Frazier: Green New Deal shouldn't spare air travel
The Green New Deal starts by pointing out that human activity is "the dominant cause of observed climate change over the past century." It then lists strategies to limit many of these human activities. The resolution specifically calls for projects that reduce the number of people driving fuel-intensive vehicles, polluting natural areas and ecosystems, and relying on fossil fuels.
It's true that each of the aforementioned activities significantly damage the environment and threaten the future health of the planet. It's also true that a single flight across the country generates approximately 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that a car emits over the span of a year. This latter activity, though, gets left off the list of human actions targeted in the Green New Deal.
U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., the resolution's authors, need to fill the plane-shaped hole in the Green New Deal.
A quick edit to the proposal can do just that. What's more, this edit can fulfill the dual mandate of the resolution: reducing emissions while reducing inequality.
The Green New Deal should include a new fee on all air travel originating in the United States. The fee would increase based on your seat location (first- and business class would pay more) and flight distance (the further you fly, the higher the fee). Revenue generated from the fund would go toward carbon offsets and climate change mitigation efforts in marginalized communities. This policy would simultaneously force fliers to internalize some of the negative environmental effects of their travel while providing additional funds to protect vulnerable communities.
Another strategy in the Green New Deal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions would receive the support of the science community. Researchers partially attribute the increase in heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere and damage to coral reefs to human-generated carbon dioxide emissions. Many scientists label carbon dioxide-emitting activities such as air travel as people's biggest environmental sin. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Markey can help travelers repent by forcing them to pay.
The fee would receive support from other coalitions as well. Progressive organizations pushing for the proposal would support the progressive nature of the fee. Beyond adjusting the fee by proxies for wealth such as seat location and flight distance, the average attributes of airline passengers makes the fee inherently progressive. Individuals with incomes of more than $80,000 are six times more likely than those with less than $40,000 in annual income to identify as a frequent flier.
Academics and tourism agencies may even support (or at least not oppose) a small fee. Reducing airline-generated pollution need not decrease opportunities to exchange information and share life with others. Even a small fee would have a massive impact on contributing to the goals.
To see the revenue-generating potential of this fee, it's helpful to look to a year of airline travel at Portland International Airport. In 2018, 812,544 passengers flew out of Oregon's busiest airport. If PDX's first-class passengers (approximately 5 percent of all passengers) paid a $20 fee and everyone else paid $10, then PDX-based travel only would generate $8.53 million in revenue. That's a sizable contribution to the fight against climate change.
Skeptics of the Green New Deal have regularly derided its financial feasibility. These questioners rightfully point out that the goals have high costs. The financial and human capital required to realize the ambitious goals will only occur with substantial and sustainable sources of investment. The authors and supporters of the proposal will have to determine a fee amount that makes sense for all stakeholders but this will be a relatively easy calculation in comparison to completing many of the plan's loftier priorities.
The Green New Deal falls short of its potential to help America reduce its carbon footprint. Reducing air travel represents a long-unaddressed opportunity to move the United States closer to its green goals. Thankfully, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is not a fan of doing things in a traditional way. Let's hope that holds true when it comes to taking on airline travel.
Kevin Frazier is a former executive assistant to Gov. Kate Brown. He lives in Beaverton.