Short-distance flights: the German Green Party’s blessing or curse?

Zur deutschen Version, bitte hier klicken.

Over the last week or so, the German Green Party made headlines when Annalena Baerbock – head of the Green Party – declared in an interview with the Bild am Sonntag, that short-distance flights should be taxed massively in order to reach climate neutrality. The raison d’être of this move was to do away with dumping prices for these flights, to impose higher taxes for kerosine and to support ‘greener’ travelling alternatives, such as by railway.

Not surprisingly, the statement was followed by an outcry in the German media landscape while members of other parties, such as the conservative CDU and the liberal FDP, criticised Baerbock for making flying a privilege of the wealthy and for showing once again that climate protection of the Greens occurs through prohibitions and limitations.

Leaving aside the criticisms, the goal of climate neutrality is embedded in the manifestos of several leading parties in Germany – at least in those leading towards the parliamentary elections in September 2021 and that have, at the time of writing, been published as drafts (on the publication status of the manifestos, click here). Contrary to other parties, however, the Greens have provided their constituencies with some concrete measures to achieve climate neutrality. And contrary to what Baerbock said, however, it is not supposed to be a prohibition of short-distance flights, but rather making them obsolete by fostering other, greener, means of transportation, such as rail transportation (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, 2021, p. 20).

In the International Spirit

With the above in mind, the Greens’ initiative could be considered laudable. Especially, since other parties shy away from concrete measures. The Liberals, for instance, quite generally rely on “the inventive talents of engineers, technicians and scientists” (FDP, 2021, p. 49) while the Social Democrats (SPD) aim for a speed limit of 130 km/h and an advancement of “research, development and pilot projects” (SPD, 2021, p. 12) to reduce CO2-emissions.

What seems to be rather little discussed is the fact that all of these measures correspond to international obligations. This is because the European Union and its member states have ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), its Kyoto Protocol and the groundbreaking 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change (for a brief explanation of the agreements in German and English, please follow the respective links). This means that it is up to the nation states to implement the agreements, to make them work and therefore to achieve their goals. Ultimately, the main goal is to limit global warming to 1.5°C compared to 1990.

As a consequence, also the European Union has developed several instruments that are to achieve this goal. In fact, tackling emissions, environmental degradation and therefore climate change has been on the EU’s agenda already since the 1990s. Recently, the European Commission proposed a new EU Climate Law that aims to reach climate neutrality, i.e. net zero emissions, by 2050. The Green’s advancement is consequently in an international spirit.

The Right Measure?

Whether or not the idea of reducing short-distance travel by air is an effective tool to curb emissions is, obviously, subject to substantial debate. In an article by Kurt Stukenberg in SpiegelOnline, this issue is discussed. Without the need to delve into the presented arguments, the included figure shows clearly that short-distance our travel constitutes a very minuscule contribution to the overall emissions in 2018: of the 866 million tons of CO2 or CO2 equivalents, merely 2 million tons stemmed from short-distance (inner-German) air travel. This amounts to about 0,25% of all emissions. The question that must be asked is therefore: is focusing on this very issue worth the attention?

There are certainly several sides to this story. On the one hand, the argument of social inequality concerning air travel cannot be swept under the rug. If short-distance air travel becomes significantly more expensive, it is imperative to have affordable, reliable and efficient alternatives. If train ticket prices do not decrease substantially, if the Deutsche Bahn does not substantially tackle is punctuality problem (maybe they should contact the Japanese Railway and seek for advice!) and if public transportation also into smaller and less populated areas is not improved, the calls for more expensive plane tickets will indeed either hit those most dependent on them. Or it will face significant opposition from large parts of the population that might even be sympathetic to a cause for climate neutrality.

On the other hand, when looking at the data provided by the Umweltbundesamt in above mentioned figure, it becomes abundantly clear that most of the emission stem from energy production. It would therefore be reasonable to assume that the political parties first and foremost focus on these emission sources. And to be fair, most parties represented in the German Bundestag aim for clean energy production. At the same time, also small contributions sum up to become important factors to reach climate neutrality. Yet, a small contribution might have big impacts on society, or at least on the way public discourse considers climate protection.

While following the international spirit of climate protection and thereby international law, the Green Party’s explicit mentioning – if not focus – might be a blessing and a curse: a blessing since the party consistently follows its course, remains believable and contributes to Germany reaching its climate goals; a curse since the party focuses on the wrong elements and thereby willingly or unwillingly shifts the focus away from the largest greenhouse gas emitters. The outcome of the parliamentary elections on 26 September 2021 will tell us which path will be treaded.

References

Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen. (2021). Deutschland. Alles ist drin. Programmentwurf zur Bundestagswahl 2021. URL: https://cms.gruene.de/uploads/documents/2021_Wahlprogrammentwurf.pdf (accessed 26.5.2021).

FDP. (2021). Nie gab es mehr zu tun. Wahlprogramm der Freien Demokraten. URL: https://www.fdp.de/sites/default/files/import/2021-04/110463-programmentwurf-nie-gab-es-mehr-zu-tun-2.pdf (accessed 26.5.2021).

SPD. (2021). Aus Respekt vor Deiner Zukunft. Das Zukunftsprogramm der SPD. URL: https://www.spd.de/fileadmin/Dokumente/Beschluesse/Programm/SPD-Zukunftsprogramm.pdf (accessed 26.5.2021).

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