Environmentalists are sounding the alarm: you’re flying too much

In Europe, air travel has been a blissful example of how the free market can lower transport costs for consumers. But now, it is coming under fire from environmentalists.

The EU Is Moving Towards Even More Taxes on Air Travel

Whenever you book a flight and look at your receipt, you’ll find that a large portion of what you paid happens to be taxes. And still, air travel has revolutionized public transport and has made destinations that were previously inaccessible to the poorest in society readily available. In Europe, companies such as the Irish airline RyanAir offer return flights over 3 hours for as little as €20 ($24). This has certainly made the stereotype of the American tourist who visits 13 European countries in 7 days even more present, but it has also sparked concerns about the carbon footprint of said tourists. Environmentalists are up in arms about air travel and the consequences it has on our climate, and they demand strict action.

The reason? The scientific journal Nature Climate Change published a study determining the “carbon footprint of global tourism.” In its findings, the study claims that tourists contribute 8 percent of global CO2 emissions by adding up to 4.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gases a year. The researchers continue by saying:

“The majority of this footprint is exerted by and in high-income countries. The rapid increase in tourism demand is effectively outstripping the decarbonization of tourism-related technology. We project that, due to its high carbon intensity and continuing growth, tourism will constitute a growing part of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

The reactions to this are unsurprising: higher taxes on air travel. Just when reaching foreign countries became an affordable option for low-income families, “climate advocates” jump in to ruin these opportunities. They have committed the inexcusable offense of pollution for which they must be stripped of their financial capabilities.

This, of course, isn’t any new form of advocacy, and the study is merely a news hook for an old proposal. In 2011, the European Federation for Transport and Environment (known as T&E) has long been arguing for increased taxation on air travel. Little has changed in the messaging up to February of this year, in which the group calls air travel “undertaxed” despite taxes having risen in the last seven years. Here again, the environmental argument doesn’t seem to be the only one in their sight:

“A T&E analysis has found new measures such as a carbon tax on motor fuels, aviation kerosene duty, and ending the VAT exemption for flights within and from Europe would raise more than €50 billion annually.”

Budgetary boost or environmental protection, the argument for increased taxes on air travel is making the rounds in Europe, and it will probably soon be an issue in the United States as well. So far, the European Union’s Commission hasn’t made a proposal in this direction yet, but the Belgian newspaper De Standaard indicates that: “Here and there, it is suggested that the environmental and health impact should play a role in the introduction of a European minimum excise duty on kerosene,” which is Brussels-speak for “this is going to become a proposal in the near future.”

But do not worry because, at least on climate change in general, the European Union is already “taking action.” With 25 percent of the new EU budget dedicated to “climate action,” the union is determined to increase investment into the issue of climate change. However, the two main proposals on the table as of now are a tax on plastic bags and changes in the Emissions Trading System (ETS), are, as the EU Budget Commissioner explained, merely options to improve tax revenue for Brussels.

Where exactly the 25 percent of spending goes seems unclear. Certainly, a large amount of environmentalist NGOs will pocket the funds in subsidies in order to advocate for even higher taxes.

How affected the EU will feel about the environmental impact of “too many people flying” is unclear, but it will certainly appeal to EU leaders who, with the UK, just lost a major contributor to their budget. They believe that making up for the lost funds can be done through higher taxes on traveling.

Higher taxation as a solution seems to be the go-to mechanism. Unless of course, there was an even more unreasonable idea floating around.

Rationing? Seriously?

At the beginning of this month, Guardian chief leader writer (her actual title; we’ll presume the title of “commissar” was already taken) Sonia Sodhamade a case which initially appears to be more articulate than that of advocates of over-taxation, but it should frighten all advocates of liberty at the mere mention of the word: rationing. Sodha suggests a carbon trading scheme which gives individuals a certain mileage allowance over a year, much in the style of current emissions trading for countries:

“We could develop a similar system for flights. Everyone could be given an air mile allowance—say enough for one long-haul return flight a year, or three short-haul flights, so people with families on the other side of the world could see them once a year. If you don’t want to use your allowance, you could sell it off in a government-regulated online marketplace. If you’re keen to do a holiday a month, you’ll have to buy your allowance from someone else.”

The underlying tone of this paragraph alone is stunning. Rationing is known from times in which goods became a rarity by conditions of war or economically inefficient models such as socialism, but it certainly isn’t a condition which we should produce ourselves. The temerity of claiming that she’d be so gracious as to allow others to visit their families abroad is truly breathtaking.

Here’s a general rule: you are not a stakeholder in the transaction between two individuals unless you invested into it. Making a moral judgment about how much travel is “necessary” for any kind of individual is immoral in itself, let alone all of the consequences that this would entail.

An emissions trading system would incentivize people to complete their miles unnoticed in order to both fly and sell emissions allowances. The government would be confronted with airline fraud, fake names on tickets, scam artists in mileage allowances, and the like. We’d end up with a system in which companies would jack up the price of miles because they send so many of their employees on business trips, which would increase calls for mileage subsidies and cause protests in order to increase the mileage allowance, and would generally require a centralized database and massive bureaucracy to manage. People would attempt to register an address in a country that doesn’t do as well in enforcement, or in a country outside of the EU, so that they can escape its jurisdiction. The possibilities are endless.

Flying Is Freedom

Be it taxation or rationing, it shouldn’t be the government’s role to determine how people spend their money and certainly not when and how much they travel. People’s movement causes carbon emissions. This is part of the evolution of human progress. People travel because they work or because their achievements have brought them into a position in which they can afford a holiday. And no, they don’t need to be allowed by a politician to do so or justify themselves in any way for the improvement of their lifestyle.

The solution to rising sea-levels in the Netherlands was becoming highly experienced in the construction of dams, not the attempt to reduce the sea-level. The improvement of cars that burn less fossil fuel derived from the fact that people want a competing product that uses fewer resources that would cost them money, not because a Guardian columnist argued for the rationing of car usage. Human progress appears through necessity, and it doesn’t stem from the office of any politician or bureaucrat. In fact, the latter do everything to get in the way of innovators.

Evidently, there is no difference between restricting travel through immigration law and restricting travel by taxing or rationing an affordable method of transportation. The only difference it does make is that it creates a two-tier society of those who can afford the cost of either the taxation or the tools to get around the law and those who will be unable to travel entirely.

A society so careful to care about the poorest in this world should take note.


This article was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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