Aviation is the red meat in the greenhouse gas sandwich

At any given time there are 10,000 passenger aircraft in the sky carrying over a million people, 24 hours a day, every day

New research from the international Civil Aviation Organisation showing how carbon emissions from aviation are due to increase seven-fold over the next three decades was released just in time to make awkward reading for our high-flying Cabinet members.

Ireland traditionally dispatches Ministers around the globe to fly the flag for St Patrick’s Day. Other than occasional grumbles about costs and suggestions of junketeering, these foreign forays have rarely attracted sustained negative criticism, and certainly never from the agricultural sector.

According to Pat McCormack of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, if the Government is serious about climate change maybe it should not be sending representatives around the world for St Patrick’s Day given the staggering damage done by emissions from aviation.

While farm leaders are understandably keen to switch the focus of scrutiny over pollution elsewhere, and their new-found concern for aviation emissions should be seen in this light, airline entrepreneur Richard Branson has been quick to turn the table.


“Eating meat the way we do has serious consequences. The global supply chain for conventional meat is a major greenhouse gas emitter…and wreaks havoc on the world’s ecosystems,” he claims.

His solution? The elimination of industrial-scale meat production by “eliminating harmful subsidies and putting a price on externalities”, Branson argued, without an apparent hint of irony.

No other discrete human activity is more intensely polluting than flying

Aviation is, after all, a major beneficiary of the harmful subsidies and a producer of vast externalities of the sort he decries in the meat sector. The recently published Lancet EAT Commission report recommended a 90 per cent cut in red meat and dairy consumption, pointing out that our animal-based food production systems are fuelling climate change and exhausting natural resources.

However, no other discrete human activity is more intensely polluting than flying. Yet rather than being hammered, the aviation industry instead benefits from tax breaks and subsidies other sectors could only dream of. The Irish Government is committed to spending at least €320 million on new runway at Dublin airport – another giant subsidy to the sector.

Tax and duties

Jet fuel, due to an antiquated international agreement from 1944, is completely exempt from tax and duties. Taxing it at a modest rate of 33 cent per litre would generate nearly €10 billion in revenues within the EU. Airline tickets are, bizarrely, VAT-exempt. Raising this to 15 per cent would bring in another €17 billion annually.

Further, were airlines required to pay the full cost of their emissions this would, according to a 2018 study by the NGO Transport & Environment (T&E),“make a major contribution to addressing aviation’s climate impact by removing a perverse subsidy to the single most climate-intensive form of transport”.

Flying would become more expensive, but it is currently vastly under-priced. The current average price of a one-way airline ticket within the EU is €80. Fuel taxes and VAT would push that up to €106, according to the T&E analysis. However, that level of increase is unlikely to persuade many people to fly less often.

While the Lancet EAT Commission recommended a drastic 90 per cent cut in meat and dairy consumption if we are to avoid dangerous climate change, the same metric could as easily be applied to aviation. At any given moment there are almost 10,000 passenger aircraft in the sky carrying well over a million people, 24 hours a day, every day.

According to the CSO, 34.4 million passengers passed through the main Irish airports in 2017. The average Irish person takes almost seven flights a year, and 6 per cent of Aer Lingus customers fly more than 20 times annually.

Rather than being penalised for their massive carbon footprint, frequent flyers are instead pampered by airlines with upgrades and incentives.

The real point of rationing is not to raise revenue but to constrain demand, and vast amounts of the flying we now do is frivolous in the extreme

Since ratcheting up the ticket price simply serves to penalise people with lower incomes while failing to deter higher-income flyers, my suggestion for a fairer system would be to allocate an annual personal aviation mileage allowance. This would be connected to each citizen’s PPS number and be strictly non-transferable.

Flying allowance

While everyone is allocated, say, a 1,500km annual flying allowance (the equivalent of one round trip to Paris per person) at no additional cost, if you then decide to also take a weekend shopping trip to New York this 10,000km round trip, which generates the carbon-dioxide equivalent of around 1.5 tonnes per passenger, might add €500 to the ticket price. This ratchets sharply upwards from there, deterring even the wealthy.

The real point of rationing is not to raise revenue but to constrain demand, and vast amounts of the flying we now do is frivolous in the extreme. Irish people think nothing of having their wedding in Dubai, or stag parties in Berlin, confident the (relatively) low fares mean their family and friends will join them for a celebration that could as easily have been held locally.

A growing number of environmentalist and climate scientists have vowed to give up or severely curtail flying, most notably 16-year old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. She last week berated world leaders and billionaires in Davos (most of whom travelled in private jets) for their greed and hypocrisy while doing nothing to avert a global climate catastrophe.

Nobody takes a decision to quit flying lightly. Nine in 10 humans will never set foot on an aircraft yet they are the people already bearing the brunt of the extreme impacts of our high-emissions lifestyles.

It wouldn’t kill us to eat less meat and dairy. Nor would it kill us to fly much less often. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for failing to avert climate breakdown while this is still even possible.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator