A ban on short-haul flights is the best first step in tackling aviation’s climate problem

With 2030 fast-approaching we must reduce our carbon footprint by any means necessary. Banning short-haul flights is the way to start
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By Thomas Gelin

Thomas Gelin is a transport and climate campaigner at Greenpeace’s European Unit in Brussels

09 Jan 2023

Let’s cut straight to the chase: the best way to tackle aviation’s climate problem is to fly less. Banning short-haul flights where reasonable alternatives exist is simply the best and easiest way to start.

Urgent climate action is needed now more than ever. The United Nations Environment Programme’s 2022 Emissions Gap Report finds that with the policies currently in place, we’re in for a 2.8C hike in temperatures when we should in fact aim to limit it to 1.5C.

The report makes it clear that we need to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 if we want to stand the slightest chance of hitting that target – and let’s remember that every fraction of a degree warmer the planet gets, the more floods, droughts, fires and deaths that follow.

We should be using all the levers at our disposal to reduce our carbon footprint immediately rather than pinning our hopes on future technology. This includes not allowing polluting industries to dodge their responsibilities, wait for others to make the effort or kick the can down the road. Every actor in the economy should contribute as best it can to limit damage to the climate.

Aviation holds the dubious honour of being the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe over the last decades (an increase of 29 per cent between 2009 and 2019 in the European Union). The industry itself is banking on reaching pre-COVID levels of air traffic by 2024 and doubling air traffic globally by 2037. It seems climate change is a problem for everyone except the aviation sector to solve.

It is clear air traffic cannot continue to grow and should in fact start decreasing. This is no easy feat, and we should begin by reconsidering routes where alternatives already exist. While long-haul flights account for the lion’s share of aviation emissions, flights under 1,500 km still responsible for 25 per cent of European aviation’s CO2 emissions.

While long-haul flights account for the lion’s share of aviation emissions, flights under 1,500 km are still responsible for 25 per cent of European aviation’s CO2 emissions

Not only that, short-haul flights are also particularly harmful to the environment when considering the distance travelled, as emissions are particularly high during take-off. Many short-haul flights can easily be replaced by trains, and in fact one third of the 250 busiest short-haul flights in Europe (excluding island connections) already have viable train connections of under six hours and thus could be phased out immediately.

At best, the solutions touted by airlines are only partial and will not be available at scale or on time to deal with the climate crisis facing us now, like so-called sustainable aviation fuels, which the International Energy Agency (IEA) expects will only make up 19 per cent of airline fuels by 2040. Electric or hydrogen-fuelled planes are decades away from any likely implementation.

At worst, certain aviation “solutions” – such as offsetting schemes – instead aggravate the problem by allowing airlines to continue emitting carbon without any guaranteed reduction in overall emissions. Clearly, none of these will help us reach the climate targets by 2030.

We cannot afford to wait until the climate crisis worsens to start tackling aviation’s emissions. A ban on short-haul flights where alternatives exist is one of the best first steps we can make.