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Improve the accounting of aviation’s climate impact
Currently, different numbers on the climate impact of aviation are misleading both public and policy discussions. Industry, governments and media often only include national flights in their numbers (since this is what is reported to the UNFCCC), and almost never mention the overall climate impact of aviation—beyond CO2. Important measures are therefore to seek the following improvements by those entities:
Include non-CO2 effects in GHG emissions accounting and online calculators. This should be done using a widely agreed-upon multiplication factor. Some countries already use such a factor: 1.9i in the UK, 2 in Franceii and Germany,iii 2.7 in Austriaiv. A wider review is underway, towards an agreed number. What is important to note is that the non-CO2 impact is not a uniform factor, but that it differs according to aircraft type, route, altitude, season and day vs. night time. For example, a flight across the North-Atlantic from Europe to North America can have a non-CO2 impact of 4.5 times the CO2 impact.
Make it mandatory for countries to include emissions from international aviation (and international shipping) in their reporting to the UNFCCC. Until this requirement is in place, international aviation (and shipping) should be included in each country’s accounts for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This means including international aviation and shipping when trying to achieve own carbon neutrality objectives (as e.g. the UKv and Francevi are considering to do).
- Calculate and make available the indirect emissions of aviation, i.e. CO2 emissions related to the production and distribution of jet fuel(regardless of fuel type, i.e. also including biofuels and synthetic fuels), the trips of the passengers and goods to and from the airports, the manufacture of aircraft, and airport activity.
- Require airlines to state an accurate estimate of the carbon emissions and non-CO2 effects of each flight on the tickets.
- Require companies and organisations to include business trips in their carbon accounting and environmental reporting.
- The climate impact of aviation should be included in airports’ GHG accounting/reporting and budgeting of airports.
- The climate impacts from surrounding airports should also be included into cities’ emissions accounting.
Limit air travel advertising
Air travel, although the most carbon intensive form of transport, remains highly advertised. The Stay Grounded position paper, outlining 13 steps to reduce aviation, demands in step number 10 that: “Systemic incentives for air travel should end. These include flight-related ads or other marketing by the travel, airline and aircraft manufacturing industries. […] These strong actions have precedent. Some nations banned cigarette ads decades ago, despite the ubiquity of smoking (and the ads) and the perceived rights of smokers”.vii
One strategy is to demand a ban or limit on advertising for flying, due to its harmful effects on the climate. Another strategy is to require that statements about climate impacts, and aviation’s contribution to them, be included on reservation websites, on tickets, at check-in stands and (unless they are banned) in advertisements. There are already several initiatives working towards changes in this direction: The Swedish campaign 20% Klimatvarning demands that EU-wide, 20% of the advertising space for air travel and fossil-fuelled cars should include information about climate change effects.viii The German group Am Boden Bleiben calls for a stop to aviation advertising. The goal is to emulate the anti-tobacco campaigns that achieved governmental bans on print and broadcast advertising of tobacco products, as well as health impact labels on cigarette packages.
A by-invitation report to the UK’s Committee on Climate Change discusses air travel marketing and makes this recommendation: “Encourage more responsible flying by mandating that all marketing of flights show emissions information expressed in terms that are meaningful to consumers (e.g., as proportion of an average household’s annual emissions now and under Net Zero)”.ix
Ban frequent flyer programmes
The primary function of frequent flyer programs (FFPs) is inducing a norm of excessive—and often unnecessary—travel,x to help boost the growth of the air travel industry. They cannot be justified in an era of dire climate crisis and should therefore be banned. Major airlines commonly make around half of their profits from their FFPs,xi resulting from high mark-ups on frequent flyer plan ‘miles’ sold to credit card companies, car rental companies, hotels, etc., as well as merchant charges on airline-branded rewards credit cards.xii In many cases, American Airlines’ flight operations have run at a loss, with its sole source of profit being its FFP.xiii
Such bans have already been tested: Denmarkxiv had bans for domestic frequent flyer programs in the past, to equalise competition among airlines. A report from 2019 by the UK government’s Committee on Climate Changexv includes recommendations for a ban on air miles and on frequent flyer programs, and proposes emissions labelling in air travel marketing.
Ban state funding for aviation
Another approach is to campaign for a general ban on state funding for aviation. State support for aviation is widespread. It ranges from indirect subsidies to exemption of VAT (as outlined in chapter 2). Other examples include support to Airbus (which caused trade penalties issued by the US), free infrastructure that is brought in place to enable people to get to and from airports, extremely low lease costs of grounds for airports to state-funded research for aviation, artificially low landing fees, costs of police and security, and investments in (partly) state owned airliners. Additionally, the cost of air traffic control is borne by taxpayers. Topped by free CO2 emissions under emission trading schemes and CORSIA. These exemptions and subsidies cost taxpayers tens of billions of euro and dollars. Each time a traveller buys a ticket, taxpayers pay at least the same as the ticket price for these hidden costs. This also increases the gap between rich and poor: the poor pay for the travelling habits of the privileged few.
