France has recently banned some short-haul flights in order to reduce the country’s carbon emissions. How bad is flying for the environment? Is France’s ban effective? And should we go further in order to protect the planet?
- To ban (v) – to forbid (= refuse to allow) something, especially officially
- She was banned from driving for two years.
- Sustainable (adj) – causing, or made in a way that causes, little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time.
- The website encourages sustainable fashion through swapping.
- Aviation (n) – the activity of flying aircraft, or of designing, producing, and keeping them in good condition.
- Aviation safety is increasingly important.
- Contrail (n) – a white line left in the sky by an aircraft that consists of water vapour (= gas) that has condensed (= turned back into very small drops of water).
- Many of the contrails we can see are from jets flying out of a nearby air force base.
- Domestic (adj) – relating to a person’s own country.
- He has taken 10 domestic flights this year.
- Objection (n) – the act of expressing or feeling opposition to or dislike of something or someone.
- A couple of people raised objections to the proposal.
- Viable (adj) – able to work as intended or able to succeed.
- In order to make the company viable, it will unfortunately be necessary to reduce staffing levels.
- To offset (v) – to pay for things that will reduce carbon dioxide in order to reduce the damage caused by carbon dioxide that you produce.
- We offset all our long-haul flights.
What Happened in France?
If you are an avid consumer of the news, you may have seen headlines last week reporting the France has banned short-haul flights.
After voting on the ban a few years ago, the new law has just come into force. The rules state that if a city can be reached in 2 and half hours by train, then you will not be allowed to fly to that location.
The idea is to reduce the pollution and carbon emissions that come from flying and encourage people to use public transport more often.
And the reason is simple – flying is terrible for the environment. I’ll talk in a little more detail about this in a few minutes, but if you look at the data flying is always the least sustainable way to travel.
This might make you uncomfortable. It certainly makes me uncomfortable. I fly relatively often. Moreover, I tend to fly long haul. Most recently I’ve flown the London to Tokyo routes which take at least 12 hours if flying direct and quite a few hours longer with connecting flights.
As much as I try to be environmentally friendly (using reusable plastic bags, recycling, or walking instead of driving), the reality is that by flying thousands of kilometres every year I am contributing far more to destroying the environment than someone who doesn’t fly.
For many people this poses a big problem. The desire to be sustainable clashes completely with the love of (or need to) travel. I remember a friend of mine in university complaining about people buying water in plastic bottles from the university store because it wasn’t eco-friendly. That same friend flew from Europe to the Pacific Islands, then back to Europe before heading to Asia again.
What is more damaging to the environment, a couple of plastic water bottles or over 20,000 kilometres of flying? Here is a calculation I found online – Flying from the UK to New York and back releases the same amount of greenhouse gases as you would save by recycling for 20 years. One flight is the same as 20 years of recycling…
In today’s episode I want to look in more detail at how “bad” flying and travelling really is for the environment. We’ll talk about France’s decision to ban short-haul flights, and the discuss whether all countries should do something similar… or perhaps be even harsher to protect the environment!
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How bad is flying for the environment?
Bad. Flying is bad for the environment. Around 8-10% of global CO2 emissions are caused by travel and tourism, with aviation being responsible for about 5% in total.
5% may seem small but remember how few people actually fly. Over 80% of people alive have never been on a plane, and even fewer fly regularly or more than once.
Moreover, the majority of emissions tend to come form the ultra-rich traveller. The more expensive your seat, the higher percentage of emissions you contribute for the plane (because you take up more space). Flying business or first class is more damaging than flying in economy.
But the worst is flying on private planes. Over 50% of aviation emissions come from private aircraft, and a user of private planes can contribute up to 7,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide to the environment every year.
I did a little research here. The average person in the Democratic Republic of Congo contributes just 0.08 tonnes of carbon to the environment each year. So, if my math is correct, it would take over 93,000 years for the average person in the Congo to release as much CO2 as a private plane user does in one year.
This is, of course, awful for the environment and contributing to climate change and global warming. All of the efforts to reduce your carbon footprint and live more sustainable are outweighed by flying, especially if you fly in luxury.
Moreover, CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions are just part of the problem with flying. Planes also pollute the skies and reduce air quality – in fact, some estimates suggest over 10,000 people a year die because of air pollution caused directly by aviation and many more get sick.
Why is flying so bad for the environment? There are a few different reasons.
The white lines left behind by planes in the sky, called contrails in English, can really contribute to warming. Especially at night, they can trap radiation or heat from escaping the planet – effectively warming Earth.
Planes can also produce both Carbon Dioxide and Nitrous Oxides. I’m sure you’ve all heard about CO2 before – a greenhouse gas which contributes to the warming of the atmosphere and climate change.
Nitrous Oxides have a slightly more complicated environmental impact, but they definitely contribute to poorer air quality.
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France’s Ban on Short-Haul Flights
Hopefully you can now all appreciate that flying is bad for the environment. So, with this in mind, let’s take a closer look at France’s new law banning some short-haul flights.
First, what is a short-haul flight?
