Polluter vs Public Interest
Tahir Latif Secretary, Greener Jobs Alliance
A couple of years back a certain world-famous singer told of how he immediately booked a flight to Paris on hearing of the death of a friend. Conscious of the world he is living in, he halted his story momentarily for a quick parenthesis: ‘I purchased the offset.’
Obviously that comment would send any self-respecting environmental campaigner into a frenzy, both in terms of the oft-debunked notion that the aviation industry is anywhere remotely near offsetting it’s emissions and in terms of the ignorance that wealth can buy. What this small episode highlights, though, is the paradoxical nature of a much-loved talisman in the climate struggle, the polluter pays principle.
The purpose of this blog is neither to promote nor denigrate the idea of ‘polluter pays’, but to bring out the paradox and encourage others to participate in a friendly debate about strategies for reducing emissions (and, in this case, flying). However, I can’t deny that I find the phrase ‘polluter pays’ problematic. I have a similar issue with the implications of the term ‘windfall tax’ (while 100% supporting an immediate one on the energy companies) and also with the limits inherent in asking people to pay their ‘fair share’.
Many of my friends and colleagues in the anti-aviation expansion area propose fairer/progressive taxation and carbon pricing as the strategy for dealing with polluters. And for good reason, as the current tax scheme in the industry is abysmal from every perspective. More importantly, if it’s the people who fly frequently who are doing the polluting why shouldn’t they be paying the price of doing so? We don’t want to be paying for their mess. It seems almost too obvious to even be an issue.
But others will say that it is precisely the frequent flying elites that are most able to afford the extra, so unless you’re planning bankruptcy levels of taxation then they will most likely pay up and continue to fly as before. In which case the argument becomes about what the government could be doing with those additional revenues. And that is a fair point, as the money could be used to build alternative modes of transport, or accelerate aviation towards genuine decarbonisation, and to provide the jobs needed to achieve both those goals.
The problem is the basic premise that by paying more, these elites can continue to pollute with impunity (‘I purchased the offset’.) and ultimately the real urgency is to stop emitting carbon, rapidly, not to generate new revenue streams, however worthy. Trying to take on the market on its own territory is always going to be an uphill struggle. We need an actual, tangible reduction in emissions to avert catastrophe.
The upside of the frequent flyer levy, and other carbon pricing measures, is that with the political will, we could implement them tomorrow. That being the case, then that is exactly what we ought to do. But we need to see that as a beginning, a short-term step towards something more substantive, not a replacement for it (and I’m not suggesting any of my colleagues are thinking that way, but a government – Conservative or Labour – might well do).
So my simplistic conclusion is that we need both – the pricing/taxation measures to come in straight away to administer a dose of fairness to the aviation industry in the short term and make those who are doing the damage pay for it. But we also need to start right now planning for how we bring about a limitation on flying, from both the perspective of providing alternatives (other modes of transport and destinations that are appealing-but-close) and from the role of regulation in bringing about those limits.
Yes, there’s a question there about freedom and liberty (albeit that’s a double-edged sword) but we need to confront it and talk about it honestly. And we need a strategy – are the short and long term aims two separate, even exclusive, policies or do they dove-tail together, and, if the latter, how do we go about it? Does it inevitably imply public ownership or is there some other model that could do it? These are the kind of debates we need to have if we are to genuinely achieve our decarbonisation objectives.
Photo: Chris Brignola on Unsplash