide little information about where the money is being spent or what criteria are used to select the reductions they sell to consumers”. Based on their independent, and one-of-a-kind, study of 30 offset providers, they have determined the top 8 are as follows: