London to Wolverhampton. Doncaster to Darlington. Both journeys take less than two and a half hours by train. Both were trips that Boris Johnson chose to take by air (the latter in a private jet). And both, according to exclusive polling for the New Statesman, now fall into a category of journey that a majority of Britons say should be banned.
Sixty per cent of those polled by Redfield & Wilton Strategies on 19 May 2021 said they would support a ban on short-haul domestic flights if there was a rail alternative that takes two and a half hours or less (23 per cent said they were neutral, while just 6 per cent said they were opposed).
The survey referred to a ban approved by France’s National Assembly in April, which will – once it passes the Senate – put an end to around 12 per cent of French domestic flights. The rule, in many respects, is part of a wider European trend.
In Austria last year, the government attached emissions-cutting conditions to its post-Covid bailout of Austrian Airlines. In Spain, the government published a report in May recommending a possible ban on short-haul flights. And in Germany, the EU’s top climate official has endorsed Green co-leader Annalena Baerbock’s call for tax and pricing changes to deter flying. “Short-haul flights should no longer exist in the longer run,” said the Greens’ candidate to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor.
While the British public might be akin to their European counterparts – with 62 per cent of the latter supporting an EU-wide ban on short-haul flights, according to a European Investment Bank survey – the UK government appears to be operating in a different stratosphere altogether.
Over half a million flights between London and Manchester were taken annually before the pandemic. Yet despite the existence of a two-hour rail alternative (and the knowledge that emissions from these flights are six times higher than rail), the Treasury is still consulting on a plan to encourage air travel by cutting taxes on domestic flights.
“I want to cut passenger duty on domestic flights so we can support connectivity across the country,” Johnson said in March.
Against this backdrop, more sceptical green thinkers point out that even a French-style ban would be insufficient to achieve the emissions cuts that net-zero targets demand. Only five of France’s 108 domestic flight routes would be impacted by the new law, and connecting flights are exempt. More widely, flights shorter than 500km only account for a small proportion of the EU’s total emissions from aviation (just 4 per cent in 2019).
So what needs to happen next for such bans to be genuine solutions rather than PR gestures?
Further development of high-speed rail would likely make tougher bans more palatable to travellers (for example, a ban on routes where equivalent train journeys take up to four hours, as was originally proposed by France’s citizen climate convention). Integrated ticketing across land and air travel would also help, ensuring that those who combine a long-haul flight with a train journey wouldn’t be penalised if they missed their transfer.
In the meantime, however, a ban by the UK government – of even the shortest flights – would be a potent political symbol. The pandemic may have reduced airline emissions across Europe by 57 per cent in 2020, but effecting lasting change is much harder. Achieving a sustainable level of air travel will require governments to support their citizens’ good instincts.