As Europe considers France’s controversial ban on short flights, a new study from Germany details the potential positives and pitfalls.
The research on aviation industry greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions ranges from the British Royal Society’s latest warning on net-zero aviation fuels, to the efforts of a 17-year-old tracking celebrity travel on his newly launched Climate Jets site. But much of Europe’s attention is focused on whether emissions reductions might actually be achieved if short-haul trips were eliminated.
That’s the question that scientists from University of Edinburgh and Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) in Spain seek to answer with their latest research, published in the journal Case Studies on Transport Policy.
UOC faculty member Pere Suau-Sanchez and the research team analyzed 87 routes across Germany. They looked at rail alternatives that take less than 2.5 hours, a controversial standard approved in France to allow bans on short-haul flights that’s drawn interest in other European nations.
The researchers found about a third of all German flights could be affected by a ban similar to France’s. They collected 2019 data on passenger bookings and travel schedules to estimate impacts that could reach 22% emissions reductions, depending on the context in which the alternative rail travel is used. But they caution that their results show no one-size-fits-all solution works, and some policies could actually lead to greater emissions.
For example, the short connection legs are often part of a much broader travel itinerary involving long-haul flights from Berlin and other German airports. “An average of 17% of bookings to Asia-Pacific destinations and around 24% and 25% for the Latin American and North American markets, respectively, depend on this type of feeder flight,” said the research team.
The UOC researchers note that two-thirds of all air transport-related emissions are linked to long-haul flights; Greenpeace reports that just 25% of Europe’s aviation-related carbon emissions come from flights of 1,500 kilometers or less. The numbers keep any gains from short-haul flights in perspective.
Where rail alternatives make sense in reducing emissions, they might also lead to longer and slower journeys. Depending on the scenario driving the policy—the UOC researchers used four different ones—there would be a reduction of between 53,000 and 272,000 short-haul flights per year in Germany. That would increase travel on rail networks by up to 13% and, according to Suau-Sanchez, require significant infrastructure investment and an updated accounting for increased rail emissions.
Again, though, the context matters. The UOC team also studied Spain’s alternative rail options and noted that the country’s 3,487 kilometers of high-speed rail are already emissions-free when compared with the diesel-fueled routes in Germany, France and the UK.
“That is a variable that must also be taken into account when calculating emissions savings,” Suau-Sanchez said. He recommends a collective European approach to rail in order to integrate the GHG reduction effort.
New policies are needed beyond bans on short-distance flights. People “must be very realistic about the expectations that these measures may create because after all, aviation is responsible for only 3% of the planet’s total emissions,” the researchers said. “This would be simply be one measure among many that need to be taken to address the problem of climate change.”