Most definitions online split flights into short-haul, medium-haul, and long haul. A short-haul flight is usually less than 3 hours in duration, medium-haul between 3 and 6 hours in the air, while a long-haul flight over 6 hours. In fact, you can even talk about ultra-long-haul flights lasting over 12 hours.
France has not banned all short-haul flights, though. It takes about 1 hour 20 minutes to fly from Paris to London, for example, but as this is an international flight it will continue to operate.
France has banned any domestic short-haul flight to a city that can be reached by train in under 2 and a half hours. For example, it takes 2h 14m on the train from Paris to the city of Bordeaux in the southwest of France. This means you will no longer be able to fly from Paris to Bordeaux.
The plan had originally been stricter. The original recommendation was banning any flight to a city that could be reached in 4 hours, but after objections from France’s national airline and some regions they lowered the threshold to 2 hours 30 minutes.
Long-haul flights are the worst for the environment in terms of total emissions. However, these are impractical to ban. We live in a global world. There would be no way to travel to much of the world without long-haul flights.
But all the flight routes France has banned have alternatives – a journey by train. A plane emits over 70 times more CO2 per passenger than a train, and the train tends to be more affordable in France and often takes the same amount of time (as you do not need to travel to an airport).
Moreover, short haul domestic flights have higher emissions per kilometre than long haul flights. There also tend to be a lot more short-haul flights around the world every day than long-haul flights.
France’s ban is intended to reduce emissions by removing the possibility of unnecessary flights. While at the moment the plan only affects 3 routes, it could be expanded with improvements in France’s rail network.
And it will be a warning to the aviation industry – France may be first country to do this, but more countries could follow and be even stricter. In fact, is this something other countries should seriously consider?
Should Every Country Ban Short-Haul Flights
Let’s take an example. You want to travel from the centre of London to the centre of Paris. Flying may seem the quickest way to travel. I just went on google flights and the first option that popped up takes only 1 hour and 20 minutes. On the other hand, the Eurostar train from London to Paris takes about an hour longer.
However, it is not that clear. The flight I found departs from London Luton airport and lands at Charles de Gaulle in Paris. Luton is not actually in London (if you ever visit the UK be aware of this)! It takes 32 minutes by train from St Pancras International train station to reach Luton airport. You would then need to go through check-in and security, board your flight, and then depart.
You would then arrive at Charles de Gaulle airport, potentially need to go through immigration and collect baggage, before taking a train to central Paris. It takes about 30 minutes from Charles de Gaulle airport to Gare du Nord station. In total, this journey would take at least 3 hours in total, but would likely be longer.
The Eurostar train, on the other hand, leaves and arrives at the same stations in just over 2 hours. It is much more convenient.
The issue is price. The average train trip between the two cities is about $100 and needs to be booked at least 2 months in advance, while it is relatively easy to find plane tickets for half that price and can be booked 2 weeks in advance.
For countries to seriously consider making train journeys preferable to short-haul flights, they need to make them more affordable.
But this policy could have real benefits in larger countries, or countries where short-haul flights are much more common. The USA, for example, is a perfect candidate for this. 25% of all flights in the USA are less than 500 miles in distance.
What More Can We Do?
Banning short-haul flights in more countries and regions would be of great benefit to the environment. But what else can we do?
Airlines and aviation companies have suggested some other solutions. Using more sustainable aviation fuels, or building hydrogen or electric planes, for example. But these will take years to implement. The International Energy Agency estimates only 19% of fuel used in airplanes will be sustainable by 2040…
A popular approach at the moment is called offsetting. This allows companies to produce harmful emissions, but in return they give money to organisations removing harmful emissions from the environment (like planting trees).
One suggestion, that may be controversial with some of you, is banning air miles, frequent flyer programmes, or loyalty schemes. These encourage people to fly more… and considering the damage to the environment we shouldn’t be encouraging this.
Another approach is for airlines to choose their routes better. I mentioned contrails earlier, which is the aviation industries biggest contribution to global warming. However, these contrails are not formed everywhere, but in specific places with the correct conditions. A study in Japan discovered that just 2% of flights produce 80% of all contrails.
This means that simply changing a few flight paths or the height planes are flying could dramatically reduce the production of contrails and therefore the impact of flying.
Flying is such a common thing today, but we need to make changes to this damaging industry.
Today I’ve talked about France’s decision to ban some short-haul flights, and discussed why flying is probably the worst thing you can do to the environment. The world needs to change its approach to travel if we are to seriously protect the environment.
Whatever approach we choose, it is important to remember that flying is always damaging for the environment. I believe governments and countries should be working to make flying more sustainable, but also promote alternative methods of transport.
I, personally, fly long distances regularly. But I have not flown short-haul since 2017 (and only actually flown short-haul about 4 times in my life) – I like to torture myself by taking long distance buses.
It is a really difficult situation to be in. I have flown long distances for work and study, and I now have family in three different continents (Europe, Asia, and Australia). I know I will continue to fly in the future, but, where I can, I will always choose to take a bus or the train. And I hope companies and governments can make serious progress in implementing meaningful changes.
What do you think? How often do you fly? Are you trying to reduce the amount of flying you do?