IN a move that is not going to win the government any friends in the airline industry, the French National Assembly recently approved a measure banning short-haul airline flights for routes that can be served in two-and-a-half hours or less by train. Although there are a number of caveats to the idea, the new regulation is, as far as I know, the first serious attempt anywhere to tackle the problem of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by the aviation sector.

Road vehicles are by far the biggest source of GHG emissions and maritime shipping is the biggest source on a per-vehicle basis, but the aviation sector contributes a significant amount by virtue of its high volume, and the somewhat disturbing fact that aircraft inevitably deposit much of their emissions directly into the upper atmosphere.

Cutting short-haul flights is admittedly not addressing the issue head-on. Long-haul flights, those that are 4,000 km or longer, are a bigger problem than short-haul flights (those that are 500 km or less) in terms of emissions. In Europe, for example, only 6 percent of the flights are classified as long-haul flights, but account for half of the GHG emissions from aviation, whereas short-haul flights make up about 25 percent of traffic, but contribute only about 4 percent of emissions.

However, reducing short-haul flights still has some benefits. For one thing, it is simply more practical; there are transportation alternatives for most short-haul itineraries, whereas long-haul flights are difficult to replace with something else. From a business standpoint, short-haul flights are relatively more expensive to operate, so there is a financial justification for cutting them; a jet aircraft uses most of its fuel on takeoff, so if the flight is not very long, its cost per unit distance is higher.

Now for the fine print, as they say: In order to get the measure passed, the government compromised and exempted connecting flights from the ban, so the overall impact on air travel within France will be rather modest, at least at first; about 12 percent of existing routes will be affected, and about five percent of flights eliminated immediately, mostly those that originate at Paris’s second airport, Orly. For example, under the ban, Paris-to-Lyon and Paris-to-Marseille flights (either of which take a little over an hour) would be eliminated, but a Paris-Lyon-Marseille flight would not be.

Even though the impact of the somewhat limited ban is assumed to be only modestly positive — but positive nonetheless, and thus still worthwhile — research in other countries suggests that might not necessarily be the case, and that its positive effects could be much larger. An Australian study of the benefits of replacing the busy Sydney-Melbourne air route with high-speed rail determined that GHG emissions would be reduced by 18 percent over 30 years, even taking into account the emissions generated by building and maintaining the rail infrastructure. A larger study in Finland found that replacing all domestic short-haul flights with rail travel would reduce emissions by 95 percent; the Finnish study found, in fact, that even replacing flights with car or bus travel would still result in reduced emissions for these trips, albeit by not as much.

Even before the French ban was announced, some airlines in Europe were developing alternatives in cooperation with various rail service providers. Air France/KLM offers passengers choices of combined air and rail tickets for journeys across its network, and in Germany, Lufthansa and Deutsche Bahn have been working together in a similar fashion to replace domestic flights with train travel. In Spain, they’re doing it backwards; the national rail operator Renfe has been working on an integrated service connecting rail and air routes.

Could it be done in PH?

The answer that seems obvious is, “Probably not,” as the Philippines is an archipelago with limited applications and capabilities for any type of rail transport, let alone the efficient high-speed rail that makes for a reasonable alternative to air travel. If, however, the country was to concentrate on developing a system similar to what Spain’s Renfe is pursuing — a system of air links between localized rail networks — it could reduce some of its air traffic.

Likewise, putting some more effort into developing the poor stepchild of the nation’s transportation infrastructure, seaborne travel, might also pay dividends. Expanding the use of modern, fast ferry craft — the very types that Philippine-based shipbuilder Austal has lately been building for use in Europe — could also reduce reliance on air travel to some degree, particularly between population centers and some of the country’s popular tourist destinations.

Doing any of the above, of course, would require a 180-degree shift in infrastructure conceptions and policy, which are geared toward expanding the air transportation network á la Indonesia, which is probably why it won’t happen here. However, the brutal beating all three of the nation’s major air carriers have taken as a result of the pandemic-induced economic downturn might provide an opportunity to raise the subject of possible alternatives to air travel.

It should, anyway. With the country having set ambitious GHG reduction targets with a deadline less than 10 years away, asking for help in that cause from the developed world while still aggressively pursuing expansion of a mode of transport that those countries are taking active steps to reduce for the sake of lower GHG emissions is going to be a bad look.

[email protected]

Twitter: @benkritz