News | Socio-ecological Transformation - Changing Lanes Reducing Air Travel—But How?

A conversation with with Magdalena Heuwieser of the Stay Grounded network


You describe air travel as “absolutely the most harmful mode of transportation”. But passenger air travel accounts for only about 2.5 percent of global CO2 emissions, far less than the energy sector, industry or agriculture. Why did you decide to target air travel in particular?

This figure is constantly invoked by industry and governments, all the while many other aspects are being overlooked. First of all, it’s not just about CO2. When kerosene is burned in the atmosphere, it has many other effects, which is why air travel’s share of the overall impact on the global climate is more likely five to eight percent, as confirmed by the new report by the German Federal Environment Agency confirms this. Secondly, while it is clear that most other harmful economic sectors must reduce their emissions, aviation continues to grow unabated. According to the Öko-Institut, by 2050, 22 percent of CO2 emissions could come from flying, a figure that increases if the overall climate impact is taken into account. We should not simply pin our hopes on technical solutions that may emerge in the next few years: the aviation industry has been making grand promises for decades and not delivering on them. Many of the sham solutions offered, such as compensation through offsetting, the use of agricultural fuels, and the tremendous energy inputs that would be required were synthetic fuels (power-to-liquid) to be used, simply produce new problems. Thirdly, these calculations do not factor in military aviation, about which there is little available data.

Magdalena Heuwieser is an organizer with the Stay Grounded network, which advocates for the reduction of air travel. She studied International Development in Vienna and is active in the climate justice movement. This interview first appeared in LuXemburg and was translated by Wanda Vrasti and Ryan Eyers for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

You claim that air travel is a massive social justice issue. Why?

The five to eight percent share of overall climate impact caused by civil aviation is the result of the actions of a very small number of frequent flyers. About 90 percent of the world’s population have never sat in an aeroplane and would not be able to do so due to restrictive visa regulations or a lack of means. Flying is also part of an “imperialist way of life“, of a mode of production and consumption based on a limitless appropriation of nature and labour and the externalization of damages. The costs of such activity are not only being passed on to future generations or other regions, but are also being disproportionately borne by those who have not caused them. These problems include noise, ultra-fine dust, and health issues pertaining to airports. The expansion of airports destroys biodiversity in many places and causes displacement. We are aware of around 1,200 airport projects worldwide and have so far documented 60 conflicts in detail in our Environmental Justice Atlas.

Just as with petrol prices or the phasing out of coal, air travel also prompts disagreement about what is socially just. In Germany, how can we prevent this from leading to a situation in which  those who don’t have much and are looking forward to taking a rare flight to their holiday destination are the ones who have to forfeit their travel plans? How can we make sure that climate policy is not discredited as “socially unjust”, as was seen in the case of the yellow vest protest?

The yellow vest protests are exciting. They have just demanded that instead of car fuel, it is aviation fuel that should be taxed at a higher rate because that would specifically affect those who fly a lot, namely the wealthy. A study recently found that people like Bill Gates or Paris Hilton produce an astonishing 10,000 times more emissions than the average person as a result of their jet-setting. One percent of the English population is responsible for ten percent of international flights, and ten percent of passengers for half of all international flights. The costs, however, are borne by everyone: all taxpayers who contribute to the subsidies, and even more so those who live under flight paths or in regions hit particularly hard by the climate crisis. Employees in the airline industry are also suffering from increasingly poor working conditions, with low-cost airline employees and ground staff suffering the most. If wages were to be increased, low-cost airlines would no longer exist. The issue of social justice can be illustrated very well by looking at air travel—a task which the left has neglected for far too long.

Debates around climate change have made flying a political issue and flight shame a moral one. What do you make of this debate?

For many, flying  seems like a totally normal activity, though this is not the case worldwide and until two decades ago was not the case here in Germany either. Problematizing means questioning this normalization, the idea of the “freedom of the sky”, the appeal of fast tourism and world acquisition—a controversial issue. Last year, a new dynamic emerged in the debate which popularized the term “flight shame”. Although we fought against this term, we constantly received requests for interviews about it and were viewed as part of the flight shame movement. But “shame” individualizes the problem and reduces citizens to consumers. While individuals are being shamed for flying, the focus is shifted away from the structures that provide air travel with such unfair advantages. Unfortunately, flying remains by far the cheapest means of transportation for long and sometimes even short distances. There is therefore little use in condemning individuals for wrongful behaviour. Shame also makes people passive instead of mobilizing them in support of change. In saying that, whether I choose to fly or not is the action with has the single greatest impact on my ecological footprint. Continuing to fly until the rules of the game change is not a solution either. Personal decisions and stories of travelling by train or ship can inspire people. We should not underestimate the power of cultural change if we want to overcome the imperialist way of living and producing. Without a public debate and a critical mass recognizing that it is possible to live without flying, policy change will be minimal. But we prefer to speak of a “Stay Grounded movement”, an “earth-bound movement”, if you like, as opposed to focusing on “flight shame”.

Who are the driving forces behind this movement? Who is part of your network? Do you see yourselves primarily as an NGO or are you anchored in concrete social struggles?

