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The Quickest Way to Reduce Airplane Emissions

Jet fuel isn't taxed on international trips. Maybe it's time to change that, seeing as the rule was decided in 1944.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Greta Thunberg is stuck in the United States.

The 16-year-old climate activist sailed across the Atlantic on a carbon-free yacht this summer for the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York City. Now that December’s UN Climate Change Conference has been relocated from Chile to Spain, she needs a lift back to Europe, but refuses to hop on a plane.

Aviation accounts for 2.4 percent of global emissions—a figure that can seem insignificant until it’s put into context. In more personal terms, a roundtrip flight from London to New York emits 2,173 pounds of carbon—more than the average citizen of 56 countries generates in a year. In Thunbergs native Sweden, theres a word for the sickening feeling these statistics evoke: flygskam, or flight shame.

Fewer are familiar with the agency that orchestrates all that international air travel. But the UNs International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which concluded its fortieth assembly in October, is a name worth knowing: in many ways, the low sticker price and high environmental costs of international flight today can be traced back to ICAOs first meeting 75 years ago. And the future of travel could be determined by what they do next.

In 1944, in the thick of World War II, representatives of 54 nations convened in Chicago for the first Convention on International Civil Aviation. At the time, the majority of plane power was used for military goals, like moving soldiers or cargo. The job of the so-called Chicago Convention was to chart a course for the future of civilian flight.

The resulting agreement, which 52 nations signed on December 7, 1944, formally defined airspace and its management, and created ICAO to regulate it all. But one of its most important decisions, in hindsight, was to exempt any fuel aboard international flights from customs duty. While the Chicago Convention has grown (193 member nations at last count) and changed (eight revisions and many new resolutions), the jet fuel tax exemption stands.

The agreement that was signed was basically to help kickstart what was then quite a small, fledgling aviation industry,said Roger Tyers, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Southampton studying consumer attitudes toward aviation. It worked: more than four billion passengers now fly each year, compared to just 310 million passengers in 1970.

The international law has no bearing on domestic travel, so a nation can tax fuel internallyif it wants to. In the United States, for example, the tax rate is primarily determined at a state level, though the Federal Aviation Administration dictates those funds must go toward airport maintenance and upgrades. By contrast, member states of the European Union have historically forgone fuel taxes on domestic flights altogether. All the Chicago Convention forbids (at least in the traditional interpretation of the law) is taxing the jet fuel commercial aircraft carry on international flights.

But this seemingly small exemption has far-reaching implications. Coupled with the rise of budget airlines and the relatively cheap cost of fuel, the tax exemption is the number one reason why flying is disproportionately cheap,Tyers told me. Though its difficult to project how an international fuel tax would change the industry globally, smaller-scale examples suggest the results would be substantial.

Earlier this year, the European Commission released a report on the implications of a theoretical €0.33 tax on every liter of jet fuel sold within the European Union. Member nations say they have a right to do this within the parameters of the Chicago Convention, but havent tried yet. The commission concluded that such a move would raise ticket costs 10 percent across the board and cut the number of travelers, industry jobs, and emissions by 11 percent.

In October, as Thunberg was preparing for the youth climate strike in New York City, ICAO convened its triennial assembly in Montreal. The body held board elections, discussed legal issues, and also featured contentious debate about aviation and environmental priorities. While, according to aviation analyst Alex Macherass report on the proceedings, a Finnish delegate talked about her determination to ensure aviation is considered an acceptable form of transport,and a representative from Qatar presented on the environmental costs of Saudi Arabia closing its airspace to Qatari jets, forcing them into carbon-intensive alternative routes, the main issue was opposition to ICAOs Climate Change Resolutions.

In 2010, ICAO members resolved to ensure industry growth is carbon-neutral growth after 2020 and improve fuel efficiency by 2 percent per year through 2050. To deliver on these arbitrary and unscientific goals, ICAO in 2016 adopted the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), which will eventually require airlines operating certain international flights to purchase emissions offsets and use more biofuels.

For environmentalists, ICAOs climate change resolutions are too little, too late. Carbon is being addressed, but other pollutants like nitrogen oxides arent. And 2 percent annual improvements in fuel efficiency are effectively meaningless when demand is growing more than twice as fast. Yet for countries like China, which publicly criticized the climate resolutions at the most recent assembly, ICAOs proposal is seen as an unwanted restraint on the airline industrys growth.

Thus far, the ICAO assembly doesn’t seem inclined to revisit the jet fuel tax exemption.* Just as concerning, ICAO could prevent countries from implementing their own emissions offsetting strategies. At least five nations insisted on CORSIA being the sole mechanism anywhere,according to Euractiv, which could complicate the European Unions market-based emissions trading scheme.

Paul Steele, vice president of the International Air Transport Association, reportedly told the assembly what he had observed was unprecedentedand a step backward.ICAO declined to comment for this story, citing its policy against speculating on legal matters, including the potential interpretations of the Convention on International Civil Aviation.

In the absence of strong international leadership, individuals are left to their own devices to combat the climate crisis. In some cases, as with carbon offsets, fliers have the same recourse as airlines: both can pay to plant more trees or fund a new solar farm. But the carbon offset market is full of ineffective schemes, and no offset is better than not emitting in the first place.

Ultimately, airlines and the various governmental and non-governmental entities that oversee them are the only ones who can lead the systemic change we need. They can develop and purchase alternative fuels, negotiate more direct routes through contested airspace, and, if only it was legal, tax jet fuel on international flights.

In 1944, the Chicago Convention’s fuel exemption made some sense. It was crafted in the spirit of friendship and expanding postwar recovery and economic capabilities—not under the specter of climate change. But 75 years later, fliers find themselves in a different position. It’s clear that the best thing for humanity is curbing emissions, but the convention hasn’t evolved as quickly as the science. While potential fliers debate individual ethics, like Thunberg’s aviation abstention or the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s private jet, the ICAO assembly has the ability to make a much bigger, systemic difference.* So far, it seems to lack the will.

*This piece has been updated for clarity.