Aviation’s carbon footprint – why Europe will push for a kerosene tax

Planes powered by algae, plants or waste as a long-term solution to addressing fuel efficiency. Photo by Pierluigi Longo/Johns Hopkins Health Review

An opportune moment – EU reconfiguration

Environmental preoccupation is at the centre stage of European policy like never before. It fragmented the European Parliament on May 26th and has left unclear who will take on the presidency of the Commission. Many agree that Europe must sustain its global leadership on climate, while enhancing its action. One growing concern has resurfaced in recent months and may remain at the top of environmentalists’ agendas during the next mandate: aviation’s carbon footprint.

Tax on kerosene – what form would it take?

Air travel in the EU is subject to several taxes: passenger duty, airport tax, domestic VAT (in some countries). However, no member state currently imposes taxation on kerosene, the fuel used to power airplanes. Such a tax already exists in the USA, Japan and India for domestic flights; this measure would thus not be the first of its kind.

A European Commission report, leaked to the media in May, modelled the kerosene tax at 330 euros per thousand litres, which is equivalent to the current minimum diesel tax rate in the EU. This would induce a 10% reduction in ticket purchases Union-wide, 11% less sectoral carbon emissions, and 9.5 billion euros in revenue. This taxation alone would almost curb the Brexit gap in the EU budget. The proposal is that funds then be allocated to:

  • reinforcing railway travel throughout Europe
  • financing sustainable transport plans

Why tax consumer tickets and not airlines?

  • Airlines already face significant economic pressure in the payment of fuel, their highest expense;
  • In 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organisation presented CORSIA, system by which airlines will need to offset their carbon emissions (buy carbon allowances from other industries) once they reach an established limit, from 2020 onwards. Unlike a tax, this method does not address demand;
  • A fuel tax currently exists for every other transportation sector in Europe.

Starting small

Talks of an eventual tax have gained much momentum in Western Europe. Aware that opinions differ within the Union, three countries are using the domestic option to accelerate the process. The Netherlands submitted a bill mid-May to impose a 7-euro tax per passenger for flights in the country as soon as 2021. Belgium wants to follow suit.

French parliamentarians consider this method as ineffective. While the government supports an intra-European tax, members of the opposition will soon propose a law that would completely ban domestic flights that take less than five hours by train, or those that take a maximum of two and a half hours by train, as a lighter version.

This idea is based on the fact that passengers emit 285 grams of CO2 per kilometre by plane, but only 14 grams by train. Another similar proposal was to introduce quotas on the number of flights a passenger can make in a given timeframe.

France’s Gilets Jaunes genesis was the carbon tax, which had set a 3-cents increase of fuel prices per litre. The term punitive ecology, which fiscally ‘punishes’ consumers in order to engender a climate transition, constantly resurfaced in public debate, condemning measures that favour the rich. A kerosene tax is not the same. Firstly, a carbon tax on car fuel has been around since 2014, the idea in 2018 was to increase it. No tax applies on kerosene. Secondly, people use their car for daily commitments: work, school, groceries…we cannot simply limit car use. Plane travel is a different problem altogether.

The unique issues of aviation

Aviation currently contributes 4.9% of total greenhouse gas effects, according to the research centre Transport & Environment, or 2% if only net carbon emissions are considered. This number seems small in comparison to the 17% from road travel alone, as published by WHO (World Health Organization).

But consider the following:

A)   Tourists

70 million tourists in 1960

1.4 billion tourists in 2018 (4.3 billion passengers)

8.2 billion predicted passengers in 2037

Global air travel growth is and will be strongest in Asia, where an exponential middle class is now acquiring the means to travel, and wants to travel. 1 billion international trips were registered in China in 2016, up from 298 million in 2006. 98% of India’s population has yet to board a plane. Africa’s aviation market is just beginning to show its potential.

In an ever-globalising world, with trade and tourism covering larger distances than ever before, air travel seems difficult to avoid altogether. People should be allowed to travel too. Aside from personal development and cultural openness, tourism is a great source of employment and economic prosperity in many parts of the world. Jean-Francois Rial even argues that tourism indirectly contributes to the eradication of authoritarianism and the establishment of human rights worldwide.

2037 forecast for aircrafts operating in each region, The Economist/Airbus

B)   Biofuels

The progressive integration of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), or biofuels, into a jet engine’s energy mix, is currently the best long-term mechanism to reduce aviation’s carbon footprint.

150,000 flights have partially flown on biofuels to this day, and five airports regularly distribute biofuels. Its use equalled around 0.1% of total aviation fuel consumption in 2018. One main difference with the automotive industry is thus the speed of its energy transition; while the latter has embarked on an electric revolution, sustainable airplanes, while on the horizon, will be widespread in a few decades, which is too late.

Bearing this outlook in mind, aforementioned domestic flight bans and flight quotas, amongst other ideas that condemn flying altogether, should be questioned. While their premise is well founded and they could work in practice, they remain for the moment national ambitions that would be much harder to discuss with the international community than a global tax on kerosene.

For this is what the EU would eventually seek. As with other measures to ensure climate action, such as the Single-Use Plastics Directive, the ultimate aim is to push other regions to do the same, and ensure rapid international action.

Alternative solutions

Policy aside, other actors can contribute to more sustainable travel.


Manufacturers and distributors will always work to address both sustainability demands and the challenge of an insufficient fleet – with an ever-increasing clientele, Airbus and Boeing may simply not be able to manufacture enough airplanes to fit all passengers. KLM is currently funding a project to make energy efficient Delta shaped airplanes, French company Expliseat is working on the world’s lightest cabin seats, intelligent navigation systems are being developed for reduced mileage, and coordination at airports is being reconsidered so as to avoid fuel consumption on the tarmac when a plane awaits take-off.

Tourism sector

In an attempt to make long distance tourism more sustainable, tour operators are increasingly turning to offsetting strategies. For example, Voyageurs du monde charges users of their travel service an extra cost that finances tree plantations. With 300,000 yearly clients, the agency thus plants more than 4,000 trees every day and in so doing has become carbon neutral. Such a success demonstrates not only that consumers are willing to contribute, but also that private initiatives can have a positive impact without a push from policy.

Consumer education

A movement in Sweden is radically changing domestic flight tendencies. Flygskam, which means shame of flying, led to an 8% reduction in passengers so far this year, with Swedes endorsing train travel on social media. This demonstrates that punitive measures are not always necessary, but it does condemn all those who choose to fly. This may not be necessary either.

Studies have shown that consumers across Europe are not fully aware of aviation’s environmental effects. This type of movement will no doubt educate future travellers, and perhaps its key message will be to fly less, or to cut out short distance flights, as in some cases flight travel cannot be avoided.

In May, a group of students from Utrecht University launched a ‘citizens’ initiative’ for a kerosene tax in Europe. If their petition reaches 1 million signatures, the European Commission will have to examine the proposal. This could be the new European mandate’s first concrete action on climate, and provided the framework is coherent, could finance sustainable mobility projects around Europe.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: