Frequent travelers are incentivized for contributing to pollution. They should be responsible for paying the entire cost. | Martha Gill
Is the concept of achieving net zero considered a “luxury belief”? There seems to be a peculiar notion embedded in the discussion on climate change: that the responsibility for reducing carbon emissions will inevitably have the greatest impact on those who are least fortunate.
The reasoning behind labeling climate activists as snobbish and classist virtue-signalers is the same reasoning behind Rishi Sunak’s recent decision to step back from green policies. The prime minister stated that it is not fair for the government to burden working individuals with high costs. This group would be the most affected by such policies.
This is not a fundamental rule of nature, but rather a decision. Environmental policies do not inherently require ordinary individuals to bear the burden, although we have typically structured them in that way. It is entirely plausible to adopt a more progressive approach where the wealthiest individuals are responsible for the costs of mitigating carbon emissions. However, policymakers like Sunak, who was allegedly using a private aircraft or helicopter every eight days during his time as prime minister, seem to have overlooked this option.
Let’s use flying as an example of an activity that consumes a lot of carbon and often goes unnoticed, unlike driving or heating. This is unfortunate, especially for those like Sunak who are concerned about the impact of green policies on the working class, because flying tends to be more common among the wealthy, leisurely, and city-dwelling individuals.
Flying is a major contributor to both wealth and carbon emissions, with a small percentage of people responsible for a large portion of flight emissions. A recent investigation by The Guardian looked into the carbon footprint of private jets owned by 200 high-profile individuals, revealing that their emissions were equivalent to those of nearly 40,000 average British citizens.
In the meantime, even individuals who fly on commercial airlines are contributing to pollution based on their income. Passengers who are able to stretch out and sleep in first class leave a larger carbon footprint than those in business class who are seated upright but still relaxing. And those in economy class who are squeezed into tight spaces have the smallest carbon footprint and require fewer flights.
Why haven’t we implemented a steeply progressive tax on flying, even though it seems like an easy solution to environmental concerns? This type of system could be easily created. People who only fly once or twice a year for vacation wouldn’t have to pay extra. However, those who exceed their carbon allowance would face increasing taxes based on their emissions, punishing those who fly excessively. This would make even the wealthiest frequent flyers reconsider their travel habits. Private jets, on the other hand, would become a financial burden due to high taxes and fuel costs.
Of course, the sorts who can afford private jets in the first place may be able to absorb these extra costs and keep on flying. But that is exactly why we should impose them. We are missing out on a dollop of money that could be put towards home insulation, charging points for electric cars, or even transforming the air industry. Green jet fuel is already here. But the business of switching from kerosene to hydrogen lacks both urgency and cash.
However, we do not follow this practice. Surprisingly, incentives are aligned in the opposite direction. Jet fuel is exempt from taxes, unlike the fuel used by other modes of transportation. When flying on a private jet, passengers pay the same air passenger duty as they would on a commercial flight. Additionally, frequent flyer programs can be seen as a distorted reward system, similar to receiving free pens for causing the biggest oil spill or a set of steak knives for killing the last rhino.
These add another layer to the current situation. Frequent flyer programs establish a separate social hierarchy that only exists within airports and airplanes, where emitting more emissions is directly linked to higher status. And these incentives are effective. A recent study of these programs revealed the practice of “tier point running” – taking unnecessary flights in order to reach the next level of privileges. “Seven other individuals in the first-class cabin were all engaging in the same behavior as me – flying solely to increase their status,” shared one user on a frequent flyer forum. “From a personal health perspective, it’s not a wise decision.” Status holds significant influence.
However, it’s not only through air travel or owning a yacht that the wealthy contribute more to pollution than the rest of us. The penalties are unfairly distributed in all areas. A fixed tax on fuel costs disproportionately affects those with lower incomes whose household budgets are mostly allocated towards energy expenses. Individuals living in inefficient homes end up paying more for their energy usage. Additionally, subsidies for electric vehicles primarily benefit rich individuals who can already afford to purchase a new car.
It is within our capabilities to find a solution to the problem. According to economist Thomas Picketty, a carbon allowance should be distributed to cover basic needs, with additional activities being subject to increasing taxes. This could prevent backlash from those opposed to pro-environment policies.
Why do we prioritize sacrificing necessities for the environment instead of luxuries? There is a clear bias in environmentalism where people are supportive until it affects them personally. This bias may even extend to policymakers who are frequent fliers and high earners.