“Stay Grounded” is an umbrella organization that comprises 150 initiatives from all over the world, including climate justice groups such as “Am Boden Bleiben” (lit. “stay grounded”) in Germany, citizens’ initiatives against airport expansion in both the Global North and the Global South, NGOs, trade unions, and pro-rail initiatives. It began in 2016 with an initiative by climate activists against a third runway at the airport in Vienna. We noticed that air travel was still a relatively unexplored issue and that hardly any NGOs were working on it. Many citizens’ initiatives functioned with more of a “not in my backyard” attitude and there was no cross-regional networking. In 2018 we sought to initiate a new debate with our position paper on the reduction of air travel. The fact that more than 200 organizations now support a paper that exposes the illusion of “green growth” and emissions trading, and calls for a reduction in air travel rather than “environmentally-friendly flying” can be considered a success. Since then, our network has been growing steadily and new initiatives grounded in our analysis are constantly being founded. So far, we have mainly supported the local work of our members, especially in the Global South, where a new airport often threatens thousands of livelihoods and is rarely being reported on internationally. Currently, however, we are preparing our own “Let's stay grounded!” campaign, which we will be launching in April 2020.

What do you think effective and socially just air travel regulation should look like, both here in Germany and on a global scale?

In December 2019, we published a report titled “Degrowth of Aviation: Reducing Air Travel in a Just Way”, which will soon appear in German. Prior to this, we held a conference with more than 150 activists, academics, and NGO members to discuss a wide range of measures, using climate justice as a core benchmark. We found that fair measures fulfil certain criteria: first, they reduce air travel but continue to enable mobility and cultural exchange; second, they eliminate the unfair advantage and power held by the airline industry; third, make wealthy frequent flyers more responsible for the consequences of air travel than those who rarely fly; fourth, they must initiate equitable structural change, including for those employed in the aviation and tourism sector; and fifth, they must not generate new problems as in the case of offsetting schemes and agrofuels.

In your view, which measures would be most important and urgent? The most publicly debated subject is the CO2 tax.

Taxes should indeed be used as a steering instrument. At present, air travel has a tax advantage over other modes of transportation even though it is the one most harmful to the environment. There are no taxes on kerosene, no VAT on plane tickets, airports hardly ever pay property tax, and aircraft manufacturers are hugely subsidised. This has to change. Whether the tax is then called a kerosene tax or a CO2 tax is not that important in my opinion. In any case, such a tax would have to take into account the industry’s overall impact on the climate (and not only that of CO2). It is clear, however, that one instrument alone will not solve everything. We need a confluence of different measures. In addition to taxes, for example, we need a progressive frequent flyer levy (afrequent flyer levy or air miles levy). This could gain broad popular support, as it would mainly affect frequent flyers, who are predominantly wealthy. In concrete terms, this could mean that my first flight in four years would be tax free, the second would cost €150, the third €300, and the fourth €600. People with a “migration background” could thus regularly visit their families on another continent. The revenue generated from this could be channelled into a “Just Transition Fund”. However, we are still far from being able to implement such proposals. The most urgent thing would be collecting reliable data about who flies, how often they fly, and which income bracket they belong to, as is done in the United Kingdom. Any such study would also have to ensure data security. We also need other regulatory measures, for example halting the construction and expansion of further airports, banning short-haul flights, or advertising restrictions that would prevent anyone from buying their way out. This must also be implemented on a European level. We must relinquish the fear of bans and perhaps begin using another term to show that clear limits are fair and effective.

You've already mentioned aviation industry workers. Many will be afraid of losing their jobs as a result of such measures. To what extent are you working with unions in the aviation sector?

In Britain we have two progressive unions who are active members in our organization. The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) represents workers at Heathrow Airport and they continue to oppose its expansion. They are working on alternative employment models and we have been having ongoing discussions about what a fair transition would look like. In other countries there have been meetings between member organizations and trade unions, but it is often difficult to find common ground, which is why motivation for such efforts may be lacking. We do urgently need to find ways to work together and reflect on how in the years to come we can transition away from aviation to rail and public transport by way of retraining and other measures.

Regarding public transport: if, as you propose, flying is substantially reduced, what are the alternatives, both for passengers and freight? What are alternatives everyone can afford? Under the current situation, restrictions affect everyone equally, but the expensive alternatives are only available to a few.

It is often said that if you can get to a destination by train within four hours, you should not fly there. In our opinion, if we take global warming seriously, this is an insufficient step. But in order to be able to travel comfortably over one or two days or nights, we need simplified booking systems, better connections, equitable prices, and more accommodating stations. Ideas such as an affordable annual ticket for public transport, including national rail services, are very sensible. Above all, the night train system would have to be expanded. There are also an increasing number of adventurous travellers who would like to travel to other continents by ship. But this is hardly possible in the current set-up, and would require developing an environmentally friendly passenger and freight shipping system. Scientist Stephan Rammler even points to a future that includes Zeppelins. Ultimately, however, frugality must also play a role. Some conferences will only be able to be attended online, and we will not always be able to travel so far on our holidays. We have to come to terms with the fact that we cannot always have access to goods from all over the world at a moment’s notice. Air travel is so interwoven with our economic system that its shrinkage requires systemic change: the regionalization of economic cycles, alternative modes of transport, and, correspondingly, other ways of organizing work and working hours.