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How to reduce “binge flying”

Most people are hypocrites on climate change, writes Max Hastings, and won’t quit their aviation habit until it really hurts their wallets. He joins calls for a hefty “green tax” on airline tickets to discourage an excessive flying culture.

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Mark Ellingham has made a sizeable fortune from the creation of the Rough Guides to almost everywhere. He is short-listed (in Britain) for the Royal Society’s prize for science writing, for his book The Rough Guide to Climate Change.

Now, in a conversion that would command the admiration of St Paul, he declares that “binge flying” constitutes a huge threat to the global environment. “If the travel industry rosily goes ahead as it is doing, ignoring the effect that carbon emissions from flying are having on climate change, we are putting ourselves in a very similar position to the tobacco industry.”

He readily admits the irony that he, of all people, should articulate such a warning. He appeals for moderation, for setting some limits on our insatiable appetite for travel: “We now live in a society where, if people have nothing to do on a Saturday night, they go to Budapest for 48 hours. We fly anywhere at the slightest opportunity, 10 times and upwards a year. This needs to be addressed with the greatest urgency.”

Environmentalists would say that Ellingham is stating the obvious, adding, of course, that it is pretty rich coming from him. I am full of admiration for his frankness, however. Almost all of us are hypocrites about climate change. We know that it is real, and desperately serious. Yet we are in a shocking muddle about how to relate our personal behaviour to the phenomenon.

For those who inhabit the developed world, opportunities for travel represent the most significant new personal freedom of the past half-century. Even as recently as the 1960s, hitch-hiking to Greece and Turkey was a big deal for the adventurous young middle class. Africa and Asia were high-ticket destinations, South America and Australia almost off the map.

Today, it is possible to fly almost anywhere for a few hundred British pounds, and we all do. Every arriving jet at Nairobi or Ho Chi Minh City or Buenos Aires disgorges its crowds of package tourists and backpackers. Short breaks, which mean intensive plane use, are booming. Short-break destinations from the United Kingdom include Cape Town and Dubai.

Common sense tells us that all this is environmentally disastrous. Yet common sense also tells us that tourism is doing great things for the economies of poor societies all over the world. Carbon emissions soar as a result of flying flowers and vegetables to Europe and America from Africa and Mexico. Yet if that traffic stopped, millions of needy people in the growers’ trade would suffer.

All this leaves many of us as confused as Ellingham. Relatively speaking, the travel boom has hardly started. In the decades ahead, many more millions will possess the means and the desire to fly further and more often. The Chinese, for instance, have only just begun to discover the joys of holidaying abroad. Suggesting to people who live in newly emergent economies that they should forgo travel is comparable with the modern western enthusiasm for saving Africa’s great animals, after slaughtering them wholesale for a century or two.

Even in the west, it is dangerous politics for a government to seek to check the electorate’s passion to fly, just as few democratic nations dare meddle with the freedom to drive. All credible curbs must be based on pricing. Yet if it becomes harder for the poor to travel while the rich stay airborne, this does not sound good on the hustings.
The best and simplest way forward would be to tax aviation fuel, to end the crazy anomaly whereby moving a plane is cheap, while driving a car is expensive almost everywhere in the world save Iran and the United States. But it is almost impossible to reach an international agreement on taxing aviation fuel that would stick. No government will act unilaterally, with the prospect of watching its aviation industry migrate elsewhere.


Ellingham suggests a £100 [$200] “green tax” on tickets for all flights from the UK to Europe and Africa, £250 ($500) to more remote destinations. The first benefit of this would be to deter short-haul flying within the UK. It is absurd that it costs far more to take a train to Newcastle or Edinburgh than to catch a plane there. Lots of us, including me, love trains and are only deterred from using them by the cost.

