So the Government is proposing a carbon tax on flights. This sounds promising in many ways: it makes sense for the carbon cost of transport to be reflected in the price of the ticket. And as transport secretary Chris Grayling says, “An offsetting scheme could help inform travellers about how much carbon their journey produces.” Raised awareness of this would be most welcome. As a guide, train travel in Europe has roughly a tenth of the emissions of the equivalent flight. Yet currently rail fares are on average three times more expensive.
So why is there such a large gap?
At the moment aviation fuel is untaxed, the result of an international agreement made in 1944 in order to boost a fledgling aviation industry. The policy has never been overturned, and is unlikely to be: which government would commit political suicide by seemingly increasing the cost of people’s holidays? These tax breaks mean aviation receives a massive leg-up from the government to the tune of around £11bn, as opposed to just £4bn for the rail industry. That is an unfair advantage for an industry that serves less than half of the UK population (typically 50% of UK residents don’t fly at all), especially when just 15% of people qualify as frequent flyers, taking 70% of all flights.
So is it good news that the government is proposing an introduction of a carbon tax?
Well, in theory yes, but on closer inspection this isn’t a carbon tax at all, but a carbon offsetting programme, which turns out to be voluntary – opt out rather than opt in, but still.
The trouble is that carbon offsets are too often seen as a free pass: I pay for the pollution, therefore I am entitled to keep producing it. Or the less smug, I can just pay into this scheme and it undoes all the damage from my flight, right? Unfortunately, no. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. The truth is that the only way to actually reduce emissions is not to fly in the first place.
Offset schemes can range from planting trees to installing solar panels to building flood defences for low-lying communities likely to be flooded owing to sea level rises. But the schemes don’t actually compensate in the way they should – in fact, 85% of schemes have been shown to be ineffective. Many pay into existing schemes rather than fund new projects, so are not a direct compensation for that flight. And trees take a long time to grow, and there’s no guarantee they will reach maturity. We are already battling deforestation at a planet-zapping rate – just think of the acres of rainforest that are cleared so we can grow crops and palm oil (most of which is for biofuel – not very green after all!). So planting a few trees won't offset the forest that's already being lost, let alone compensate for the new emissions that we're sending into the atmosphere from all our flights.
Offsetting is like bailing out a boat without plugging the hole. We cannot keep pumping CO2 into the atmosphere at the current rate, a rate that will only increase with planned airport expansions. There is simply not enough room on this planet to plant enough trees to compensate.
What about alternative forms of transport?
The other problem here is that the proposed carbon tax could cover all forms of public transport, including trains and buses. The fares for these much greener alternatives are already prohibitively high in many cases – adding to these costs is not going to encourage people out of planes and onto trains.
The whole system needs to be overhauled. Introduce a tax on kerosene. Re-nationalise the railways. Make the greenest choice the simplest and cheapest choice, always. We need to stop seeing offsetting as the catch-all answer, and instead address our addiction to cheap flights. This is paying lip service to declaring a climate emergency, and in the face of climate breakdown, much, much more is needed.