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Will France’s short-haul flight ban really help carbon emissions?

In a bid to cut carbon emissions, France has officially banned domestic short-haul flights for journeys where train alternatives are in place.

The ban was formally signed into law Tuesday and comes two years after lawmakers voted to end domestic flight routes where a train alternative that takes less than 2 1/2 hours is in operation.

Currently, only commercial flights must adhere to the ban, and private jets will reportedly be unaffected by the restrictions.

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“This is an essential step and a strong symbol in the policy of reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” France’s transport minister Clement Beaune said in a statement.

“As we fight relentlessly to decarbonize our lifestyles, how can we justify the use of the plane between the big cities which benefit from regular, fast and efficient connections by train.”

For an air route to qualify for the ban, as stipulated by the EU, there must be a high-speed rail service between the start and end destinations that takes less than 2 1/2 hours.

Trains must also run both early and late enough for travelers to spend at least eight hours at their destination.

Presently the only three routes due to be affected are between Paris-Orly Airport (ORY) and Bordeaux-Mérignac Airport (BOD), and Lyon–Saint Exupéry Airport (LYS) and Nantes Atlantique Airport (NTE). Connecting flights will be unaffected.

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Control tower, Paris-Orly Airport, France. FELIPE RODRIGUEZ/GETTY IMAGES

Early proposals were much stricter and looked to ban routes serviced by train alternatives under four hours. Following backlash from the Union of French Airports (UAF) and the European branch of the Airports Council International (ACI Europe), the European Commission intervened and laid out the current stipulations of the ban in December 2022.

Other routes considered but later removed from the order included Paris Charles de Gaulle to Bordeaux, Lyon and Rennes, and Lyon to Marseille. These routes are currently exempt due to their train routes not fitting the parameters required by the EU. The routes could be added to the ban at a later date should rail services improve.

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While the law came into effect Tuesday, it had earlier been included in a 2021 climate law and was already operating in principle after the French government secured the compliance of its flag carrier Air France following a 7-billion-euro COVID-19 support package.

Following the bailout, Air France was tasked with making their operations more sustainable and agreed to reduce short-haul domestic routes. At the time, other airlines banned from stepping up services to fill the gap questioned the legality of the proposals with the European Commission.

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According to French consumer group UFC-Que Choisir, plane journeys emit 77 times more carbon dioxide per passenger than train journeys on routes less than 2 1/2 hours and are, on average, only 40 minutes faster.

Critics of the new ruling claim that the 2 1/2-hour stipulations and a small number of affected routes make the ban largely symbolic. According to estimates by the transport campaign group Transport & Environment, the three routes will represent just 0.3% of flight emissions in mainland France and just 3% of the country’s domestic flight emissions.

Lashing out at the ban, interim head of Airlines for Europe A4E Laurent Donceel told French news organization AFP that governments should instead focus on “real and significant solutions” to aviation emissions, adding that “banning these trips will only have minimal effects” on CO2 output.

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