Europe Talks Flying

  • Research
  • 9 April 2024

Navigating public opinion on aviation and climate 

The public opinion debate about climate change has moved on from whether to take action to reduce emissions to exactly how and when. How our societies handle these debates about specific policy measures matters. It matters for how quickly and effectively we can reduce emissions, but it also matters for maintaining public support for and confidence in our ability to tackle climate change. 

Drawing on polling of more than 12,000 people and focus groups in the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands, Europe Talks Flying aims to help policymakers and campaigners working on reducing aviation emissions to better understand how the public navigates this challenge and how they approach the various policy options. It also dives deeper into the public’s upstream attitudes on aviation with a view to enabling policymakers to design policies that better reflect the public’s priorities, and allowing campaigners to land their asks and messages more effectively. 

This report finds one major opportunity and one major risk for efforts to reduce emissions in the aviation industry. Do this transition well - reflecting the public’s values and priorities - and policymakers and campaigners can form an example of how transition more widely can be handled effectively and fairly. Do this transition badly and communicate it poorly, and there is the risk of both undermining broader consensus on climate action, as well as setting back progress on aviation decarbonisation significantly.

Key Insights

The public want airlines to clean up their act 

The public are more positive about legacy airlines than budget airlines - however, they have serious concerns about whether both legacy and budget airlines are committed to reducing their environmental impact or telling the truth about their environmental impact. 

The public is more than six times more likely to think that airlines should be doing more to reduce their environmental impact (44 per cent) than those who think they do too much (7 per cent). In all countries, more people say they don’t trust airlines to tell the truth about their environmental impact than those who say they do trust them. Three in five people (59 per cent) support a policy requiring airlines to publish data on their environmental impact. 

Age and income, not social norms or concern about climate change, impact flying behaviour

Our analysis shows the extent to which a range of factors (income, age, belief that real holidays require flights, and concern about climate change) can describe variation in actual flying behaviour. 

In all the countries, age and personal income play a more meaningful  role than concern about climate change. For example, in the UK (the most price-sensitive of these countries), differences in personal income explain about 18 per cent of variation in flying behaviour, whereas concern about climate change explains less than 1 per cent. 

All of this suggests that a “flight shame” voluntary behaviour-change based approach is unlikely to have any meaningful impact. 

Those who are very or somewhat concerned about climate change fly no more or less frequently than those who are not concerned at all. 

Public want tougher action for private jet users who should start picking up the bill 

When asked who should pay for the cost of shifting aviation to green technology, ‘those who fly in private jets’ is the top answer for Europeans , followed by ‘those who fly in business class or first class’.  

Beyond taxes, the public wants to see more action so that those using private jets clean up their act. Three in five (60 percent) want private jets to be mandated to use the cleanest aviation technologies (such as zero-emission aircraft and green e-fuels; only 8 per cent oppose this measure. The public is almost three times as likely to support an outright ban on private jets (43 per cent) than oppose such a ban (15 per cent). 

Focus on making trains cheaper than planes 

Three-quarters (75 per cent) of Europeans think that train journeys should be cheaper than plane journeys on the same route. A similar number (73 per cent) want governments to take action to make train journeys the same price as, or cheaper than, plane journeys - and this support only falls slightly (to 64 per cent) if doing so would involve making flying more expensive

Lifetime cap on flights most unpopular policy tested 

The proposal to cap the number of flights someone could take across their lifetime was the most unpopular policy tested with minus 19 per cent net opposition. Focus group conversations across countries also revealed strong practical concerns about how any lifetime cap would be implemented in practice. 

This unpopularity is partly explained by the fact that half of the public in the European countries tested say they would fly more if money and time were not issues.  

Only around one in four people disapprove of others flying frequently - flight shame is a minority, not majority, view.  The report concludes that ‘guilt-based’ approaches by campaigners are unlikely to be effective at reducing flying behaviour. 

An approach to bring the public on board 

More in Common’s report also sets out a series of recommendations for policymakers and campaigners working on the future of flying and aviation. 

These include getting the sequencing right by focusing on low-hanging fruit of private jet taxation and plane to train shifts before looking at demand-side measures, focusing on developing better alternatives to flying, and starting with airlines not individuals.

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The recommendations outlined in the report are designed to help policymakers craft (and campaigners advocate for) better designed policies that can more effectively bring the public on board with any aviation-related policy interventions, and more successfully navigate the challenge of reducing aviation emissions without risking public backlash. They include: 

  • Timing and sequencing is everything. The sequencing of the action on aviation climate emissions is likely to be as important as the policy framework itself. Given the current cost of living crisis, policymakers’ short-term focus should be on action on private jets and plane-to-train schemes to build momentum and credibility, before implementing any broader demand-side measures.
  • Think beyond flying. Getting this policy transition right matters beyond reducing aviation emissions. If done well, it can give policymakers a model for broader net zero policy change and the public a very tangible example of fair transition. If done badly, it’s likely to push back some progress across policy areas of decarbonisation. 
  • Airlines first. Policymakers should start with airlines and work from there. There are a series of clear quick wins (e.g.  airline’s environmental transparency) which should provide a helpful starting point for policy development that can command the public’s confidence.  
  • The simpler, the better. Policymakers should ensure that aviation policy has been properly tested against the public’s practical questions (and scepticism) about how these measures will work in practice, who’ll benefit, who’ll lose out, and why. If these questions cannot be answered with simple answers, then the risk is that the policy falls at the first hurdle. 
  • Protect  infrequent flying. Part of the policy challenge on reducing aviation emissions will be protecting infrequent flying behaviour - such as infrequent holidays abroad or visiting friends and relatives. While this is clearly a policy challenge, doing it successfully could help bring a large proportion of the public on board with a broader policy agenda. 
  • A better alternative. A policy framework which reduces this debate to simply reducing aviation emissions is one that is unlikely to be resilient to public opinion and political pressures. A broader policy story is needed on climate and aviation whether that is investment in public transport or better in-country or cross-country train infrastructure. 
  • Remember it’s both emotional and practical. Another key part of the policymaker’s challenge on climate and aviation is understanding that most people’s connections with flying are both emotional and practical. Many people like flying - this should be front of mind for policy makers working on climate and aviation. 
Decarbonising flying will not be easy. Going about it the wrong way could cause significant backlash and set back progress not just on reducing emissions from flying, but on the green transition more generally. But our research finds that, across Europe, people want governments and airlines to take the environmental impact of flying more seriously. In practice, this means providing a valid alternative through strong investment in train travel, making sure that those with the broadest shoulders and the biggest carbon footprints pay the most for the transition, and leaders setting a positive example by changing their own flying habits before asking others to do the same. Get these basics right, and leaders can use aviation to show how the green transition can be managed more fairly in other industries. Having spoken to over 12,000 people across Europe for this project, it is clear that aviation is not an industry that leaders need to shy away from when managing the green transition. Instead, it is a real opportunity to show the public that net zero can be achieved in a fair and reasonable way

Ed Hodgson, Research Manager