The move, which will take effect from 2020, will see a tax of €1.50 imposed on economy-class tickets on internal flights and those within Europe, Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne said. It will rise to €9 for within the European Union in business class, €3 outside the EU in economy class and a maximum €18 for flights outside the European Union in business class, she added.
The new measure is expected to bring in some €180m a year which will be invested in greener transport infrastructure, notably rail, she said. “France is committed to the taxation of air transport but there is an urgency here,” she said.
It will only be applied on outgoing flights and not those flying into the country, Ms Borne added. Flights to the French Mediterranean island of Corsica and also the French overseas departments – which are hugely dependent on air links for their existence – will be exempt, she said.
Air France slammed the measure, which it said would “strongly penalise its competitiveness” at a time when it needed to invest, notably in renewing its fleet, to reduce its carbon footprint. A similar tax was introduced in Sweden in April 2018, which imposed an added charge of up to €40 on every ticket in a bid to lessen the impact of air travel on the climate.
Sweden has seen the development of a movement called “flight shaming” (flygskam) spearheaded by 16-year-old schoolgirl Greta Thunberg who has become a symbol of the fight against climate change.
The industry has been under fire over its carbon emissions, which at 285 grams of CO2 emitted per kilometre travelled by a passenger far exceed all other modes of transport. Road transportation follows at 158 and rail travel is at 14, according to European Environment Agency figures.
“The sector is under considerable pressure,” Alexandre de Juniac, the chief executive of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), admitted at a meeting of the industry body in June.
So-called ecotaxes have met with heavy criticism from the IATA. It argues that the effectiveness of such taxes is “doubtful” and said “no government that introduced a ticket tax has been able to demonstrate that such tax reduced CO2 emissions.”
The industry is already subject to the EU carbon emissions trading system and, from 2020, to a new global mechanism called the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA).
Andrew Murphy, aviation expert with the NGO Transport & Environment (T&E) in Brussels which presses for cleaner transport, said that the tax was far from unique in Europe with similar measures in Britain, Germany, Norway, Italy, as well as Sweden.
“I don’t think that because there is a €18 tax it will deter anyone from flying,” he told AFP. “It will have some minor impact on demand.”
French President Emmanuel Macron is seeking to cast himself a champion of the fight against climate change and ensuring that the 2015 Paris accord on fighting global warming is respected.
He went into this month’s G20 summit in Japan declaring that climate change was a “red line” and emerged with a statement from 19 of its members endorsing the Paris agreement – but without the United States after President Donald Trump pulled out of the agreement in 2017.
Mr Macron is aware he needs to tread carefully on climate issues after rising fuel taxes – which aimed to help France meet its Paris climate accord goals – helped spark the yellow vest street protests against his government last year.
Green taxes such as the one that France said it would impose on plane tickets in 2020 are struggling to develop across the European Union, where they frequently faces resistance and protests.
History of so-called ecotaxes
In 2011 the European Commission envisaged that by “2020 a major shift from taxation of labour towards environmental taxation… will lead to a substantial increase in the share of environmental taxes in public revenues”.
So far this has not come to pass. Since then the share of environmental tax revenues in the EU, which stood at 6.18%, has fallen almost every year. Nonetheless, eco-taxes in 2017 generated around €369bn.
Latvia leads the bloc in shifting towards ecotaxes, which accounted for 11.1% of the government’s revenue in 2017, according to data from EU statistics authority Eurostat. Slovenia and Greece also topped the list, generating respectively 10.1% and 9.5% of their revenue from ecotaxes, well above the EU country average of just under 6.0 percent.
By contrast, Luxembourg brings in the least revenue from ecotaxes at 4.3%. Germany, Belgium, France and Sweden all brought in less than 5% of their revenue via ecotaxes. Ecotaxes in Germany are based on reforms passed in 1999-2000. Germans now pay a tax on electricity of 6.41 cents per kilowatt hour that directly finances renewable energy infrastructure.
In Hungary, meanwhile, an ecotax is automatically charged through VAT on products that generate waste such as plastic bags, batteries, leaflets and packaging. Bulgaria also charges ecotaxes on vehicle registration, ranging from 64 euros to 158 euros depending on the age of the car. This does not apply to electric cars.
Greeks meanwhile have paid for plastic bags in supermarkets since January in a well-received measure, with experts noting a “significant” reduction in the number of bags used. The government says the revenue collected will be used in the recycling sector.
Energy in Latvia is heavily taxed: up to 509 euros per 1,000 litres for fuel oil, while coal is so highly taxed that it is virtually impossible to open a coal power plant. Tax on natural gas, however, is lower.
The French “yellow vest” protests, which were sparked by a proposed petrol tax hike, were the latest expression of opposition to ecotaxes. After widespread demonstrations and road blockages in late 2018, the government scrapped the petrol tax set to be introduced in January.
In Bulgaria, where ecotaxes have generally been received without opposition, an attempt at raising annual taxes on vehicles more than 10 years old sparked public debate and the government was forced to backtrack. It decided instead to reduce taxes on new vehicles.
Protests broke out in Slovenia – a leader in ecotaxes – in 2014, over a rise in C02 emissions taxes. The government toned down the measure to avoid hitting major polluters too hard. In Estonia, the shale oil industry managed to obtain a reduction in taxes for a few years.
In Sweden, a carbon tax was a central issue in the 2018 legislative elections. The far-right Swedish Democrats came third in polls after basing part of its campaign on reducing the tax, notably for farmers following a drought. Ireland introduced a carbon tax in 2010 on kerosene, marked gas oil, liquid petroleum gas, fuel oil, natural gas and solid fuels.