Being well-travelled was something I used to wear as a badge of honour.
For many Australians, the desire to travel overseas and to do so as frequently as possible is almost woven into our national psyche.
I’m guilty of this. In total I’ve notched up more than 50 countries visited by plane.
But as the climate crisis escalates, my attitude to flying has radically shifted.
Now travellers like me are in the crosshairs — along with the frequent flyer programs that enable us.
Scientists have calculated that keep within the two-degree of warming threshold, we should all aim to keep our individual carbon budget around two tonnes of CO2 per year.
But with a return flight from Melbourne to London alone generating about 16.8 tonnes of carbon, a new report is calling for a ban on frequent flyer loyalty schemes that incentivise excessive flying.
Written by Doctor Richard Carmichael from Imperial College in London for the Committee on Climate Change, the report recommends that instead of being rewarded, frequent flyers should be slugged with a tax called an “escalating air mile levy” — meaning that people who flew the furthest distances should pay the most for their tickets.
The aim here is not to stop people from flying completely.
In the UK (which is the first major economy to have pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050), just 15 per cent of the population take 70 per cent of all flights, while over half the population doesn’t fly at all in an average year.
While these figures aren’t available for Australia, what we do know is that of the 57 per cent of Australians who have valid passports, the majority of us travel for pleasure and only a small percentage of the population do the bulk of the flying.
We don’t need more incentives for consumerism
Given there are hundreds of frequent flyer programs operating all over the world today, the proposed ban would potentially impact the flying habits of millions of customers.
“Introducing restrictions to all-you-can-fly passes and loyalty schemes which offer air miles would remove incentives to excessive or stimulated flying,” Dr Carmichael writes.
“Given the small number of frequent flyers, most of the population would be unaffected by the levy and families would not be penalised for an annual holiday in the sun.
“Frequent flyers, who strongly tend to be wealthier and less price-sensitive, would incur increasingly powerful taxation to discourage additional flights.”
At present, air travel is one of the fastest-growing sources of carbon emissions globally, with the aviation industry now accounting for about five per cent of global emissions, and growing.
On its current trajectory, aeroplane passengers are expected to double in the next decade, according to the International Air Transport Association.
In a bid to counter this, the report recommends that the carbon footprint of long haul flights be stated in advertisements to “encourage more responsible flying”, likening it to the control of alcohol and tobacco advertising.
The knock-on effect of this in Australia would create a boom in less intensive travel options like rail and may also improve our domestic tourism industry as climate sensitive consumers decide to replace their annual trip to the Greek Islands with a jaunt to sunny Queensland instead.
As well as rewarding people for excessive flying, frequent flyer programs in Australian supermarkets and consumer outlets have effectively offered incentives for higher levels of consumerism through rewards for credit card purchases.
The range of consumer goods that are included in many frequent flyer programs would also be scrapped, ultimately leading to better environmental outcomes and a reduction in consumer items ending up in landfill.
While personal consumer choices are important and can help to assuage our own personal flying shame, policy shifts at the government and institutional level such as scrapping frequent flyer programs provide much greater hope of seriously curbing emissions at anything like the speed and scale needed.