Some destination countries would benefit from discouraging low-budget travellers, because the environmental costs that their visits impose outweigh the cash that they spend. The Samburu National Park in Kenya is currently threatened by the building of two 500-bed hotels. Samburu is a small area, famous for its elephants. Tourists in such numbers will overwhelm its fragile ecosystem. Any rational long-term view of Samburu’s interests would come down against the new hotels, and in favour of extracting more money from fewer tourists. The projects will go ahead only because a handful of people will profit handsomely from their construction.

The low-budget traveller creates dilemmas for destinations all over the world. The mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari, wants a levy of €1 [$1.35] a head imposed on the 20 million tourists who come to the city each year, to help with the huge municipal costs they impose. Venice is currently struggling to enforce the ban on picnicking in St Mark’s Square, and on walking the streets bare-chested or in bikini tops.

If this sounds pompous, the citizens of Venice reply that, at present, a great host of visitors spend next to nothing and conduct themselves in a manner that diminishes the grace and beauty they come to see. Other Italian cities, including Rome and Florence, are drawing up codes of conduct to restrain boorish behaviour by tourists.

Here, it is easy for a good democrat to explode: “Do you want to restrict the wonders of the world to rich bastards?” But it is an obvious truth that the more people who visit a given place, the greater damage they inflict upon it. Ellingham again: “Balancing all the positives and negatives, I’m not convinced there is such a thing as a ‘responsible’ or ‘ethical’ holiday.”

The bad news for the environment is that it is impossible to believe that the global travel boom will stop. Whatever is done in Britain, or in the western world at large, amid our consciousness of climate change, many other nations that have only just begun to experience prosperity have no intention of depriving their citizens of its privileges.

As with other responses to climate change, however, this is no reason for us to do nothing. Even if the British government is obliged to act unilaterally, it must be right to impose higher costs on air travel through taxation. Indeed, it would be irresponsible not to do so.

Ellingham urges us all to impose some discipline on our own travel, refusing to succumb to “binge flying”. Only a minority of thoughtful people, the same kind who buy organic products, are likely to heed him. Most of us change our bad habits only when we are made to do so. We will fly less only when it hurts our pockets too much to fly more. Ellingham is surely right that this must be made to happen, and all credit to him for saying so.



Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2007

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





Dongying in London

Would a green tax be effective?

I don’t think a 'green tax' on air fare would help reduce air travel. Not only is travel unavoidable, but as long as flying is affordable, it will remain a preferred mode of travel. Unless there is good regulation on air travel which insures that 'green tax' is ultimately used to help solve environmental problems, such a tax would only increase the airline’s income, and bolster the profits of certain groups in the end. This is a very likely outcome in my opinion. Should this be the case, 'green tax' would lose its original purpose and meaning. A solution to environmental problems is ultimately dependent on the individual's willingness to change their lifestyles and technological progress. In other words, alternative ways of dealing with the problem only provide temporary solutions, and do not address the root causes.

Dongying in London

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous






Re: Would a green tax be effective?

I think that long-haul flights are almost irreplaceable, because not everyone has the time to choose a train from London to Beijing.
But in these last years the request for flights increased of more than 10 % in England and Europe, so that in Western Europe there are low-cost airlines even for domestic flights. This choice has considerable effects on the changes of the atmosphere. If we are going to have a short journey, train should be our first choice since it discharges the lowest quantity of carbon-emissions, but lots of people neglect it.
People would line in front of a long check-in, crowd into a narrow business lounge, drive cars from and to an airport generally quite far from their cities, rather than spending some idle time on a train, which in total would take almost the same journey time.
We have to admit that price is an important factor for the choice.
Because of the price I renounced many times to my idea of getting on a train.
A price policy can influence people’s choice on short journeys, at the same time it will reduce the unnecessary long flights, so could be an effective method to improve the environment conditions.
As for the introduction of taxes, it could be a good way to deter flying, and would force people to recognize the weight of their choice on the environment.
You’re right, whether to introduce a green tax is an important matter, and also to figure out how to make people accept it, but the problem to formulate it or not should not turn into reasons against the green tax.
From a certain point of view, we must say that is the transformation in man’s way of living and the scientific and technological progress that led us to face the environmental problem today. We cannot ignore that this is the consequence of a prolonged refuse of ethical principles and restrictions in man’s way of living and of an extreme faith in the technical progress.
Wang Tao

