Can A Tax On Air Travel Offset The Massive Amount Of Extra Carbon Rich People Use?

Superstar economist Thomas Piketty says the wealthy everywhere need to pay for how much carbon they’re using–and plane tickets are a good proxy for that.

Can A Tax On Air Travel Offset The Massive Amount Of Extra Carbon Rich People Use?
[Top Photo: Brand New Images/Getty Images]

When a jet-setting environmentalist like Al Gore sets foot on an airplane, some people act like it’s some big gotcha moment that he’s never considered. They can take comfort in what they label as hypocrisy and give themselves a convenient reason to discard the urgency of his climate message.


Still, they have a point. Usually, the richer you are, the more you get on airplanes. And the bigger your carbon footprint. But what if everyone who got on a plane would have to pay a token for their guilt?

That’s a new proposal from Thomas Piketty–the economist who rose to fame with his treatise on global income inequality, Capital in the 21st Century.

Climate change is going to cause major physical, social, and economic damages globally: One major sticking point at December’s international climate talks in Paris will be which nations pay and how much. Most agree that rich industrialized countries that have caused most global warming to date should finance “adaptation” measures in poor countries that have not reaped the same benefits from a century of profligate fossil fuel burning.

Yevhen Vitte via Shutterstock

But it’s individuals who are the ones burning carbon–countries are just a rough approximation. A family living below the poverty line in the United States may have less responsibility for climate change than a business magnate in India. And the biggest rise in greenhouse gas emissions in the last 15 years has come from the growing upper and middle classes in the developing world. Like income inequality, global carbon emission “inequality” has decreased in recent times. But within countries, it has been on the rise, writes Piketty, in a new paper written with colleague Lucas Chancel.

Today, globally, emissions are “highly concentrated” at the top, they find–the top 10% of people around the world contribute to 45% of total emissions. But while the “top” is very often people from the U.S. or Europe, it’s not always. The richest 1% in Saudi Arabia are among the world’s top emitters. But the richest 1% in Tanzania (a very poor country) and middle-income Chinese also emit more than low-income French or Germans. Overall, the top 10% global tier are from all continents–and one in three from emerging economies.

The economists call for policy to match the “new geography of global emitters.” It is “crucial to focus on high individual emitters rather than high-emitting countries” in deciding who finances climate adaptation efforts to the tune of the required 150 billion Euros a year, they say.


How does one do that? Piketty and Chancel discuss several ideas, and one of the most feasible is tax on air travel. The say that taxing all business-class tickets at a rate of 180 Euros, and all economy-class tickets at a rate of 20 Euros, would yield the money required every year. A tax on air tickets is already implemented in nine countries, so it’s something that can work.

Of course, air travel is only a stand-in for one’s overall greenhouse gas footprint and isn’t going to be a perfect match. But it might be easier to implement than more complicated tax systems that the paper also considers.

No matter what, Americans and Europeans will need to do more. They write:

“Equitable adaptation requires to define neutral criteria applying to all citizens of the world equally, whether they come from rich, emerging or developing countries. We certainly do not know with certainty how to combine the different strategies so as to reach an equitable solution to all.”

“But the bottom line of our simulations is that, at the end of the day, by far the largest contribution to world adaptation funds should come from rich countries—particularly from the USA, but also from the EU. Even if high income groups from emerging and developing countries were to contribute to adaptation efforts, Americans and Europeans would need to substantially scale up their current contributions to fill the adaptation gap.”

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.