WHEN policymakers and the public think of the environmental impact of transportation, specifically harmful emissions, attention is naturally focused on the road transport sector. This is reasonable because road transport is the biggest part of the transportation ecosystem, and is responsible for a very large proportion of the country's environment-killing emissions. However, there is another part of the transportation sector, one that is critical to the Philippines, that has a significant enough contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that some countries have begun to impose restrictions on it: the air transportation sector.

Recently, France implemented a measure passed by its National Assembly last year to ban short-haul domestic flights in that country. France was the first to pass such a measure in Europe, although Austria actually implemented its own version earlier. The two countries' new regulations are similar; in general, point-to-point flights of less than two-and-a-half hours' duration are to be eliminated, although there are a number of exceptions.

Road vehicles are the biggest aggregate source of GHG emissions and maritime shipping is the biggest source on a per-vehicle basis, but airline emissions are still a serious concern because of the high and growing volume of air travel, and the fact that airliners deposit a large part of their emissions directly into the upper atmosphere.

Long-haul flights (defined as those 1,000 km or more) actually produce more total emissions than short-haul flights (500 km or less), but on a per-passenger basis, emissions from the latter are significantly higher. In any case, it is difficult to substitute different forms of transportation for long-haul flights, whereas there are potential alternatives for short-haul flights. Likewise, short-haul flights are more expensive to operate on a per-passenger basis, and so imposing restrictions on them is a bit more palatable to the airline industry for economic reasons.

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Apart from France and Austria, other European countries that are promoting alternatives to short-haul air travel include Sweden, which has imposed a tax surcharge on short-haul tickets; Finland, which is considering a ban, but for now has increased subsidies for rail travel; and Germany and Spain, where major airlines have developed cooperative ventures with the national rail services (Deutsche Bahn and Renfe, respectively) to offer passengers seamless and lower-priced hybrid air-and-rail routes.

Obviously, given the Philippines' geography and the state of its transportation network such a thing as a ban or even significant restrictions on short-haul flights is simply not realistic. One of the things that makes it workable in Europe is the existence of an excellent rail network for alternative means of travel. Nevertheless, the reliance on air transportation here needs to be addressed, particularly since the Philippines is counting on external assistance to meet its GHG emissions reduction obligations. That assistance is more likely to be forthcoming more quickly if the country is demonstrating that it is maximizing its own capacity to reduce emissions, which includes doing what is possible to make air travel more sustainable.

Having an experienced airline executive in the person of former Philippine Airlines president Jaime Bautista at the helm in the Department of Transportation is definitely an advantage in this respect. In the short term, steps that can be taken might include rationalizing air routes, finding ways to offer incentives to carriers to upgrade to more fuel-efficient aircraft, and exploring the increased use of alternative fuels, such as biofuels.

Over the longer term, the focus should be on developing more efficient and sustainable transport alternatives, such as expanding the rail network — toward which some modestly positive steps are already being taken — and improving sea travel. The Philippines is quickly gaining a reputation for building highly efficient, modern fast ferry craft for customers in other parts of the world, but has yet to apply these talents to our domestic passenger fleet. Achieving these goals is not likely to be accomplished in six years, but that is not a reason not to start, and lay the groundwork for infrastructure development that might break the pattern of starting from scratch with every change of administration.