Is this the turning point for aviation's tax haven?

A pro-environment message was not to the fore of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests in France, but it’s just possible they may have turned the tide when it comes to tackling air transport’s runaway emissions.

Campaigners Timo Galvaire and Tassos Papachristou with MEP Karima Delli (centre)

The decision by France’s president Emmanuel Macron to raise diesel taxes as a way of reducing the environmental impact of road transport brought angry demonstrations to the streets of French cities - it was the last straw.

But one aspect of the debate caught the attention of a 22-year-old French student studying public affairs in Brussels. Timo Galvaire was struck by one of the arguments used by the protesters: that there is no tax at all on aviation fuel (kerosene), so why should car fuel be made even more expensive?

‘It was a powerful argument,’ Galvaire said, ‘but I turned it around and asked: why is there no tax on aviation fuel? In fact, I couldn’t believe at first that there was no tax on fuel used to fly planes. So I looked for the reasons why we can’t have a tax on kerosene.’

Macron’s argument was that any tax on kerosene at a national level would disadvantage French industry. Indeed any country levying a tax on flights on only its own airports would make itself less competitive. But the implicit message from the French government was that, if a kerosene tax were to happen at EU level, no single member state would lose out and that would be acceptable.

As a student of urban public affairs, Galvaire knew about the European Citizens Initiative (ECI), a tool in which seven EU citizens living in seven different countries can launch a petition, and if it attracts more than 1 million verified signatures within a year, the Commission is obliged to respond and possibly to propose legislation.

So working with a network of associates living in different countries, Galvaire filed an ECI petition in March which called on the European Commission ‘to propose to member states the introduction of a tax on aviation fuel (kerosene).’ The petition was approved on 10 May, which means the initiative has until 10 May 2020 to reach the 1 million mark.

‘It’s a crazy state of affairs that we have taxes on almost all fuels, but not on the fuel that powers the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases,’ Galvaire says. ‘I don’t know how this has been allowed to happen, but at least we are trying to do something about it. We need to focus on spreading the word so we get as many people to sign as possible.’

T&E campaigns director Nico Muzi said: ‘Sometimes it takes the passion and enthusiasm of young people to see something clearly, and that is what Timo Galvaire’s initiative is all about. T&E has been working on aviation’s environmental impact for 24 years, and we recognised back in 1995 that there was no legal obstacle to a fuel tax. But countries, blocs and the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation have all stopped a fuel tax from happening. In fact, ICAO has blocked everything to tackle aviation’s impact except offsets, which epitomises the way the industry sees their role in fighting climate change: washing their hands of the responsibility of cutting their own emissions.’

‘Timo and his group have identified this real hole in the world’s climate campaigning, and they are doing something about it. The environmental movement now needs to help him. With our networks, we ought to be able to get one million signatures, so politicians can’t escape the responsibility of ending aviation’s tax haven. More and more young people in Europe have understood the climate emergency we are in and are taking action into their own hands. It’s high time Commission officials listen to them and put an end to this unjustified, unfair fossil fuel subsidy to airlines.’

The kerosene tax petition can be signed here, and more information on the background to the ECI can be found here. Anyone wanting to sign may be asked to give their passport number or other forms of identification, as signatories have to be verified by national authorities.