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous









Re comment 2: low fair airline and green tax to aviation

I partly agree with you, that airline companies cut prices to compete for market share will encourage people to travel by plain instead of by train. Low fair airlines and the green tax introduced to aviation sector are two concepts. I don't support the negative effects brought about by low fair airlines, but I would still stick to my point, that without a clearly specified solution explaining how the tax would be used to improve the environment, to introduce a tax like that can only be an irresponsible one to public interest. I don't think passengers will have the time and energy to do research themselves on the environmental improvement of the aviation tax they paid for. In any country, public interest can only be safeguarded with good rules and regulations. Moreover, as reported, aviation only contributed 3% to the world's emission of greenhouse gas. See the report here. Therefore, aviation tax deserves a thoughtful mechanism. I think, to stop them from price competition would be a more effective way to prevent further worse-off of consumer behavior. But it is unrealistic to reduce necessary flies. Protecting the environment and solving the problems is about changing our lifestyles, instead of lowering our living standards. Otherwise, there will be no meaning for the society to develop.


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Re: comment 1

Why would a green tax increase the airlines' takings? Surely a tax would increase government earnings, which is one of the (less convincing) arguments that opponents to green taxes put forward: that it is a government ruse for more money. The truth is, of course, that both airlines and governments would benefit economically from lower taxes and a thriving aviation sector - but the environment can't take it. So government has to step in with methods such as taxation.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



政府如何使用这笔税款,或者用来补贴其它公共交通,或者用于投资开发环境友好技术,或用来减少气候变化影响,各种途径,都可以在绿色税开征之初对公民交待清楚并接受监督,也可以考虑成立专门基金确保专款专用,还惠于民。英国在2001年就实施了气候变化税(Climate Change Levy)对企业使用的能源征税,将所得税金一部分用于成立碳基金(carbon trust)支持减排技术和提高能效,同时通过减免社会保险税的方式返还部分税款减小对企业的冲击。这些都可以作为航空绿色税的成功借鉴。




回复 回复

The amount of green taxes imposed upon airlines by the government should go along with airways’ traffic volume. This is different from the situation that passengers rather than airlines paying for the taxes due to competition between airways.

Airlines will not benefit financially from the tax system, unless the government compromises or is corrupted. Usually, airlines will suffer from the decrease in the number of passengers discouraged by the increased fares. The objection by Ryanair to the green tax is a good example.

How the government will use the taxation could be clarified to the public beforehand and its application should be subject to scrutiny. Such taxes may be used for subsidizing the public transport system, developing green technologies and mitigating climate change impacts.

The climate Change Levy the UK introduced in 2001 to impose tax on energy used by enterprises is a successful case for a green tax. Part of the taxation from the Climate Change levy was used for the establishment of Carbon Trust, which aims to develop emission-cutting technologies and help increase energy efficiency.

It is true that aviation and shipping industries contribute less to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. But urgent attention is needed to deal with their impact upon climate change due to their growth at a much higher speed than other sectors. They need good guides for further development. Planes have a relatively long lifespan of 20 to 30 years, and it takes a long time to increase air transport efficiency with new technologies.

Meanwhile, aviation industry is also short of alternative fuels. Mixed power and hydrogen might be used to power vehicles in two decades at the latest, but it is still too early to consider using such fuels for planes.

Besides CO2 emissions, flights also cause other impacts upon the atmosphere.

Green taxes aim to ease the low-fare competition between airlines. It is also equally important to disseminate knowledge about environmental protection and to encourage people to change their lifestyles.

Nobody would suggest giving up necessary travels by plane. Flying is a necessity in this globalized era. But we need to think of how many of these flights are necessary.

