On 2nd December 2019, the first day of the COP25 international climate summit in Madrid, Spain, an important new report was published. Degrowth of Aviation: Reducing Air Travel in a Just Way, examines a range of possible policy instruments and strategies for degrowing (contracting) the aviation sector. This is increasingly urgent as the climate and other negative impacts of aviation are set to escalate with as many as 1,200 infrastructure projects – new airport and expansion of existing airports – underway and planned. The report is based on a flight-free conference involving 150 participants attending in person and online, held in Barcelona in July 2019, along with subsequent discussions.
In marked contrast to a plethora of articles exhorting an undefined, generalized “we” to reduce flying the report is cognizant of the global context; only about 10 per cent of the world’s people, predominantly residing in the Global North, have ever taken a flight. Within this small proportion of air travellers is an even smaller minority of wealthy, hypermobile frequent flyers. The first chapter, Reducing Emissions, critiques and dismisses illusory ‘solutions’ of biofuels and offsetting (whereby airlines claim to reduce emissions by buying carbon credits) and the purported technofix of electrically powered aircraft. Biophysical reality necessitates degrowth of the aviation sector.
The second chapter calls for elimination of tax exemptions, specifically on aviation fuel (kerosene), air tickets and VAT (value added tax), which enables aviation growth and subsequent environmental damage. Taxing aviation would boost the competitiveness of surface transport (road, rail and ship) and the resulting income stream could be used to support more sustainable transport. Chapter 3 looks at the potential of a frequent flyer levy or air miles levy to address the injustice of astonishingly high emissions from a tiny minority of frequent flyers, recognizing the complexities of tackling aeromobility inequalities within and between nations. Setting limits of aviation/flights is considered in chapter 4, focusing on capping or ending short-haul flights where alternative options exist, a measure which could constitute ‘low hanging fruit’ in climate mitigation and might lead to closure of many regional airports.
Chapter 5 proposes drawing a ‘Red Line for Airports’, a moratorium on new infrastructure and possibly scaling down established facilities. Hundreds of new airports and expansions of existing airports are planned and underway, many involving land acquisition resulting in displacement of entire communities. A Map of Airport Conflicts. shows more than 60 cases which have been documented and analyzed along with 300 cases which merit further investigation. Several of these airport projects are aerotropolis-type developments. Resistance against airport projects necessitates global networking, in order to avoid ‘nimby’ arguments confined to negative impacts on local communities; global solidarity spurs deeper socio-economic transformation. A number of examples of judicial processes which have successfully stopped or stalled airport projects are outlined: in Germany, France, Mexico, Bangladesh, Thailand and the US.
Chapter 6, Fostering Alternatives, looks at improving alternatives to flying, i.e. surface transportation, specifically shipping and rail. Decelerated societies, along the lines of the Slow Food movement, might be part of the solution and a comparable Slow Travel movement is emerging. The report cautions against uncritical advocacy of high-speed rail which is energy intensive, expensive and requires large areas of land. Similarly, expansion of shipping is not, in itself, wholly positive as emissions are growing and there is a high level of pollution from the heavy oil that is used. Alternative propulsion, not using fossil fuels, is already operational for some small ferries and some examples of ships powered by wind, solar and hydrogen are listed. A shift towards slower travel and surface transport could work synergistically with improvements in and increased uptake of video-conferencing technology.
Chapter 7 examines changes in the travel policies of institutions: academic and research organizations along with municipalities, cultural, public and business organizations. Flights are the largest contributor to many of such organizations’ carbon footprints so action on this issue offers the opportunity to become climate leaders. Telephone and online conferences can bring a major reduction in travel for work. In addition to obviating the need to travel through use of videoconferencing and other technologies organizations can take measures to reduce emissions from travel, such as encouraging train journeys as an alternative to flights, allowing more time for this travel which can be used for work projects.
Each of the chapters consider obstacles and disadvantages for the proposals, opening up future debate and discussions and a final chapter summarizes the report. Visit the Stay Grounded website to view and download the in-depth 52 page report along with a briefing paper, chapter summaries and illustrations. There is also a short video introducing the report, featuring some of the participants in the July 2019 DeGrowth of Aviation conference.