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Should the federal government assess a carbon fee on passenger air travel?

Read two views and vote in our online poll.


Juliette Rooney-Varga

Professor of Environmental Sciences and director of the Climate Change Initiative at University of Massachusetts Lowell; Somerville resident

Juliette Rooney-Varga University of Massachusetts Lowell

In the next 10 years, carbon dioxide emissions are expected to grow by more than 10 percent unless countries around the world take ambitious action. The costs of continuing on our current course are staggering. From 2016 to 2018, climate-related disasters cost the world $650 billion. And, of course, no monetary value captures the public health and psychological costs of losing homes to wildfires and floods, treasured coastal places to sea-level rise, or food security to crop damage from heat waves and droughts. These costs are paid by the public when it’s too late and the damage has already been done.


But as long as fossil fuels are cheap, pollution and the damage it causes will worsen. Because most infrastructure was built to use fossil fuels, incentivizing renewable energy is not enough to reduce emissions. We also need policies that exert downward pressure on fossil fuels so that clean technologies not only add more energy services but replace older and dirtier ones.

A carbon price to offset aviation climate pollution — which should be assessed to the airlines — achieves that goal in a classically conservative way that relies on markets, instead of government, to find efficient solutions. If polluters pay for emitting carbon, all of us don’t have to pay for the damage after it’s done.

Aviation, which accounts for about 2.5 percent of fossil fuel-related emissions, is one of the fastest growing emissions sectors. Wealthy people and business travelers tend to be the most frequent flyers. An airline carbon charge might lead to higher costs for passengers. But air travelers can generally afford to pay a fair price to offset climate pollution and are willing to do so. The resulting revenues could be reinvested into communities suffering from poor air quality, noise pollution, and other impacts of living close to airports.


Based on his campaign platform, President Biden plans to target aviation emissions through efficiency measures and investment in new fuels that may or may not deliver climate benefits. My UMass Lowell colleague Carolyn McCarthy and I believe now is the time to enact a price on climate pollution that pushes fossil fuel use downward in a meaningful and fair way.


Patricia Saint Aubin

Norfolk resident, Republican State Committee member, 2014 Republican nominee for State Auditor

Patricia Saint Aubinhandout

Do not be fooled! Others will argue a carbon tax on airline tickets is not that at all. They will substitute the more palatable word “offset.” A 2019 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that consumers are more likely to be favorable towards a carbon “offset” than a tax. But in reality, it’s a tax. Even if the charge is imposed on the airline, It will affect the price of every passenger.

If this “offset” occurs it will be one more “tax” among the many already paid on airline tickets. The Feds collect a 7.5 percent per-flight excise tax. Round trip tickets include a $11.20 “September 11” fee to fund the Transportation Security Administration. A $9 charge goes to the airport. Then there’s the $8.60 tax covering the take-off and landing.

How much might the carbon tax — excuse me, “offset” — cost? One study estimated that a carbon charge of $50-$100 per ton is necessary to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement. Based on that estimate and data from, I calculate that for a round trip from Boston to Florida, a Boeing 737 would burp a half ton of emissions, costing the passenger $22-$45 per trip. A direct flight to California: $65-$135.


How will these new “offsets” treat flight inequality? Using an industry website, I calculated that a small private jet adds five times as much carbon per passenger than a 737. A faster, larger jet adds 11 times more. Will private jets pay a proportionate amount for their emission? Air freight “offsets” will come next. Maybe your online purchases will be “offset” too.

Then there is the timing of a new tax on an industry crushed financially by COVID-19. Air travel declined 60-70 percent since the pandemic began, according to federal data. Delta profits went from $4.7 billion in 2019 to a loss of $12 billion in 2020, according to my analysis of data on Yahoo! finance. Airlines contribute 2.5 percent to all carbon emissions. These companies continue to work at technological innovation to reduce their footprint. That’s better than “offsets” to the passenger.

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact

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