The Eviation Alice (a prototype electric passenger plane) at Paris Air Show 2019. . Matty Blume via Wikimedia

Recently I drove to Tweed Airport in New Haven to drop my boyfriend off for a trip to Charleston. On the drive back, I was struck by the ease and affordability of air travel in the modern era: the drive was less than eight minutes, and his round-trip flight was less than $100.

The falling cost of flying is a boon to consumers who would otherwise be priced out of the opportunity to fly, unlocking the ability to see relatives and friends and experience new places. 

But carbon emissions from expanding air travel contributes to ecological breakdown, rising sea levels, and a new mass extinction. Flights generate startlingly high emissions per passenger, with a one-way flight from London to San Francisco emitting an average of 5.5 tons of CO2 equivalent per person —around half the carbon footprint of the average UK citizen. Like the car industry, the aviation industry must now face the music of decarbonization. 

Yet for those who don’t want to roll back the clock to 1903, we face the question: Is there a way to decarbonize without overly restricting the general public’s access to air travel? The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) offers just such a ticket to a future of equitable and green air travel: a frequent flying levy. 

Achieving net-zero carbon emissions in the aviation industry is estimated to require around $175 billion in annual investments through the year 2050. While airlines put out a lot of press about upgrading their fleets to more fuel-efficient planes, investing in sustainable aviation fuels, and exploring novel energy sources, they conveniently omit that the scale of investments needed to achieve net zero is nearly 34% of the 2022 total market size of commercial aviation. Airlines likely aren’t capable of meeting their net zero goals and are hoping to, as it were, fly under the radar. 

But is it reasonable to expect an airline to hike their prices some 30-odd percent to fund a livable climate? Airlines compete heavily on price, requiring them to keep prices low and only spare funds for net-zero investment if it supports their competitive edge. Is it then sensible to place the burden on individual consumers by offering carbon offset programs? I would argue no: less than 5% of flyers bought carbon offsets in 2021, and the difficulty in guaranteeing durability of carbon offsets means that some can potentially release more carbon than they sequester. Relying on magnanimity from airlines or individual flyers to fund decarbonization would be ill-advised indeed. 

This naturally places the expectation for governments to intervene to fund decarbonization. The question is, how? The easiest solution would be to add a proportional tax on all flights. However, such a tax would be regressive —meaning it would burden low-income groups more than high-income groups —which would be at once unfair and unpopular. We should instead promote a tax that affects mainly populations that are higher income and take flights more frequently. 

I propose what might seem to be a moonshot idea: international cooperation to raise funds for net-zero aviation through fair taxation of aviation itself. The ICCT has already conducted research on various taxation schemes and found promise in a frequent flying levy.

The concept is devilishly simple: those who fly more, pay more. Under this tax structure, individuals who travel once a year pay nothing in taxes, but every flight above the first gets taxed progressively more at some flat rate. This setup targets frequent flyers —the 2% of the global population that account for 40% of flights taken—while leaving the casual flyer relatively unscathed. And the levy both immediately decarbonizes air travel by curbing demand from frequent flyers while decarbonizing in the long run by funneling tax revenues to net zero investments. 

A tax like this would require nearly unprecedented international cooperation. Countries would need to hammer out the exact structure of the tax, how to fairly distribute tax revenue for decarbonization, and the logistics of data sharing and privacy.

While that may seem daunting, the time for collaboration has never been riper. Just this past February, the OECD made promising strides toward a 15% global minimum corporate tax, showcasing a capacity to cooperate if there is a financial incentive. And this particular incentive is not to be understated: a frequent flying levy could potentially pay for the entire net-zero aviation transition, raising 98% of its funds from the top 20% of global earners. If this sounds like an idea that would be wildly popular, you’d be right: already 89% of UK residents are in favor of some sort of frequent flying levy. 

The clock is ticking: we have already locked ourselves into 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming and are sleepwalking into nightmare scenarios of 3 degrees or more. Swift action to curb carbon emissions from flights can be carried out fairly and effectively through a frequent flying levy—if we have the political will to pursue it. 

Yousuf Ataur Rehman of New Haven is a graduate student.