Code Red versus the aviation industry: Don’t crash the planet
This time Code Red will target aviation! Why? While it’s not a secret for anybody that aviation is disastrous for the climate, maintains precarious working conditions, and has a harmful impact on nature, agriculture and health, the industry still benefits from numerous tax breaks and receives millions in subsidies. As a result, the industry keeps growing beyond planetary boundaries for the enjoyment of the 1% responsible for over half of passenger flight emissions. Yet it is the global majority of marginalised, financially precarious and racialised communities that pay the price. It is high time to start curbing down the aviation industry and make it undergo a radical turn, putting people and the planet first.
The aviation industry disrupts the climate…
Aviation is one of the transportation modes with the biggest climate impact. Airplanes don’t only emit CO2 – accounting for about 2.5% of global emissions – but also nitrogen oxides (NOx), black carbon, vapor trails and soot, which contribute twice as much to global warming as CO2 emissions. As a result, the climate impact of a flight can be up to 80 times higher than that of a train ride for the same route. And that climate impact is increasing year after year. Emissions from the airline industry are growing faster than any other mode of transportation, with projections showing that emissions will triple by 2050 if the industry doesn’t change course soon. That would represent a quarter of the global carbon budget left for a 1.5° C scenario. Although science clearly states that reducing flights is the only valid short-term solution, the industry continues to grow and sell green lies of “sustainable” aviation fuels and electric planes which provide no short term emission reductions.
…and is inherently unjust and largely unnecessary.
The problem are private jets, unnecessary cargo flights and excessive touristic flights. 80% of the world’s population has never flown, while 1% is responsible for more than half of the total emissions of passenger air travel. That includes leisurely flights and private flights. As to cargo flights, they serve high-speed transportation including online orders of low-quality goods such as fast fashion – a polluting practice linked to global capitalism that encourages overproduction and overconsumption, local job loss, and has a climate impact 100 times higher than that of shipping freight per ton of transported goods.
Commercial passenger flights are also on the rise, thanks in part to low-cost airlines using tax breaks and bad working conditions, thereby deepening the price discrepancy that forces people onto planes rather than the pricey trains for short distance travel. In the meantime, more private jets are flying than ever before, doubling their emissions between 2021 and 2022. While only the super-rich enjoy their jets, the global majority bears the consequences – from emissions-related illnesses to noise pollution, and of course increasingly extreme weather conditions, making it an outrageous violation of the principle of climate and social justice. While aviation can have some benefits in specific sectors and is indispensable for diasporas and displaced peoples to connect with their communities, most of the industry’s activities are unnecessary and inherently unjust.
Aviation thrives thanks to our subsidies and tax breaks…
Despite its disastrous climate impact, the aviation industry enjoys preferential treatment over other modes of transportation worldwide. Airline companies pay no taxes on kerosene and no VAT on airline tickets – unlike all other means of transportation such as cars and trains. As a result, Belgium misses out on as much as 700 million euros a year in taxes from aviation. Not only does aviation escape taxation: the sector is also hugely financed by public money – thus ultimately by citizens. Regional airports, for instance, benefit from millions in subsidies that allow low-cost airlines to reap huge profits. Airlines were also saved from bankruptcy by State aid during the corona pandemic. Finally, governments invest millions in infrastructure around airports. All this with taxpayers’ money that would be better spent on alternative public transport (such as trains), education, healthcare, loss and damage finance, reparations, or the energy revolution, at a time when so many people struggle to feed and heat themselves.
…at the expense of food security and health…
Aviation is not just airplanes: it requires cumbersome infrastructure such as airports that not only eats out a lot of space, but also locks us in this transportation system for decades. In a small country like Belgium, there is simply no room – nor need – for six international airports. On the over 2500 hectares now occupied by airports, we could feed over a thousand people each year, or capture over 20,000 tons of CO2 annually. Instead, airports are being extended onto agricultural lands which are essential for our food sovereignty. The continuing disappearing of natural and agricultural areas under concrete makes us vulnerable to extreme weather events, as the 2021 floods made clear.
The concentration of airports in this densely populated country constitutes a public health hazard. Well over half a million people living around airports are exposed to increased concentrations of ultrafine particles and disruption of their sleep (due to night flights), with an enormous impact on the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, resulting in asthma, heart disease and high blood pressure. Women are especially adversely affected by such air pollution. Residents around airports include marginalised and racialised communities in financial precarity who often have no choice but to live there due to the high cost of housing elsewhere, and see the number of flights and consequent pollution increase year on year. What’s more, it is not inconceivable that a plane could crash in a residential neighbourhood in Belgium, like at the Amsterdam Bijlmermeer.
…and maintaining difficult working conditions
Aviation is a major source of employment, but many of these jobs are carried out in increasingly precarious and difficult working conditions. Baggage handlers, warehouse storekeepers and ramp attendants often have to do dangerous, back-breaking work, which is often compounded by dubious practices on the part of employers, such as short-term and freelance contracts, under-staffing and night work. Even relatively valued professions such as cabin crew or pilots are now subject to social dumping, encouraged in particular by the rise of low-cost airlines.
These jobs come with significant costs to the community in terms of subsidies, investments and climate impact, and many low-skilled jobs are highly sensitive to outsourcing and automation. As aviation will have to degrow radically to ensure a livable future on the planet, many of these jobs will also disappear, making them particularly precarious. Conversely, a re-localisation of needed production-chains associated with a collective reduction in working hours could create new job opportunities at home in better working conditions. It is thus high time to invest all these public resources in the development of truly high-quality, meaningful and socially just jobs.
Time for action
While scientists agree that aviation must shrink in the short term to ensure a livable future on Earth, this industry continues to grow beyond planetary boundaries. Meanwhile, nuisances and health problems for local residents also grow, and people worldwide are terrorized by ever increasing extreme weather events. This disproportionately affects the people who contribute least to the problem – people living in financial precarity, and marginalised, and racialised communities here in Belgium and around the globe. This growth is driven by mass and luxury consumption, as well as by the many tax breaks and subsidies the sector continues to enjoy. The sector misuses public resources and space that we desperately need for the ecological and economic revolution. That’s why Code Red demands: an immediate end to aviation subsidies, a ban on private jets and the radical degrowth of the aviation sector.
From 15 to 17 December, we embark on a mass action for social and climate justice, against the aviation industry. Join us.