Two reasons why cheap flights may cost us the Earth – and what to do about it

While the volume of air travel continues to skyrocket, something else is in the air. META takes a look into the hidden costs of flying and the rising movement to Stay Grounded.

From hit-and-run weekend getaways to international business trips, flying has become the default mode for speedy travel. At the same time, air transport is increasingly chosen to move goods in a fast-paced and globalised market. According to the International Civil Aviation Organisation, over half of the world’s 1.4 billion tourists who travelled across international borders in 2018 did so by air, while air transport now carries some 35% of world trade by value.

As plane tickets become cheaper and air transport becomes more accessible, the number of commercial flights has been steadily increasing since the early 2000s, and is expected to reach 39.4 million in 2019.

Number of flights performed by the global airline industry from 2004 to 2019
(in millions)

At the same time, an increasing number of green organisations and citizens groups across the world are raising concerns about the social and environmental impacts of cheap flying. META talked to Nick Meynen, policy officer for environmental and economic justice at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), to take a deeper look into the true cost of aviation.

There is no such thing as ‘green flying’

Aviation is the most climate damaging form of transport and one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

“If aviation were a country, it would be one of the top-10 emitters. Emissions from aviation are rising more rapidly than any other sector of the economy,” Meynen told META.

Data from Brussels-based NGO Transport & Environment reveal that carbon pollution from flying in Europe has risen a staggering 26% in the last five years – far outpacing any other transport mode.

As the damaging impact of aviation on climate change is starting to be discussed more and more, the aviation industry has announced its intention to become greener in the future. However, as Meynen points out, none of the current strategies that target aviation’s climate impact actually challenge the constant growth of emissions by the sector. Instead, they pretend that flying could, in the future, become ‘climate neutral’ through technical improvements, biofuels and offsetting.

“All of these so called solutions for aviation emissions make minor changes at best, smokescreens at worst. The only way to counter the climate impacts of aviation is to fly less, but at the moment everything encourages people to fly – be it cheap prices, advertisement or simply a lack of alternatives,” notes Meynen. “It is no wonder that the number of flights is growing dramatically. For every person deciding to stop flying, 50 more might start if we don’t make it easier and cheaper to travel with one’s feet on the ground.”

Flying can spark conflicts

On top of the climate impact of flying, the continuous expansion of aviation infrastructures can trigger socio-environmental conflicts – more than 300 according to research by the global network Stay Grounded and the Environmental Science and Technology Institute at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (ICTA-UAB). Information on 60 of those conflicts is available on this map.

As the industry expects a doubling of air passengers over the next 20 years, demand is growing for new of bigger airports which, in turn, will leader to even greater volumes of flights. According to the Stay Grounded network, 550 new airports or runways are currently planned or being built around the world, without counting runway expansions and new terminals. These projects come with heavy consequences, such as forced evictions, land grabbing, deforestation and biodiversity loss, and health issues among local residents due to the high exposure to pollutants and noise.

“It is mostly non-flyers who bear the brunt of the climate crisis and the negative effects of airport expansion like land grabbing, noise and health issues. Communities in the Global South, which have barely contributed to the crisis, are the most affected. The problem of aviation is part of a bigger story of injustice”, said Meynen.

From Canada to Papua New Guinea, and from Sweden to Peru, environmental and social justice groups are denouncing these injustices and protesting against airport expansion projects. Although the mobilisation of local communities often manages to stop, suspend or relocate the projects, this occasionally happens only after serious environmental and social impacts have been created. This is the case of an airport on the island of Koh Phangan, Thailand, that was stopped after the forest had already been illegally logged.

According to Stay Grounded and ICTA-UAB, mapping airport conflicts will help affected groups and environmental, social and climate justice movements to connect and join forces.

Groundbreaking solutions

If cheap flying is costing us the Earth, how do we invert the trend?
On 12-14 July Stay Grounded and ICTA-UAB organised the ‘Degrowth of Aviation’ conference in Barcelona to discuss measures to reduce aviation and its impacts. The no-flight conference brought together 200 people from social movements, NGOs and academia to discuss concrete measures and strategies to reduce air traffic.

The conference highlighted seven strategies to reduce aviation and build a just transport system. Here are some of them.

End tax exemptions

While taxes do not solve all problems, subsidising the aviation industry and exempting it from taxation can only fuel the side effects of flying. On the other hand, last spring META reported on how the successful implementation of aviation taxes has been linked to a decrease in flights within the UK.

“There is no value-added tax on plane tickets, which favours aircraft over other modes of transportation. Moreover, there is no tax on kerosene, which is used to make aviation fuel. This is the main reason why flying is less expensive than taking the train”, explained Meynen.

Last month, a group of young people launched a European Citizens Initiative urging the European Union to remove the tax exemption on kerosene and uncover the hidden cost of air travel on the environment.

In addition to ending tax privileges for the aviation industry, a frequent flyer levy could help ensuring that the few passengers who fly many times a year are the ones who foot the bill for the true cost of air travelling.

End short haul and domestic flights and foster alternatives

Limiting those flights that can easily be replaced by train or bus rides, while at the same time improving the infrastructures for overland travelling, is key to encourage a more just and sustainable way of transporting people and goods.

In Europe, this includes enhancing train infrastructure, and offering comfortable night trains, convenient connections, and accessible booking systems across country borders. Making transnational train journeys easier, faster and more affordable than they presently are will allow more and more passengers to choose the scenic route to greener travel.

Limit airport infrastructures

Expanding airports and constructing new ones to meet the rising demand for flights is, in turn, boosting that very demand, as increased capacity calls for more flights. In contrast, refraining from building new airports, setting limits for both flight numbers and noise, and scaling down existing airports wherever possible, are all important strategies to reduce our dependence on aviation and its collateral damage on local communities and the environment – while helping everyone to stay grounded.