France will ban short-haul domestic flights in favour of rail alternatives, in a move to combat carbon emissions. All flights between cities that can be reached by train in two and a half hours or less will cease operating starting next year. It is the first country in the EU to do so.
A ban on short flights was first suggested last year, as part of France’s Climate Law, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030. The Union of French Airports and the European branch of the Airports Council International contested its viability, leading to an investigation by the European Commission, which gave final approval to the plan in early December.
“This is a major step forward and I am proud that France is a pioneer in this area,” France’s Transport Minister Clément Beaune said in a statement.
The aviation industry is one of the single largest contributors to carbon emissions, and notoriously difficult to de-carbonise to boot. 49 of the 50 targets the industry sets for itself remain unmet.
And many climate activists have been calling for a reduction in short-haul flights in Europe, given the extensive railway coverage across the continent. 17 of the 20 busiest air routes in Europe measure less than 434 miles – distances intercity trains can cover quickly and more sustainably.
Although France’s ban is a welcome step in the right direction, the time restrictions built into the legislation mean in practice, it will only affect three flights.
Routes that currently fall under the ban include journeys between Paris’ Orly airport and Bordeaux, Nantes and Lyon. If rail services improved, three more routes could come under the ban, from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and Lyon and Rennes, and Lyon-Marseille. If after three years, the ban is judged successful, more flights could get the chop.
The EU actually has a dedicated ‘Fit 55’ plan to reduce carbon emissions through transport. Earlier this month, EU legislators agreed to phase out free CO2 permits within a few years.
Currently, airlines flying within Europe have to apply for permits from the EU’s carbon market to cover their CO2 emissions – but most of these permits are given for free.
Under the new law, free permits will be obsolete by 2026. A small number of free permits will remain available from 2024-2030, for carriers using sustainable aviation fuels, instead of the cheaper and more harmful kerosene fuel.
Although France’s ban is the first of its kind in the EU, it does align with a broader trend among member states to encourage a shift away from shorter plane travel.
The revival of the Trans-Europe Express has been proposed by Germany, and the Czech Republic is working with France and Britain to build new high-speed train lines to improve both domestic travel and international routes. Belgium is expanding its taxation of airlines for noise and air pollution, and a Dutch rail company NS has unveiled a high-speed train that could cut a half-hour off transit time between Amsterdam and Brussels from 2024.
As Greenpeace’s EU climate representative, Thomas Gelin, remarked, “the French ban on short-haul flights where quick train connections exist is a baby step, but it’s one in the right direction.” Hopefully, other member-states will follow suit.
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