As thousands of Extinction Rebellion protesters marched on London City Airport and super-glued their bottoms to the floor of the airport rail station earlier this month, a quieter environmental show was taking place in Denmark.
Together with other members of the aviation industry, Copenhagen Airport and SAS Airlines offered to raise a new tax of $2-3 per departing passenger to fund environmental research. While not widely covered in the international press, it was remarkable nonetheless because it highlights one of the central questions facing the aviation climate debate: what’s the purpose of the tax?
Over the past year, the volume of talk about aviation and the environment has risen from a murmur in the shadows to a loud debate in the public square.
“Flight-shaming” gained ground this year – and could cost airlines billions, according to Citi. Elsewhere in Scandinavia, at least, 20% of Swedish travelers surveyed claimed to have reduced the number of flights they have taken in deference to the environment.
The recent Danish tax proposal is notable in two ways: for one, it appears to have been initiated by industry, rather than by government despite the fact that airlines and airports have firmly opposed new taxation, green or otherwise, until now.
Even more important, the Danish plan directs the funds it raises specifically toward environmental R&D.
Many countries have introduced some form of “eco-tax” on aviation, but virtually none has ring-fenced the funds raised. For example, the French government said that its new éco-contribution will be invested in other forms of transport, but there does not appear to be a formal mechanism tying the two.
In seven other European countries, taxes of 3-14% may be described as eco-taxes. But are they really? Regardless of the language, these aviation taxes go to the general fund and may never make it back to the industry’s pockets or environmental projects.

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