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Analysing a frequent flyer climate tax & hydrogen aviation development moves forward
Over the Autumn, the International Council for Clean Transportation (ICCT) published a proposal for a global frequent flyer levy. The authors of the report are Dan Rutherford (a previous guest on our podcast) and Xinyi Sola Zheng. It’s available to download here, but we’ll give our thoughts on it.
The arguments for some kind of air miles or frequent flyer tax are well known.
The idea behind it is that a minority of people in better-off demographics take the majority of flights. And so as they account for a higher share of aviation emissions, they should pay more.
There are several proposals for a frequent flyer levy, and on the scale of them, the ICCT’s ideas are relatively moderate. There are no calls to ban frequent flyer programmes, or even airline advertising, as is the case by many activist groups.
Instead, the suggestion is to shift the Air Passenger Duty (APD), which applies to everyone across the board to a levy, where a passenger pays more the more s/he flies. That money would then be used to finance industry decarbonisation.
The first flight would be free, and under the ICCT’s proposals, the second would come out at $9. As a result, for most people who flew over the weekend for the US Thanksgiving holiday, the impact would be minimal. The ICCT then proposes that this goes up to $177 for a passenger’s twentieth flight that year. Again, for many people taking twenty flights, that cost would be manageable.
It’s a serious proposal that unlike many other similar suggestions isn’t intrinsically hostile to the industry, and it should be engaged with.
There are practical considerations. For example, the recent white paper, “Sustainable Tourism’s Achilles’ Heel: Aviation Emissions”, by Chris Lyle, looks at several aviation climate impact strategies, including ‘demand management.’
As Chris Lyle says, there would be potential for ‘leakage’, for example, the purchase of onward travel in a neighbouring country that does not subscribe to such a scheme.
However, our main comment is that the proposal does not incentivise less carbon-intensive flying. Let’s take a hypothetical example of someone who in 2030 flies every week for work between Toronto and Philadelphia.
That’s one of the routes Connect Airlines is looking to serve. It intends to start hydrogen-electric flights in the Northeast of the US and Canada using ATR72 aircraft with Universal Hydrogen retrofitted engines.
But under a frequent flyer climate levy, someone taking one of those flights every week would pay the same levy as someone in an older generation 737, even though the climate impact is vastly different.
As a result, our preference would be for any charge to take this into account. Perhaps a modified version of the European ETS scheme (which only covers European flights), but with more incentives for low or no-emissions aircraft.
We’d also like it to include some form of carbon labelling so the consumer can make an informed choice.
The evidence is that many consumers want to do the right thing in terms of environmental choices, but especially when it comes to aviation don’t know how. A simple-to-understand labelling scheme, combined with financial reasons to choose low-carbon flights, would help and incentivise both airlines and the travelling public. The idea of producing the kind of label you see on the side of washing machines for flights is in fact under consideration by EASA.
Then, for the highest polluting options, some kind of sliding-scale climate levy, as proposed by the ICCT, could be worth considering.
Hydrogen aviation development moves forward
The development of hydrogen aviation got a boost over the past few days with two announcements from major players in this space.
With liquid hydrogen needing to be stored at ultra-low temperatures, Airbus has started work on scoping out cryogenic hydrogen storage tanks.
In an announcement on its website, Airbus said it had established Zero Emission Development Centres (ZEDCs) last year in Nantes, France, and Bremen, Germany, with the task of designing and manufacturing the hydrogen tanks.
Meanwhile, engine maker Rolls Royce has successfully run an aircraft engine on hydrogen in a project that it’s conducting with easyJet.
The LCC published its accelerated net zero plans over the Summer, which heavily emphasise next-generation aircraft. The ground test was conducted on an early concept demonstrator using green hydrogen created by wind and tidal power.
Following analysis of this early concept ground test, the partnership plans a series of further rig tests leading up to a full-scale ground test of a Rolls-Royce Pearl 15 jet engine.
Obviously, hydrogen is not without complications.
A new transport and storage infrastructure will be required at airports. Also, the hydrogen science coalition has estimated that heavy hydrogen tanks could increase an aircraft's payload by up to 20%.
However, any new aircraft technology has challenges; with electric aircraft, the issue is around battery weight vs distance.
For now, both these announcements mark important milestones in the race to net zero.
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