Should we be bailing out airlines…?
The Coronavirus has had a massive impact, not least on the aviation industry. Last week Virgin Atlantic boss Richard Branson drew criticism when he asked the government for a £500 million bailout. So should we be giving public money to airlines? And what’s the alternative?
We signed this letter by Stay Grounded against airline bailouts. This is an industry that enjoys massive tax breaks in the good times, most notably through there being no tax on aviation fuel, so it is a bitter pill to swallow that airlines should receive public funding, especially at a time when we are all struggling.
And should we be spending taxpayers’ money on an industry that serves so few? Fewer than half of all Brits fly in any given year, and in global terms it's even more of an elite: only about 5% of the world’s population has ever been on a plane.
But more importantly, from the climate point of view, we need to be looking at putting our public money into climate compatible businesses, sustainable practices, and industries that will ensure that we can avoid an even greater, longer-term disaster than the coronavirus crisis, which is the climate crisis.
A condition of the Stay Grounded letter is that airlines should only receive bailouts if taxation is imposed. For some people this might seem unfair: raise taxes on aviation, and it would price people out of travel. But that is not the whole picture. The system itself is not fair, because while aviation receives tax breaks, other modes of transport do not, meaning that it's not a level playing field. If that were rebalanced, and even reversed, climate-friendly travel would become far more affordable, meaning that no one would be excluded from travelling.
In reality, the unfair part is climate change. The poorest and least able to deal with the climate crisis are getting hit right now – those who have had done the least to cause it.
… or is the world a better place without them?
We should use this pause in aviation as an opportunity to shape the kind of future we want to see. The results have been a reduction in emissions, an improvement in air quality, and a more peaceful life for those living under flight paths. It’s happening because we are flying less and driving less. While this is not through choice at the moment, now is the time to put measures in place to ensure that we can choose to keep things this way in the future. Because it has to be a climate compatible future otherwise it’s no future at all.
Breaking down the barriers
It seems that much in our society pushes us towards booking that flight, with adverts everywhere, booking systems accessible and simple, and eye-catching prices. Yet it's only in the last 30 years or so that we have become reliant on cheap flights. Government and industry can and should make it much easier for us to make climate-friendly choices. Cheaper trains and more choice on routes. More accessible and better-publicised booking systems. A return of overnight trains and ferries. More integrated transport systems so connections are better. And on the other side, a ban on advertising for the most highly-polluting products, including flights. A tax on aviation fuel, and a system by which flights get more expensive the more you book. An end to frequent flyer reward schemes. Cancellation of the domestic routes that are served by a direct train.
Not flying doesn’t mean not travelling. The European rail system is fantastic, and everything is on our doorstep, so this is a great opportunity for the government to invest time and money in ensuring that more people use it.
What does this mean for air freight and imports?
Of course, there are counter-arguments. The global economy relies on air travel for trade, to the tune of $18bn daily. Branson’s Virgin Atlantic have been flying to and from China bringing in PPE to help in the current crisis. We have come to heavily rely on the import of goods, for which aviation is essential.
But the coronavirus crisis has also shown us the difficulties in relying on things that come from halfway around the world. When global supply chains are disrupted, it causes huge problems. Before mass mobilisation we relied much more on local production and skills, which we have now lost – though the current situation resulting in British firms turning their hand to the manufacture of scrubs and ventilators has been enlightening.
A war footing
This is the kind of response we would see on a war footing, and that parallel has been drawn by politicians and commentators many times since the coronavirus outbreak began. Similarly, climate campaigners have been likening the climate crisis to a war for many years. We need locally-sourced solutions, and a return of the make-do-and-mend attitude that has seen us through our most challenging of times. It happened in the 1940s, it’s happening now, and it can and should continue as we draw ever closer to climate collapse.
But it is not good for things to change overnight. Change by disaster, rather than change by design, is never good for people. This is our opportunity for an interconnected world, but one in which we can once more focus on our locality for both goods and services, and holidays. With the right structures in place we can change our system away from one which relies on fossil fuels, and protect jobs at the same time.
Sustainable aviation… or simply flying less?
Can we shrink aviation to sustainable levels? The industry would have us believe that technology can save us – here’s why that's not going to happen. The only way to reliably and substantially reduce emissions is to fly much, much less, as demonstrated by the drop in emissions as a result of the current grounding of planes.
And we are now finding out that a lot of the flights we take are unnecessary. For business travel, for example, face to face meetings can very well be done via videoconferencing. Carrying out business transactions and connecting with others online could significantly change the picture of business travel in the future.
A cleaner, greener future
Through our current situation we have found a different way of doing things. Now we have to decide if we want to choose this as our future. Fewer planes, less traffic, better air quality, reduced emissions, less noise – we can have all these things. But it can and must come from all sides: from us choosing low-carbon travel; from government making the alternatives more accessible; and from industry genuinely reducing their emissions, not just throwing money at offsetting them.
Looking after the climate has positives on all levels: securing a liveable planet for future generations, but also making our lives better now. According to the WHO, the climate crisis will kill upwards of 250,000 people per year. That is an emergency we cannot ignore.
As for travel, international travel of any kind looks uncertain in our near future, as lockdowns mean governments might be reluctant to re-open their borders to foreign visitors. Perhaps now is the time to re-discover the wonders of the UK?