Regulate international aviation’s (supposed) regulator – ICAO
The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has delegated the task of regulating non-technical aspects of aviation’s climate impacts to the UN International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). However, the UNFCCC must reclaim this authority for several reasons. ICAO is deeply conflicted on climate matters because one of its main goals is the growth of aviation. In addition, ICAO’s process is secretive, and organisations that lobby on behalf of the aviation sector have strong insider positions. If the UNFCCC does not take that step, it should prohibit ICAO from continuing to use and adopt regulations that rely on offsetting (see infobox here), and require that ICAO operates with utmost transparency on climate matters, including allowing unfettered observation of its meetings by the public, and free public access to all climate- and environment-relevant documents.
Ban aviation industry’s lobbying
One large campaign, which started at the end of 2019, demands that the EU cuts fossil fuels out of its politics, and pushes for change at the national and UN level.xvi The goal is to hinder the industries from profiting from the climate crisis and from influencing policies aimed at addressing it. There is a precedent: the World Health Organisation introduced a firewall to protect public health officials from tobacco lobbyists. The campaign on fossil fuels could also have an impact on aviation, since kerosene is mostly made up of fossil oil, but biofuels which can sometimes be even more harmful are excluded from this approach. Another possibility is to demand a firewall for the aviation industry, biofuels and related sectors.
Restrict aviation’s fuel supply
A declining cap on aviation fuel production and importation, regionally as well as (eventually) globally, would directly reduce climate-harming emissions and provide a clear signal to not expand airports.xvii The feasibility of this measure has not yet been studied.
Use existing permitting processes
Some local and regional campaigns could strategically make use of existing permitting processes to oppose new jet fuel supply pipelines and fuel farms. This could be an indirect way to oppose a specific airport project, through attacking the supply chain. Although similar to the aforementioned strategy of restricting the fuel supply of the entire regional or global aviation industry, the strategy here is specific to a local airport project and its overall impacts, as well as those caused by a long-distance fuel pipeline and the local storage facility.xviii
Counter low-cost airlines and support a just transition
The relatively new existence of low-cost carriers is a major reason for the new ‘normality’ of flying. While deregulation and absence of taxes account for cheaper prices, low-cost carriers also skimp on workforce costs. In the USA, for instance, the wages of airport staff fell by 19% between 1991 and 2001. Qualified staff are increasingly being replaced by inexperienced, cheaper part-time labourers. While quality and safety decline, stress and burnout are on the rise.xix There have been many strikes recently, demanding collective labour agreements, higher payments and better working conditions.
Supporting the demands for good working conditions in the aviation industry may at first seem counter-productive for achieving emission reductions, but it may actually be an important step: if low-cost carriers cease to be low-cost due to improved working conditions, this could decrease the demand for flights. If combined with both a reduction of employees’ working hours and the creation of good ‘climate jobs’ (railway/renewable energy sector), the result could be a reduction of aviation. Supporting a just transition in alliance with trade unions is a necessary step for eliminating the supposed ‘jobs versus climate’-dilemma, and can bring new allies to the climate justice movement.
Divestment from aviation industry stocks and bonds
There are existing campaigns pressuring investors (especially large ones like pension funds, investment firms, insurance companies and universities) to shift the fossil fuel stocks and bonds (or mutual funds that include them) in their portfolios to other kinds of assets. These campaigns have succeeded in diverting several trillion dollars of investments. A similar strategy could focus on investments in airlines, aircraft manufacturers, airport corporations, and airport construction companies. The aforementioned aviation corporations will likely be affected to some degree by any impacts caused by the more general fossil fuel divestment campaigns, but a specific campaign could intensify the results. An aviation divestment campaign could be run under the aegis of the existing fossil fuel ones, or independently.
It is relevant to investigate how effective divestment campaigns actually are (apart from raising public awareness of fossil fuels’ climate impacts). These campaigns only have a direct effect on an industry if a smaller market for the stocks and bonds reduces the value of new offerings of those financing instruments. Any devaluation of existing stocks and bonds as a result of the campaigns only reduces their value in trades between investors, and is inconsequential to the industry itself, but in practice there is little devaluation. As a result, substantial benefit, if any, of divestment campaigns for the climate is delayed and dependent on when corporations issue new securities.xx Another matter is that while fossil fuels are widely viewed as problematic for the climate, an aviation divestment campaign has the added burden of changing public mindsets regarding air travel in order to get significant traction. But divestment campaigns can raise public awareness, helping to build a movement. Also, it is usually easier to call for divestment from dirty industries than proposing new investment in ‘green’ assets (which can, in any case, be problematic and drive land grabbing).
