In 2019, let’s ‘stay grounded’ and call for aviation and environmental justice

In 2019, let's ‘stay grounded' and call for aviation and environmental justice

A young girl holds up a sign that says: ‘No to the third runway’. On 27 May 2017, a flash mob created an 80-metre-long red line through Vienna International Airport to protest against the expansion of the airport.

(Stay Grounded/Christian Bock)

Right now, at this very moment, at least half a million people are in the air. Over the past 25 years, air travel has been transformed from a luxury to a common means of transport. Low-cost carriers have made it affordable to quickly discover the world, while spawning the ever-increasing popularity of weekend breaks by air. For a growing number of people, this convenience has become a seemingly natural part of their holiday plans, of their choice of where to live and work, and which relationships they foster. But how normal is it really to fly? And who bears the cost?

By far, aviation is the mode of transport with the biggest climate impact. Emissions from aviation have risen more rapidly than those from other sectors of the economy: between 1990 to 2010, global CO2 emissions rose by an estimated 25 per cent; over the same period, the CO2 emissions of international aviation rose by more than 70 per cent. And the growth trend continues. The number of aircrafts and the number of passenger-kilometres flown is expected to double over the next 20 years. About 1200 airport infrastructure projects are being planned or built worldwide comprising new mega airports, new runways and new terminals.

This growth not only drives climate change, it also creates lots of other conflicts around land rights, biodiversity and food sovereignty.

The planned additional airports and runways degrade ever more habitats of people, animals and plants. People living near airports are exposed to higher health risks, notably high blood pressure and heart disease, which are just two of the effects of aircraft noise and high particulate levels in ambient air. Also, economic impacts on host regions are not all positive: transport infrastructure and hotel chains displace small shops and farmers, while real estate prices rise. At the same time, protests mount in regions inundated by mass tourism driven by cheap flights and luxury cruise travel. Water reserves dwindle under the dual pressure of climate crisis and tourism. Landfills grow, meanwhile culture becomes an attraction and a commodity.

Inequity in airspace

The annual number of passengers carried by airlines totals 3.6 billion – but this does not mean that half of the world’s population flies: less than an estimated 10 per cent of the world’s population has ever sat in an aircraft. Latin America and Africa account for only 11 per cent of passenger traffic by air, while North America and Europe together account for half, despite their smaller populations. Products such as electronic goods, perishable foods and semi-luxuries, cut flowers and ‘fast fashion’ products are increasingly being carried by air and are mostly consumed in the Global North.

Within countries, too, there are major disparities in who uses air transport and who does not. These are linked directly to income disparities within societies. It is therefore less paradoxical than it appears at first sight that voters of the Green Party are the most frequent flyers when compared to voters of other parties in Germany, as they tend to be amongst those with higher incomes. So, flying is by no means normal. Rather, this fossil mobility system is highly exclusive.

Those who travel by plane or opt for certain products do so at the expense of others: residents exposed to noise and particle pollution from the planes, local ecosystems, future generations and of those in the Global South who are already bearing the brunt of the impacts of climate change.

The aviation industry lobby claims that lower prices make flying more democratic. The costs of air travel are 60 per cent lower today than they were in 1970; this is a result of efficiency gains, low-cost carriers, wage dumping and, above all, sector deregulation from the 1980s onwards. While the aviation industry is making ever greater profits, the pressure on its employees is mounting, as strikes showed this year. While quality and safety decline, stress and burnout are on the rise. Another major reason for the falling prices of air travel is that states massively subsidise the sector: aviation kerosene is the only fossil fuel apart from maritime heavy oil that is not taxed. Many governments abstain from levying value-added tax on tickets and property tax on airports. In the European Union alone, the losses in state revenue due to such subsidies of aviation amount to €30 to 40 billion annually.

Also, aircraft manufacturers and airlines benefit from major subsidies. Everyone – including those who don’t fly – pays for these subsidies to allow what is essentially a mode of transport for the better-off to remain cheap. All the downsides set out above, from climate change to population displacement by airport expansion, raise the question of whether the goal really can be to make frequent flyers out of everyone, or whether air travel in fact needs to be limited.

Lifting the green mask

Fearing restrictions in times of climate change, the aviation industry has been eager to promote a green image of flying in the past years. In 2016, ICAO (the International Civil Aviation Organisation), the UN body dealing with aviation, adopted a package of climate measures entitled CORSIA – the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation. With this package they claim to achieve ‘carbon neutral growth’ by 2020.

At the heart of this climate strategy is the concept of offsetting emissions through savings by others elsewhere. Most offsetting projects are located in the Global South and involve reforestation or building hydropower plants that claim to prevent the production of energy from fossil fuels. In 2016, one of Europe’s leading environmental research institutes, the Öko-Institut, investigated the effectiveness of existing offsetting projects for the European Commission and concluded that most likely only 2 per cent of United Nations offset projects resulted in an actual additional emissions reduction. Offset projects often lead to local conflicts or land grabbing. This is especially the case with land- or forest-based projects like REDD+.

Also, alternative fuels are being pushed by CORSIA. The most feasible and cheapest of them are biofuels made from palm oil, which could result in even more destruction of rain forest and in conflicts with land that could be used for food production.

In 2016, during the ICAO meeting in which the greenwashed climate strategy CORSIA was adopted, people organised actions at different airports. For example, climate justice activists in Austria protested against a planned third runway; in London, groups organised a bike tour and a flash mob against the Heathrow airport expansion; and in Mexico City, indigenous movements held events against the new mega airport.

Out of these coordinated protests, a network evolved called Stay Grounded. One activist from Vienna explains: “We realised that it is not enough to resist airport expansion in Vienna. The proponents of the third runway repeated that if Vienna doesn’t extend, Munich, Bratislava or Frankfurt will do so. We want to show that resistance is growing everywhere. And we want to tackle the root causes of the expansion of aviation.”

The global network which is hosted by a small NGO in Vienna is now made up of 90 organisations from around the world. More than 140 groups and organisations support the Stay Grounded position paper, which presents 13 steps for a just transport system and for rapidly reducing aviation.

“The current strategies are unjust and distract from the urgent need to reduce, not shift, destruction,” says Mira Kapfinger, one of the coordinators of Stay Grounded. Instead, the network promotes measures like a kerosene tax, a levy that taxes the tickets of frequent flyers more than of those who rarely fly, and fosters an economy of short distances and alternatives to flights like night trains. The goal of the network is to encourage more civil society stakeholders to push for those 13 steps and build political pressure in order to limit the power of the aviation industry and put a limit to the growth of aviation.