France’s ban on short-haul flights is more symbolic than it is effective

April 29, 2021

The French government’s decision to ban (some) flights where a rail alternative under two and a half hours exists, has attracted a lot of attention at home and abroad. But it is little more than symbolic. Instead of making the tough choices needed to clean up flying it is waging war against the irrelevant. It may even hamper action to clean up the sector.

Short-haul flights make up just a small minority of total aviation emissions. Our calculations last year showed that such a ban would reduce French aviation emissions by only 0.8%. Expand that to where a rail alternative of under five hours exists and that number goes to 4.5%. This approach still lets the aviation industry off the hook without the slightest prospect of a fix for over 95% of the problem.

So why does the government and the public obsess over such a small share of the problem?  

For governments, and the industry itself, it is a welcome distraction from the much larger problem of long-haul flying. When you catch a flight from Paris to New York, the resulting emissions are left outside of France’s current climate target and the fuel used is untaxed. 

It’s perhaps no coincidence that this ban was introduced at the same time the French government pumped billions into Air France. This veneer of climate action is an attempt to satisfy public demand for a green recovery, without actually challenging Air France’s core business of fossil-fuelled long-haul flying.  

Of course, campaigners will keep fighting to ban short-haul flights. In part, it is because short haul flying is so outrageously unnecessary, especially where train connections exist. But it also highlights a lack of imagination. Rail was always seen as the sole means of mitigating the climate impact of flying. Until recently few other options have existed. But things have changed.

Industry itself has put two big ideas on the table: zero-emission aircraft, new designs that run on electricity or hydrogen, and zero-emission fuels, alternatives to using fossil fuels to power traditional aircraft.

The truth is that left to its own devices, the aviation industry will do very little to bring these new aircraft and fuels to market. Just like cheap wind and solar, or electric cars, didn’t just happen, clean aviation won’t just happen. Governments need to step in and hold companies to their promises.

A good start would be to require zero-emission fuels on short haul flights by the end of this decade, and then expand that target to meet Airbus’ pledge of zero-emission aircraft on medium-haul flights by 2035. This type of approach is proving remarkably effective in focusing the minds of car and truck makers who are racing to meet government imposed bans on combustion engines. We won’t get zero emission vehicles by banning diesel cars on a handful of backstreets, which is what the short-haul flying ban amounts to. A minor inconvenience for some airlines, not the industry-wide change needed. 

Action in France should be backed by European laws that give companies like Airbus but also disruptive newcomers like ZeroAvia the investment certainty they need to start the race to zero. The EU is working on a clean fuel law which will be published in June. Creating a pathway for zero emission aviation should be its top priority.

France and Europe have a unique opportunity to lead the world in the next generation of aircraft, powered by green hydrogen and electricity. This would be good for the climate but also for European jobs and companies. But we need to up our game. No one will look back at a ban on short-haul flights as transformational. A ban on fossil fuel powered flying would be a breakthrough on the way to zero-emission flying. What we need is less symbolic environmentalism and more real change.

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