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Picture: Seppo Sirkka / Eastpress / Finland Today

Last week, a citizens’ initiative calling for the implementation of a flight tax reached 50,000 signatures, the necessary benchmark for the proposal to be considered by the parliament.

The initiative proposes that an eco-fee would be added to each flight ticket, ranging from six to forty euros per passenger, and the proponents of the move point to Sweden, where air travel has declined in the past year, as a successful example of an implemented flight tax.

The idea is part of a global effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in order to combat climate change. While air travel currently presents less than five percent of warming activity, it is growing at a fast pace year to year, and is expected to double by 2035. To curb this trend, climate activists are trying to encourage people to use other means of transport, especially trains, as an alternative to airplanes.

One of the leaders of the citizens’ initiative, Janne Kilpinen, spoke for Finland Today, saying that the flight tax should be implemented “because the amount of flight traffic is increasing rapidly and the emissions-free solutions are not there yet; in fact, they are not even on the radar. Biofuels are not very promising on a large scale at the moment. Global or EU-wide fuel taxes would be a favorable option, but it’s clear they would take time. For example, in EU there has to be a unanimous decision, which is not very likely, so a national flight tax is much easier and quicker to achieve.”

Responding to criticism that a national tax would not be efficient enough, Kilpinen responded that “the national tax can reach its objective, which is to reduce flying. That has already happened in Sweden. Perhaps the flight tax wasn’t the only thing that contributed to the change, but it was certainly one factor there. The flight tax can also be proportional to the length of flight and thus reflect the emissions.”

Kilpinen also asks, “What would be the justification of not having a tax on air traffic, if all other means of transport have to pay tax? Why should air traffic alone be exempt?”

We also spoke with Centre Party’s Mikko Kärnä, who has spoken out against the proposed flight tax. According to him, “we could have a global tax or a tax within the EU, but it would be devastating for our tourism if we had this national tax. It’s not a very good idea. And actually we have seen what happened in Sweden when they implemented the tax for the first time—the impact was not good.”

Curiously, both sides of the argument point to the same case study, one as an exemplary model, the other as a cautionary tale. There are two ways to read every story: the decline of air travel in Sweden is great for the environment on the one hand, less great for tourism revenue on the other.

Kärnä, however, is not opposed to fighting climate change in general; rather, he is skeptical of this particular measure, fearing it would be either inefficient, or harmful, or both. Instead, he wishes “We could advance the usage of bio-kerosene. It’s a better way; if we really want to cut emissions, we should advance the usage of bio-kerosene. In fact, Neste at the moment has a really good product that can be used in all jet engines.”

Kilpinen, likewise, is not averse to the idea of introducing bio-kerosene. He points out, however, that “it depends which source the biofuel is made from. If, for example, there are fractions of palm oil, like in BFAD, which is a fatty acid distillate from palm oil, then it is not considered as waste in the EU, although Finland and Italy do consider it waste, strangely enough. Generally, the sources of biofuel are not necessarily all sustainable at the moment, so that would be my reason against it, but I think it should be open to the ministry that prepares this legislation if biofuel should be somehow counted in this tax. The initiative did not touch that topic.”

Then there is the problem of higher prices that would inevitably follow from the proposed flight tax, and the underlying reason Kärnä is concerned with effects on tourism. But another potential risk would be a deepening income inequality. “If you implement the flight tax,” Kärnä said, “flight will be more expensive, but this in itself will not cut emissions. Of course, it would also be a problem because rich people would still fly, and it would mostly impact flying for people who don’t earn as much money. Also, I am from Lapland, which lives off tourism, and at the moment we don’t have enough trains or other options, so we need flights to Lapland.”

For Kilpinen, “this is a common criticism.” “If the flight tax is done in an unjust way, that could happen. But I don’t see flying as a basic human right. It’s a luxury. And if a person has a low income, I don’t think cheap flights are the best way to support him or her. I think people would appreciate a low-income tax or some other kind of support more, and then decide by themselves if they want to travel by train or by plane. Just offering low-cost flight tickets is a weird way to support a low-income person.”

Ahead of parliamentary discussion, it appears many members of the government coalition support the idea of a flight tax, especially members of the Greens and the Left Alliance. Most skepticism comes from the opposition Finns Party and the Centre Party.