Fairosene: Strengthening sustainable mobility with a European Citizens’ Initiative

, by Moritz Hergl

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

Fairosene: Strengthening sustainable mobility with a European Citizens' Initiative

To accelerate the mobility turnaround, Timothée Galvaire and other students launched a European Citizens’ Initiative in 2018. By now, more than 70,000 people have signed the petition on the taxation of aviation fuel in the EU and the demand has been taken up by politicians. For the “Fairosene” initiative, Timothée and two fellow campaigners were awarded as “Citizen Lobbyist of the year 2019”. In the interview, Timothée talks about how decision-makers in the EU missed the Corona crisis as an opportunity for sustainable mobility and why the European Citizens’ Initiative does not deserve its name.

In 2018, you started the EU-wide initiative “Fairosene” with the aim to tax kerosene, the fuel for airplanes. Where did the idea come from?

I first heard about the aviation fuel tax exemption in November 2018 when ending it became one of the main demands of the Gilets Jaunes movement in France. They were fighting against an abrupt increase in car fuel prices while aviation, which is disproportionately used by rich-income households, sees its fuel untaxed. Moreover, its tax-free fuel is not the only tax advantage enjoyed by the aviation industry as VAT is also not applied to international air travels. These tax advantages lead to artificially low prices which help fuel the climate crisis because they artificially boost air travel demand. Indeed, aviation emissions have more than doubled since 1990 and air travel now one of the very few sectors whose emissions keep rising.

While international mobility becomes always more important in our globalised world, sustainable mobility should be promoted. However, rail, the greenest mode of motorised transport, is very often much more expensive than air travel. The tax advantages enjoyed by the aviation industry indeed lead to a competitive advantage, incentivising us all to fly instead of taking the train, even for medium distances. Consequently, we should tax more air travel in order to subsidise more trains, which are our best ally to reduce mobility-related pollution.

At a time when the youth was starting to strike for climate, I thought I could also take climate action by launching a more political initiative. And because aviation taxation is for many reasons easier at European level, a European campaign was necessary. As a European studies student, I was aware of the European Citizens’ Initiative procedure which is a tool for European citizens to shape the EU’s agenda. A group of seven European citizens launch a petition to invite the European Commission to start the legislative procedure based on their proposal. (The proposal must fall under the EU competences). If the petition collects at least one million signatures from EU citizens in 12 months, the European Commission has to review their request (but it is not forced to come up with a legislative proposal.) Because the ECI is a useful (and also the only) tool to shape the EU’s agenda, I decided to use it to urge our policy-makers to finally end this absurd exemption.

Almost two years later, how do you assess the instrument of the European Citizens´ Initiative? Does it give citizens direct access to the EU legislative process or are you more pessimistic?

We had collected 70 000 signatures in 7 months, when the European Commission presented the European Green Deal, its new strategy to make Europe the first carbon-free continent in the world, which entailed taxing kerosene. Our ECI therefore has a happy ending but many ECIs don’t. Over 80 ECIs launched and only 5 successfully reached the signatures threshold. And even these successful ECI initiators are mostly not satisfied with the European Commission follow-up actions…

Common citizens don’t have a chance to collect these one million signatures. The successful initiators were not common EU citizens but rather staff of NGOs or trade unions whose organisations or networks decided to join forces and launch a pan-European campaign. They had giant mailing lists, important financing, know-how… which normal citizens don’t have. It is therefore quite hypocritical to call this procedure European Citizen’s Initiative if citizens can’t successfully use it. I am therefore quite critical of the ECI... Nonetheless, it remains the only participatory democracy tool we have as EU citizens (apart from answering public consultations), and it is therefore crucial that we keep using it. (a bad tool is better than no tool!). Reaching the one million signatures is extremely challenging, but citizens cannot remain silent: we have to take much more action to solve our collective problems! If we remain silent, they win.

Once the European Commission will have prepared it proposal, will more action by civil society still be necessary?

The European Commission is currently assessing the impacts of such a tax. It should come up with a legislative proposal by June 2021. Once the negotiations will start, we will deeply need the help of European citizens! Because EU taxation policies are decided by unanimity, every Member State has to agree on the introduction of a new tax, giving every EU country a veto right. As you can imagine, many countries will probably reject any proposal making air travel more fairly taxed. We will therefore need public pressure to show our governments that it is time to put planet before the privilege of the most polluting mode of transport and of economic growth.

Due to the current Corona pandemic the number of flights has drastically decreased - and fewer emissions are emitted. Is this the moment of change we all have been waiting for?

No. It could have been, but our governments decided not to. European governments bailed out airlines with virtually no environmental conditions. Despite the quickly rising CO2 emissions and a lack of taxes in good times, our decision-makers decided that the aviation industry was worth saving with taxpayers money and with no environmental condition (such as net CO2 emission reduction). Because the virus does not seem to vanish anytime soon, more public money will be needed to keep afloat (or in the sky..) European airlines. While it was indeed time for a profound change in our transport system and time to reduce our dependence to oil, our governments keep fueling the climate crisis and keep postponing climate action on aviation.

What is next on your agenda?

I have joined Generation Climate Europe (GCE), the largest coalition of youth-led NGOs at the European level, pushing for stronger action from the EU on climate and environmental issues. I am the facilitator of the Working Group on Clean Mobility in which we are advocating for greener EU transport policies. Aviation represents 13% of transport-related CO2 emissions, which leaves us many other sources of pollution to tackle: diesel engines, SUVs, cruise ships...

Generation Climate Europe is growing and looking for more volunteers! Come learn more about the EU policy-making, environmental policies, lobbying and campaigning while making the EU greener! See our survey to become a volunteer.

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