Aviation is ready to recover from the pandemic. The U.S. Travel Association expects that, in 2023, domestic air trips will match those from 2019, and that, in 2024, they will eclipse the 2019 figure by 10 percent. Internationally, S&P Global finds that China’s December reversal of its Zero Covid policy has already brought a rapid turnaround, as air travel outpaces its pre-pandemic rate. The International Air Travel Association anticipates that the airline industry will turn a profit this year for the first time since before the coronavirus. And in a sign of longer-term optimism, Tata Group, which owns Air India, is now believed to have more than 500 new aircraft on order.
But just as people across the globe are preparing for takeoff, environmental pressure groups are working to keep them grounded. On January 20, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Friends of the Earth filed a joint lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals against the Environmental Protection Agency, alleging that the EPA is abetting pollution from airplanes through lax regulation. The suit comes in the wake of EPA rulemakings in 2021 and 2022 that bring the United States into compliance with standards adopted by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. body. While the subject matter of the most recent EPA airplane rules, and the lawsuit filed against the agency, is local air pollution, the same legacy environmental groups filed suit against 2021 rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well, arguing that the limits don’t go far enough.
The unremitting opposition these environmentalists show toward air travel betrays an ugly truth: they want all of us to stay grounded. Indeed, in 2018, former Sierra Club president Carl Pope admitted as much, lamenting in the New York Times that supersonic aircraft could soon usher in an era of greater human mobility. This troubling proclivity is not limited to North America. In a Journal of Sustainable Tourism article last year, Europeans Milena Büchs and Giulio Mattioli wrote that in order to slow climate change, “policies to reduce air travel demand, including in the tourism sector, are urgently required.”
The obvious problem for the anti-travel environmentalists is that people across the world—rich, poor, or otherwise—enjoy taking to the skies and want to do more of it. From a global perspective, air travel signifies an ascent to a higher standard of living. While most American adults have flown on an airplane at some point in their lives, in 2017 Boeing estimated that fewer than 20 percent of people globally had done so. A 2020 paper by European researchers on aviation’s implications for climate change similarly found that in the 2018 calendar year, just 11 percent of human beings flew, and that the average flier did so just once every 24 months.
But economic development is delivering the opportunity to more people with each passing year. Since 2000, the number of air passengers has mushroomed as global incomes have risen. According to World Bank statistics, about 1.7 billion passengers (flyers are counted each time they take to the sky) boarded commercial planes in 2000; in 2019, the last year before the pandemic broke the trend, more than 4.5 billion passengers were recorded. Before Covid dashed plans, Boeing forecast that the number of first-time flyers in Asia alone would grow on an annual basis by 100 million people.
To tamp down this growth in human mobility, the Sierra Club argues that “flying will have to get more expensive” through new taxes on fuel, new charges at airports, and a generalized restriction on supply. The anti-travelers often frame their arguments in terms of “environmental justice,” arguing that air travel is a luxury. If their preferences continue to shape global public policy, it will remain that way, precluding air travel entirely for the 80 percent of human beings who have yet to fly. Few might object to policy shaving off the marginal jaunt from a business executive’s itinerary, but what if that same policy keeps a middle-class American family from visiting grandma, or defers travel for a young Indonesian who wants to see the wider world?
If we opt to reduce aviation emissions by levying new taxes, in the outright form or through cloaked global standards, it will come at the expense of human exploration, connection, and fulfilment, pulling away the jet bridge just as the global middle class is approaching the cabin door. The pandemic erected a yearslong travel hurdle. Policymakers shouldn’t create another.
Photo by Soeren Stache/picture alliance via Getty Images