France's Ban on Domestic Flights, Explained
Updated: Dec 21, 2021
French MPs have voted to suspend domestic airline flights on routes that could be travelled by train in under two and a half hours, as part of a series of climate measures.
This cheat sheet will explore the reasons behind this and what it could mean for French travel and carbon emissions.
The ban first came onto the French government’s agenda after the Citizen Convention for Climate, set up by President Macron, recommended that this law be introduced for all flights which could be done by train in less than 4 hours. Under pressure from airlines, a compromise brought this number down to two and a half hours. This means that flights from Paris to Marseilles and other (semi-)far-fetched cities will continue.
This watering down of the original recommendation has invited criticism from the Greens among others. Additionally, the Airline Pilots’ Union has called for regulations at the international level in order to ensure that the law does not simply undermine national carriers without really tackling emissions. A socialist MP criticised the “disproportionate human cost”, calling it a “measure of degrowth and unemployment”. And if that wasn’t enough criticism, the timing of this law has been questioned since the airline industry is already on its knees with flights decreasing by 42% since 2019 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, this policy has not received the warmest of welcomes – but when is politics ever so straightforward?
The reality is that compromises have to be made in a democracy; whilst tougher measures might be desired, the Government does often find itself needing to negotiate with powerful industries. The call for international regulation is certainly fair (perhaps something to aspire to in future policy) but roaming outside of their own borders to call for regulation is a trickier task for a national government. This progress on a smaller scale is exactly that: progress. Additionally, COVID-19 will always find a way to complicate everything, but the urgency of the climate crisis comes to Macron’s defence. In such a crisis situation, is waiting for a better time an option?
Whilst this policy is not without critics (is any policy?), perhaps we should bear in mind the reasons for this step forwards.
What's wrong with flying?
Mile-for-mile, flying is the most environmentally damaging method of travel.
This is largely because CO2 emissions have a greater warming effect at high altitudes.
Therefore, 2.4% of global CO2 emissions translates into 5% of global warming, which is even more concerning when we consider that only 3% of the world’s population even fly regularly. Additionally, short-haul flights produce even more emissions per kilometre per passenger since so much of the pollution occurs during take-off and landing.
To present this in a different frame, focusing on what we (the humble lay people) can do to fight climate change: one return flight from London to somewhere as close as Berlin will produce three times the emissions you would save from an entire year of recycling.
In other words, air travel is an area where a real difference can be made and France is the first major economy to introduce such a ban for environmental reasons.
What have other countries done?
Similar plans have been considered in Belgium and the Netherlands. Austria, however, has taken concrete action. This has involved replacing flight paths between Vienna, Salzburg, Linz, and Graz with improved train services in order to minimise domestic flying.
The question for us is: do we also need this policy on the other side of the channel? Well, the fact is that up to 2019 just over half a million flights were taken every year between London and Manchester.
On top of this, less than 1% of the International Air Transport Association’s goal for the use of the alternative jet-fuel was achieved and the UK Climate Change Committee have concluded that the UK is unlikely to be enjoying zero-carbon aviation by 2050.
This policy has some issues, but it certainly has benefits too.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments.
For more resources and cheat sheets on environmental issues, head to our dedicated Climate Crisis section.