Rationing our way to a rational aviation policy

To see the enthusiasm with which politicians have been co-opted to help Dublin Airport Authority to overturn the planning permissions that govern its operation in order to facilitate ever more flying is indicative of just how much of a vote-getter cheap aviation is, and the massive headwinds anyone attempting to clip the sector’s wings is likely to face. Though it may not be popular, only sensible longer term approach involves rationing, as I argued in the Irish Examiner.

AVIATION IS ONE of the true wonders of the modern world. To be able to step on a plane in Dublin and step off in New York, Paris or Istanbul just a few hours later is an everyday miracle few of our ancestors could ever have even imagined possible.

You can, however, have too much of a good thing, and in the case of aviation, there are some serious downsides. More than most, we Irish love to fly. In 2019 for instance, there were 35 million passenger movements through Dublin Airport alone. With our population of just five million, this is an astonishingly high number.

The rise and rise of aviation, mostly for leisure, is driven by the simple fact that the sector is heavily cosseted. For example, airlines across the EU pay around €800 million a year in pollution fees. However, due to the exemption of jet kerosene from taxies and duties, it is estimated that this industry gets the equivalent of €27 billion a year in subsidies.

The reasons for this are historical, dating back to a 1944 agreement to exempt international flights from taxes. No one at that time could have possibly imagined that billions of people would be one day taking flights. Ireland alone foregoes almost €1 billion a year in VAT and fuel taxes not charged to the aviation industry or its customers.

That’s why you have the ridiculous situation that it can be cheaper to fly from Dublin to Malaga than to get the train from Dublin to Cork.

If aviation were a country, it would be in the top 10 polluters in the world, yet almost nine in 10 people globally will never set foot on an aircraft. Flying is very much a luxury enjoyed by those of us in wealthy countries, yet its impacts, in terms of climate destabilisation and weather extremes, are felt most directly by people who have never flown.

As recently as 1980, there were in total around 800 million flights taken worldwide. By 2019, that had risen almost six-fold, to 4.6 billion flights. This explosion in air travel was facilitated by the rise of the low cost airlines like Ryanair. Today, the Irish-based carrier has the dubious distinction of being officially listed in the top 10 carbon-polluting companies in the EU.

While billions of people in the developing world have no access whatever to aviation, even among those of us who do, there is huge inequity. A recent study found that just 1% of the population in wealthy countries take around 50% of all flights. This group are known as “super-emitters” given the inordinate amount of pollution they are responsible for.

However, rather than being penalised or even charged for this, frequent flyers instead are lavished with bonuses, such as free flights and upgrades by airlines.

While emissions from aviation continue to climb, the industry has turned to “silver bullet” technologies to address its emissions problem. These include so-called sustainable aviation fuels, including biofuels, as well as newer aircraft that are more fuel-efficient.

However, growing crops to feed to aircraft as biofuels is a disastrous policy as food prices rise and climate change impacts crop productivity. Modest improvements in aircraft efficiency are overwhelmed by the growing number of flights, so overall, emissions continue to spiral upwards.

A first and obvious step would be to tax aviation on the same basis as all other transport fuels, as well as applying carbon taxes to reflect the true costs of flying. This is problematic, as the public has grown accustomed to cheap flying and governments are reluctant to take politically unpopular steps.

The other issue is of equity. A blanket increase in the cost of flying would dampen overall demand, yes, but would be much less effective in deterring the wealthy, who can afford to pay more, and who are already the biggest problem due to the dozens of flights they are each already taking every year.

The solution, in my view, is to introduce a system of rationing. Each person is allocated a given distance, say 1,500 kilometres, annually, with this non-transferrable allocation tied to your PPS or passport number. This is enough to cover a typical return flight to Europe. If you don’t take any flights in a given year, your allowance can be carried forward to the next year.

Take another flight and your next 1,500 kilometres attracts a €200 climate levy. From there, the levy doubles with every additional round trip €400, €800, €1,600 and so on. Eventually, even the wealthy will start to get the message.

A system like this would of course need flexibility around, for instance, compassionate grounds in the event of a bereavement, but could still be hugely effective in eliminating many flights that happen today simply because they are so cheap.

In the 1940s, during the Emergency, everyone in Ireland had a ration card. This ensured fair and equal access to the limited resources then available, and boosted social solidarity. Today, we are in a full-blown Climate Emergency. Action is needed that is both drastic yet fair. Once again, rationing could be the key.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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