Climate Action

Air travelers open to carbon tax, but it comes down to wording

Flying, for those of us who know the carbon cost, is a guilty pleasure. The airline industry accounts for 2% of global emissions and is the fastest growing sector of greenhouse gas emissions.

But air travelers may be willing to pay more for flights if that extra money goes to curbing carbon emissions — and that willingness comes down to wording, according to a new study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

Travelers are more willing to pay carbon “offsets,” rather than carbon “taxes,” the study found. Additionally, travelers prefer fees that place accountability of carbon emissions on producers and importers of fuels, rather than consumers.

“In the U.S., tax is kind of a dirty word,” David Hardisty, lead author of the paper, told Earth Day Network. “People think offsets will have more positive environmental impacts than taxes, even if we tell them it’s going to go to the same place and do the same thing.”

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of British Columbia, consisted of two online surveys with more than 1,800 participants. The participants were presented with several hypothetical scenarios where they purchased airline tickets.

The findings showed that customers were more willing to pay a $14 fee described as “carbon offset on aviation fuel production and importation” than the same fee described as a “carbon tax on airplane travel and cargo.” More importantly for our planet, customers preferred the $14 “carbon offset on aviation fuel production” to a flight with no fee at all.

The study also showed that “upstream” regulations — fees applied to the extraction and importation of fossil fuels — were more palatable to consumers than “downstream” regulations, or fees applied to the use of products and services.

“People believe [carbon pricing] at the source is going to be affecting the whole system in a more global way,” said Hardisty. “Whereas if it’s on me, it’s just my individual flight and maybe feels like a drop in the bucket.”

This study comes at a time when the public is more conscious than ever of the carbon footprint of flying. A single round-trip plane ticket from New York to London emits about 2 tons of CO2. Or, as David Wallace-Wells puts it in his book and magazine feature An Uninhabitable Earth, each ticket on that flight costs the Arctic three square meters of ice.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg avoids flying altogether and made headlines in August when she took a solar-powered sailboat across the Atlantic to join the New York City climate strikes and participate in the United Nations Climate Summit.

If we’re to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius more than the pre-industrial era, as outlined in the U.N. Paris Agreement, then we must rethink every industry, including one as highly polluting as airline travel.

The findings from the University of British Columbia are all the more important because the airline industry is currently exploring voluntary, and eventually mandatory, rollouts of carbon pricing. If all goes well, these rollouts could be quick and painless. If, however, airlines face backlash, airlines may delay rollouts and continue to emit carbon into the atmosphere unchecked.

“The main thing is we’re opening [upstream versus downstream] as a new avenue of framing,” said Hardisty. “It’s something to explore, and preliminarily, upstream is more popular and palatable for people.”

April 22, 2020 is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Now is the time to mobilize, curb greenhouse gas emissions and pressure leaders to take bold action on climate change. Join the movement.