Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Rant against Poor People on Airplanes

Even when one doesn’t buy the crackpot science of so-called “climate skeptics, one has to concede that the real culprits for greenhouse gas emissions are the coal-blazing Chinese (and to a lesser but growing extent Germans – yeah, getting out of nuclear without Plan B was a great idea, wasn’t it) and the shameless and wicked oil barons that push the black gunk on the world and fund the above-mentioned crackpot science.  Apparently also the forecasts are being revised since while the planet is indeed warming, it has recently not been warming at quite the rate as expected.  So the future generations might yet survive, hooray!  Or wait, has the rate in fact been quickening?

All this confusion notwithstanding, I’m a firm believer in everyone doing their bit.  If for no other reason, then at least for the license it gives us to wave a fist at them Chinese (and Germans) and oil barons – not to mention the snootiness we can display towards less environmentally conscious friends at dinner parties and over drinks.

I fly a lot.  I fly for business and I fly for personal reasons.  I don’t fly for “pleasure”, because I hate flying, but it gets me to places I need to go such as Berlin to see F, Helsinki to see everyone or Malaga to see mum and dad (and, ok yes, lounge by the pool, you got me).

I feel constant guilt about my flying.  In terms of personal contributions to carbon emissions, flying is as bad as it gets.  I can munch all the locally grown carrots I want and walk to work, but the fact is that all of that is dwarfed by the ecological disaster that is my flying habits.  On an individual level, my flying probably puts me in the top 5% of worldwide contributors to climate change.  Hence there has not been much snootiness displayed recently on my part.

Simply put: I should fly less.  So should you, even if you don’t fly as much as me.

The reality is, however, that as long as flying is as cheap as it is, neither you nor I will cut down on it. 

Do you remember what it was like when we oldies were growing up, or at uni/college?  We did NOT hop over to Vienna or Lisbon or Istanbul for a weekend, because we had no money for it.  The flights would have cost several hundred pounds (no Euros back then!), which was well beyond our budgets.  The 20-something kids nowadays have it different.  Even on a student budget they take mini-breaks to other countries and fly off to Mexico or Vietnam to backpack between terms, because they can.

I think that the subsidies to air travel should stop and the cost of jet fuel should actually include a huge tax to cover for the environmental externalities of flying.  If a carbon tax is ever implemented anywhere, it could take care of this.  The EU emission trading scheme obviously includes flying, but the whole system is a total dud.  If a working one is ever conceived (ideally a world-wide one), it should definitely include flying at its actual cost and impact. 

I think what I’m making here is a very sensible proposal.  Yet, when I’ve made it in conversation, it has been immediately rejected.  F, for example, has told me that I’m elitist and pointed out that if my idea was reality only I could afford to do the bi-weekly visits that are the lifeline of a long-distance relationship, since I have a job and he is still a student.

Obviously if flying was made more expensive it would mean that less people could afford to do it.  I don’t see a problem with that – in fact it would be the whole point: reduce flying.  There have always been activities that are beyond the means of most people.  I don’t own a private jet or a mansion or a Lamborghini, all of which pollute and contribute to climate change, but I don’t get called an elitist for being OK with this state of affairs and not demanding that we should all be able to afford all that.  The reason I get called an elitist for advocating more expensive flying to discourage it and cover the actual costs of it is because we have somehow come to think in recent years that being able to afford to fly (“hyper-mobility” as it is called in the green lingo) is some kind of a basic human right that should be available to everyone, regardless of their financial situation.  Well it ain’t.  It’s an expensive and polluting activity and it should be discouraged.

So I say hike up the prices, ban Easyjet and get the proles off planes!


  1. What an interesting post! I agree with Laura that carbon emissions are an important issue and more (substantial) discussion should be devoted to it. Having said this and for the sake of debate, I don't agree with your approach though. Despite possibly being somewhat effective (I'm saying 'possibly' since I guess that people who can't afford flying anymore might turn to other carbon-intensive means of transportation such as driving a car) I don't think merely increasing the prices of something so that people who don't have a lot of money can't afford it anymore is very democratic or just. To keep up with the provocative nature of this post I would even say that it is easier to make such a suggestion when you in fact make a decent amount of money.

    If you want to regulate carbon emissions by increasing the flight prices two issues (among probably many others) should be considered in my view:

    First, if you hike up flight prices, the prices for less carbon-intensive means of transportation such as trains should go down. I can only speak for Germany and France here but especially long-distance trains (ICE or TGV) are expensive. In general, I don't understand why trains are not subsidised more.

    Second, if you want the population to fly less increase the prices for everyone orientating at their income (so a higher price for someone with more money and a lower price for someone with less money) and possibly even considering the reason for the flight (less for business and more for holidays). Of course, this will require significant administrative effort and wouldn't necessarily get the proles of planes (not sure that this would be ensured otherwise...) but guarantees everyone has more or less the same incentive to fly less.

    Finally, I have to confess that without disregarding the importance of reducing our overall carbon emission I have been and I still am quite thankful for partially cheap short-distance flights since it enabled me to enter into and then maintain a fantastic relationship with someone who lives in a different country than I do. So thank you easyjet!

    I would be quite interested in hearing other people's views, maybe you also have a more or less personal connection to this issue.

    PS: I have a feeling that there is more coming, so at this point just so much: As far as I can see Germany did not get out of nuclear power without a plan. Admittedly, it could have done so in a smoother fashion. After the step by step phase-out of nuclear power, the part that was formerly provided by nuclear power plants is supposed to be replaced by renewable energy. See for an interesting visualisation and for some substance Annegret Groebel, Head of Department International Affairs and Postal Regulation in Brussels on 12 April 2013

    1. Hello anonymous,

      I am also in a long-distance relationship – what do you know, we have something in common!

      Interesting ideas you propose. I obviously wholeheartedly agree with the first one. Rail travel should be encouraged and subsidised. The rail network in Europe should be developed.

      The second one is, if possible, even more interesting. Having given it some serious thought, I don’t think it is feasible, though. First of all, it would be impracticable. How would you determine what price each flight ticket holder would have to pay? There is no global tax register of people’s income and wealth. Secondly, I don’t think it coincides with the economic principles behind my idea and would thus be unfair. That's right, MY proposal is fair, YOURS is unfair. The point of the tax would be to internalise the economic externalities of flying into ticket prices, but those externalities are exactly the same whether it is me or Bill Gates sitting in that plane. Why would Bill Gates have to subsidise your or my flying? But then again, Bill Gates is more likely to sit in First Class (if not taking a private jet), which creates higher externalities, and he is of course paying a higher price for that ticket. So to some extent – to the maximum extent it can, I would argue – your proposal is already in use!

      As for Germans and nuclear power, well all I'll say is the "to be replaced by green energy" plan is hopelessly naive. Oh and thanks for being provoked ;)

    2. Laura,
      I think you are writing off the German 'Energiewende' too soon! It might seem 'hopelessly naive' for now but the situation 2-3 years from now will be quite different.

  2. Hey Laura,
    I have been reading your blog for a while now but here's my first comment. Interesting idea of making flying more expensive to discourage it.
    I fly for work, pleasure and personal reasons very often, both international and domestic, on average 2-3 return trips a month. And I work in structuring renewable energy finance in Asia and Africa, so the irony of this situation is not lost on me. But I justify it by telling myself that the renewable energy capacity that gets deployed due to my work replaces/prevents many fossil fuel-fired power plants. I haven't exactly done a cost-benefit analysis of flying for working on renewable energy but do you think my justification makes sense or am I just rationalizing?
    I couldn't afford to say no to work travel these past 4 years since I was building my reputation in this business but I have started to make a conscious effort to reduce unnecessary travel these days and I definitely plan to cut down on business class air travel. So there, I am making an effort and you can stop pointing your accusatory finger at me now! :)

  3. Hi Sagar,

    I'm so pleased with your comment, not least because you are the resident green energy expert among my friends. But this endorsement comes with extra responsibility ... PLEASE explain why you think the "Energiewende" is anything but naive!

    As for your flying habits, you know you're rationalising as far as pleasure and personal trips are concerned, just like I am. Your green energy efforts would still occur, whether you flew for personal reasons or not. It is the same with me being a vegetarian and not owning a car. I try to convince myself that this justifies my flying habits but of course it does not. I could still be a vegetarian and rely on public transport, whether I flew to London/Berlin/Helsinki for personal reasons or not. But at least you can justify your work trips with your green efforts. The best I can do is tell myself that those go on the green conscience of my employer, not me!