People took fewer flights amid the covid-19 pandemic, which helped to lower carbon pollution from aviation by roughly 60%. Now, France is trying to make some of that reduction permanent.
The French national assembly advanced legislation on Saturday that would ban all short-distance domestic flights that could be replaced by an existing train route that takes less than two and a half hours. The bill will now head to the country’s senate for final approval. If it passes there, it will end popular internal flights, like those from Paris to Bordeaux and Strasbourg. The measure makes an exception, however, for connecting flights, like those through the major airport Charles de Gaulle.
Before the spread of covid-19 began, aviation emissions were on a steep upward climb. A United Nations body forecast that carbon pollution from planes could triple by 2050. The pandemic has put a dent in that growth, but experts have made it clear that world leaders need to codify permanent regulations to ensure we don’t end up frying the planet by aviation.
Short-haul flights is a good place to start. Some estimates indicate they’re the most carbon-intensive form of air travel. The bill—which is part of a larger effort to ensure France meets its commitment to the Paris Agreement to cut carbon emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030—makes sense by replacing carbon-heavy flights with lower-polluting rail.
France isn’t the first European country to crack down on short-haul aviation. Last year, Austria’s government enacted a tax on all flights of less than 217 miles (350 kilometers) last June and has banned domestic flights that could be replaced by a three-hour train ride. Officials in the Netherlands have also been considering a ban on short domestic flights since 2013. In 2019, the Dutch parliament actually voted to ban the 93-mile (150-kilometer) flight route from Amsterdam to Brussels. But the measure was never implemented because it was found to be out of line with European Commission free-movement regulations.
France’s move comes less than a year after the country included stipulations in its covid-19 financial recovery packages requiring airlines, most notably the company Air France-KLM, to cut their pollution in exchange for economic bailouts. Among the conditions were not competing with less polluting forms of travel like rail.
Yet the new flight ban on the cusp of approval might be letting Air France-KLM off the hook too much. In 2019, France’s Citizens’ Convention on Climate, a group created by President Emmanuel Macron that included 150 members of the public, actually proposed getting rid of all flights where train journeys of under four hours were available. But at Saturday’s assembly meeting, Air France-KLM objected to that measure, citing how badly their profits have been affected by covid-19 restrictions on flying.
At the meeting, Danièle Obono, a parliament member for the left-wing party La France Insoumise, said the government’s plan to move away from a four-hour limit would “save the three routes that emit the most greenhouse gases: Paris-Nice, Paris-Toulouse, [and] Paris-Marseille.” But the nation’s transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari told members of parliament that the two-and-a-half-hour limit was preferable because “four hours risks isolating landlocked territories.” The Macron administration is no stranger to implementing policies that burn people in remote areas, having implemented—and then walking back—a disastrous gas tax in 2018. But they appear to be going against the will of the people here in the service of the aviation industry.
Personally, I think Obono seems to have the right idea. But even the watered-down bill seems quite a bit better than anything being weighed in the U.S. Our country didn’t even have any regulations on airline pollution until last year, and the ones passed in 2020 are a joke. So from where I’m sitting, the measure still seems like a good first step—as long as it actually gets finalized in the senate.