London to Amsterdam is Europe’s busiest plane route, and climate hawks want to ban it

October 27, 2021, 1:56 PM UTC

Greenpeace called for the European Union to ban short-haul flights Wednesday, targeting some of the world’s busiest air routes just as the airline industry finally begins to recuperate from 18 months of record-breaking losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Out of the 150 busiest flight routes across the EU, more than a third can be done by train in less than six hours, according to research done by OBC Transeuropa commissioned by Greenpeace. Adding Norway, Switzerland, and the U.K., Europeans can still travel 30% of the 250 busiest flight routes in less than six hours by train.

It is these flights that Greenpeace wants to ban, noting that taking the train is also often easier on these routes. And Europeans seem to agree. According to a survey conducted by the European Investment Bank, 62% of Europeans are in favor of a ban on short-haul flights (compared with 49% of Americans) and want more investment in better train connections.

But even when travel by train is the easier option, it is often not used. Although the most popular inter-Europe flight—London to Amsterdam—takes only four hours by train from London’s King’s Cross St Pancras Station to Amsterdam Centraal Station, people are eight times more likely to travel by flight. Only 7% of travel across Europe is currently done by train.

A reduction in air traffic is crucial to limit global warming to 1.5°C, Greenpeace notes; without political action to counter its growth, the airline industry’s emissions will spiral, taking up 27% of the global carbon budget by 2050.

Aviation emitted more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions across Europe between 2009 and 2019, and while long-haul flights going farther than 4,000 km emit most of CO2, short-haul flights are not blameless—emitting a quarter of EU aviation emissions.

Bailouts as climate policy

In the bailouts governments offered airlines to help them survive pandemic travel restrictions, some inserted policy levers to make airlines change their ways—by promising debt relief in exchange for reduced CO2 emissions.

As part of Air France-KLM’s €7 billion bailout from the French government, the airline was required to pull services between cities that were less than two-and-a-half hours apart by train. However, Greenpeace notes that this limit applied to only three routes at most. “The expected climate impact will be less than 1% reduction in CO2 emissions of the French air transport sector,” Greenpeace said.

For now, a Europe-wide ban seem unlikely. In May 2021, Frans Timmermans, the executive vice president of the European Green Deal, said he wanted to get rid of short-haul flights, but not by banning them. Taking a more libertarian approach, he said, “We want to organize it in such a way that it becomes more attractive for citizens to travel by train. For distances of less than 600 to 800 kilometers, it should no longer make sense to take the plane simply because the train journey takes longer.”

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