A new in-vogue campaign promise has emerged at the tail-end of the European elections campaign: taxing airplane fuel. But is it just another empty pledge destined to fall by the wayside or could it actually take off?
After decades of privileged status for airlines, slapping a tax on jet fuel is suddenly a popular idea. It is actually one of the more specific ideas to be championed by the candidates vying to be the next European Commission president.
As the campaign and debates have progressed, socialist Spitzenkandidat Frans Timmermans, the EPP’s Manfred Weber, ALDE’s Margrethe Vestager and the two Green candidates, Bas Eickhout and Ska Keller, have all declared their support for a levy.
Of course, it is not a universally popular notion. Airbus’s new CEO doesn’t want to “add taxes on taxes”, while countries like Ireland, home to big aviation hubs like Ryanair’s, are scared about driving away business.
There is support in some member states though. Emmanuel Macron confirmed in an interview this week that he wants talks to progress on a tax and his Renaissance list in the EU campaign includes it in its election manifesto.
But that’s where the devil is missing from the detail. Beyond wanting to use new revenues to fund green initiatives, there’s no plan yet as to how actually to do it.
Vestager and the Green candidates want the extra money (estimated by the European Commission to be around €27bln per year) pumped into other forms of transport, particularly railways. “Out of the planes, into the trains,” the Danish Commissioner said during a debate.
In France’s case, there are only soundbites because of the gilets jaunes effect. Mass protests were in part triggered by diesel fuel prices and taxes. A kerosene levy at the moment would almost certainly be received in the same way.
But that hasn’t stopped other countries from pressing on.
The Netherlands announced last week it will start charging levies on air passengers by 2021 if an EU-solution isn’t forthcoming and will look into the feasibility of a kerosene tax. In June, the Dutch will also host a summit on the issue.
Building a coalition of the willing is likely to be the solution, at least at first. Bilateral pacts between countries willing to tax airlines and which have plans in place to use the revenue effectively seem an easy first step.
Implementing something meatier EU-wide would take a massive negotiating effort, although the Commission already has its Energy Taxation Directive and wants to move away from unanimous decision-making on environmental issues.
The EU executive could be prodded into action by an official petition launched this month that calls for a tax.
Those kind of system changes are certain to take a significant amount of time to broker but they could happen sooner if EU leaders agree on a draft climate plan for 2050.
A binding target for mid-century would be the destination but then we’d have to start thinking about how to actually get there. Making aviation pay its fair share might be one avenue.
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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]