Uninsure airlines and aircraft manufacturers
Large corporations depend on insurance to guard themselves against legal liabilities. This year, insurance companies have refused to renew or initiate insurance policies for several coal companies due to liabilities for climate change. Several cities have sued major oil companies over fraud and harms regarding their role in climate change. These companies may eventually also find insurance difficult, very expensive, or impossible to obtain. Campaigns to highlight the risk-exposure of airlines, aircraft manufacturers and airports to legal liabilities—or to sue them—may hinder these companies’ ability to obtain insurance, operate profitably or to attract investors. Campaigns that have helped make coal operations uninsurable may serve as a model for how to proceed concerning aviation. The most successful model to date is Unfriend Coal.xxi Their 2018 scorecard doesn’t shy away from their achievements.xxii For now, forcing de-insurance of aviation companies faces a higher hurdle than for coal, because aviation still has a positive public image. But that image is beginning to change. For inspiration, in 2015 the world’s largest insurance company (Allianz) divested from coal,xxiii and last December, 73 environmental organisations urged re/insurers to pull out support for Australian coal mine.xxiv
Challenge military aviation
Climate harming emissions by military aviation of some nations are enormous, particularly in the USA, UK, several European nations, Russia and China. It is a matter not only of the conduct of war, but of ongoing logistics of moving personnel and material by air, and of maintaining readiness in a tense world. These emissions have so far been intractable, with no NGOs finding a way to effectively confront the problem. Nonetheless, it deserves attention and should be part of a wider strategy that challenges both the climate impact of the military and its other inhumane consequences.xxv
Behaviour change campaigns
In Europe in recent years, several campaigns started raising awareness about the negative impacts of flying and encouraged people to pledge to fly less or not fly the next year/summer. Their goal is to start a snowball effect of individuals changing their travel behaviour. A prominent example is the ‘flygskam’ or ‘flying shame’ concept that went viral in social and conventional media, with people confessing to feeling ashamed when flying. In Sweden, it seems to have caused a slight reduction in flights and notably higher demand for trains in 2019.xxvi
Conversely, there are also critical voices concerning the effectiveness of behaviour change campaigns—the praxis theory points out several of them.xxvii They foment the idea that individuals can only create change by consuming differently—while there are also many other ways for political engagement. They also ‘desocialise’ people and do not take into account the factors that drive people to fly, for example the social and cultural background, the economic situation, or the existing infrastructures. If flights remain ‘normal’—with advertisements placed at every corner, tickets continuing to be extremely cheap and few night trains available—there will be few people receptive to pledge campaigns, while millions of new people around the world discover the coolness of flying.
Still, especially in environmentally attuned sectors of society, the normality of flying can be challenged by role models like Greta Thunberg or people in one’s circle of friends, who show that living or travelling without flying is possible, exciting and ‘the new cool’. Being able to spark a movement of grounded or ‘terran’ people can, as has been the case with veganism, have an effect, especially if this leads to increased political pressure for policy changes.
For these reasons, Stay Grounded is organising the European campaign Let’s stay grounded!,xxviii incentivising people not only to pledge to fly less, but also to engage in activism combating aviation through a variety of means.
Larsson et al. (2019). International and National Climate Policies for Aviation: A Review. In: Climate Policy 19 (6).
Stay Grounded (2018a). 13 Steps for a Just Transport System and for Rapidly Reducing Emissions.
Find the while literature list in the report Degrowth of Aviation, p. 45-47
i Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (2018: 82)
ii BilanGES (n.d.)
iii UBA Germany (2018: footnote 4)
iv UBA Austria (2019)
v Committee on Climate Change (2019: 263)
vi Direction Générale de l’Energie et du Climat (2019: 3)
vii Stay Grounded (2018a)
viii 20% Klimatvarning (n.d.)
ix Carmichael (2019)
x Gössling and Nilsson (2010)
xi Leff (2017)
xii Sorenson (2011)
xiii Leff (2019a) and (2019b)
xiv Storm (1999)
xv Carmichael (2019: 33)
xvi Corporate Europe Observatory (2019)
xviiStay Grounded (2018b)
xviii Market Industry Reports (2019)
xix ITF (2014) and (2016)
xx Feasta (2014), New Yorker (n.d.)
xxi Unfriend Coal (n.d.)
xxii Unfriend Coal (2018)
xxiii 350.org (2015)
xxiv Sheenan (2018)
xxv Crawford (2019)
xxvi de Zárate (2019)
xxvii Walker (2015)
xxviii Stay Grounded (2019c)