Also nobody expects their living standards to be lowered. But it does not necessarily mean their living standards are lowered when unnecessary flights have to be given up for the sake of public interest.

Moreover, what are the criteria for higher and lower living standards? Can we judge it by the number of overseas travels, car-user ratios, electrified industries, per capita energy consumption and other more meaningful indices.

If no one is willing to lower her/his living standards to save the world, then we all deserve the right to emit as much carbon as the Americans, who top the world with their per capita emission. But the issue is: We have only one Earth. By Wangtao

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


嗨我是本。并不是所有人都像作者所说的那样“无节制飞行”。在英国“空中常客”只占50%,我已经两年没有上过飞机了。到目前为止有1700人加入了“飞行誓约联盟”,其中有2/3发誓除紧急情况外不选择飞行。强大的实力意味着重量级的责任。我并不是在说英国政府,因为他们的政策要航空增长。那些“无节制飞行”的人应被责难。我写了一首关于这些蠢货的歌,写得不是很好,有点粗鲁,参见我的网站。 这里

10 flights a year?

Hi I'm Ben. Not everyone "binge flies" as the author suggests. In the UK only 50% are "high fliers" and I have not been on a plane for 2 years.
So far 1,700 people have joined the "Flight Pledge Union", 2/3 of whom promised not to fly except in an emergency.
Great power comes with great responsibility. I am not talking about the UK government because their policy is to increase flights. Those who "binge fly" are to blame. I wrote a song about these pigs which is not very good and a little rude, and on my website. here

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous






Green tax will not be effective.

I cannot help saying something after reading all comments above.

Though living standards are improving, to fly is still not an easy option for most people as it remains to be more expensive than other traveling means.

Only rich people and those who do not need to pay for flights could afford to fly as always.

The introduction of green taxes will only further discourage those who could not afford to fly, but will matter less to those who fly frequently.

Not to challenge the usage of taxes in the end and other negative points of the measure, I think to develop more environmental-friendly transportation means and to improve technology application are more effective.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





China is different from Europe

In countries like china with vast area and cheap railways, traveling by flight is indeed an expensive choice, most of the times, a have-to decision. However, the increasing number of discount airline tickets is changing the scene.

However, in Europe, at least in UK, it is different. The coexistence of low fair airlines and privatized railways usually makes an airline ticket as cheap as 1/3 of its train counterpart, or even less. Under this circumstance, people traveling by air isn't because they are rich, and their not traveling by air isn't because they cannot afford it. To introduce green tax to the aviation sector in the UK and Europe is not to make people cut their necessary travels, but to make them aware of the environmental prices associated with their choices while making an informed decision, at the meantime voluntarily reduce unnecessary flies. These should be treated seperately.

Not a single policy can treat justice and efficiency seperately. Green tax may influence choices of the majority of people, but it may have no influence at all to the super-rich, as they don't really care and they can even travel with their own boat or private jet. Therefore, green tax also needs to collaborate with other policies to resolve the issue, to make the wealthy shoulder more responsibilites, and to achieve justice and harmony in the society.

Tao Wang

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Re comment 9

In this sense, if introduced, a green tax should be paid when we fly within UK or within Europe, but not when we fly from London to Beijing or cities in other developing nations. Do you think it is possible??

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




No simplification please

Imposing a tax on international air travel, as well as determining the degree of taxation, cannot be executed simply. It depends on negotiation among different governments and aviation companies. Only imposing a tax in Europe and UK but not other countries will shift the consumption of international travel, which is also an issue to consider. But there's one thing we can't deny, that developed countries have responsibilities and are capable of taking their due efforts in carbon reduction, and UK government has shown political will with their recent policies. Within Europe, a tradable permit of carbon emission has been installed, forcing the firms to pay for their carbon emissions. This mechanism hasn't included developing countries, but developing countries like China will hopefully be part of it someday. Why can't aviation green tax be the same?

Tao Wang