PARIS – We all thought the death knell tolled for trains when the Wright Brothers made their famous first flight on December 17, 1903.
But trains chugged on through the 20th century. The passenger train era peaked in 1920, as automotive and later air travel became more prevalent, relegating railways to mostly freight in the post-World War II boom.
Passenger trains took off in the 1960s in Japan as the bullet trains offered speed and incredible efficiency. Passenger trains have maintained popularity in Europe as a cheap and quick mode of transportation.
Ironically, what was once the most pollutant and environmentally destructive form of transportation, just might be the key to saving the environment—so says the French government.
Late Saturday evening, French lawmakers voted to abolish short domestic flights that can be covered by trains in under two-and-a-half hours. The French government wants to curb carbon emissions, and by prioritizing train transportation over flight, they believe they can accomplish their goals to cut French carbon emissions by 40% in 2030 from 1990 levels.
The measure is all part of a broader climate bill, but critics argue that President Emmanuel Macron has watered down earlier promises in the draft legislation.
Many environmental activists say that the bill does not go far enough. Macron’s citizens’ climate forum to help shape climate policy argued that the ban should go further, and eliminate flights on routes where the train journeys were less than 4 hours instead of two-and-a-half.
Wherever the final bill lands, the environmental savings stand to be substantial. As of 2018, the global aviation industry is estimated to have emitted 1.04 billion tonnes of C02, representing 2.5% of total C02 emissions.
On the flip side, 0.3% of C02 emissions come from rail, and an electric motor creates no emissions–except for the fuel that is used to generate the electricity.
The French are also facing critics from the airline industry, as they are currently reeling from the global pandemic.
In a case of poor timing, the vote banning flights came days after the state said it would contribute 4 billion euro ($4.76 billion) to Air France, more than doubling its stake in the airline, after it was decimated from a lack of flights due to Covid-19.
Talking to Europe 1 radio, Industry Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher refuted criticism from the aviation industry that banning flights during the pandemic was a mistake, saying that both the bailout and climate bill could work in tandem.
“We know that aviation is a contributor of carbon dioxide and that because of climate change we must reduce emissions…Equally, we must support our companies and not let them fall by the wayside.”
McKinsey analysts forecast that air traffic might not return to normal levels until 2024.
The first vote on Saturday night was in the National Assembly. It now goes to the Senate, before it is voted on a third and final time in the lower house. Luckily for President Macron, his ruling party and allies have unparalleled control in the lower house.
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