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According to UK Government figures, domestic flights generate approximately six times the emissions of National Rail services per passenger km [i].
At a time when we must make large-scale emissions reductions if we are to stay close to 1.5°C warming and limit catastrophic climate change, replacing aviation with rail on shorter journeys has the potential to have a significant impact.
In response to the Covid-19-induced drop in demand, the French government has imposed green conditions on its bailout of Air France-KLM, most notably, requiring that the airline does not compete with rail on journeys achievable in 2.5 hours by train — approximately 550km.
Could this policy be applied to UK domestic flights?
The aviation sector accounted for about 7% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 [iii] and is projected to be the single biggest source of emissions in the UK by 2050 [iv]. This is due to a steadily increasing demand for flights, a lack of viable technological fixes, and low political will to stem the growth of the industry despite the climate crisis.
"The aviation sector accounted for 7% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, and is projected to be the biggest source of UK emissions by 2050."
The UK’s domestic market makes up around 5% of our total aviation emissions, and is made up predominantly of routes which take more than 2.5 hours by rail. Applying France’s policy directly is therefore only likely to reduce UK aviation emissions by 0.3% [v]. However, extending the policy could make some meaningful reductions.
Extend the domestic policy to 700km
Domestic flight routes between London and Leeds (310km), Newcastle (450km), Manchester (305km), Glasgow (660km) and Edinburgh (650km) account for over 14 million passengers annually [vi]. Of these, only Leeds and Manchester are within the 2.5 hour time window, therefore it makes sense for a UK policy to include all routes up to 700km. The potential for carbon savings is huge: a return trip from London to Edinburgh by train produces 43.76kg carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per passenger as opposed to 275.87kg CO2e by plane – a saving of 232kg CO2e [vii].
Suggested policy: ‘All journeys that can be completed by train in 4.5 hours, approximately 700 km, should not have an aviation competitor in 2025.’ This policy would reduce our domestic aviation emissions by an estimated 35% or about 1.5% of our total aviation emissions[viii].
Apply the policy to international travel
70–80% of flights from the UK [ix] are within Europe and over 50% are to our nearest neighbours [x]. These countries are mostly less than 1500km away: within one day’s travel by train and car.
Applying the 700km policy from London would include destinations in Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, and some of France (importantly Paris). Travel to these four country’s capitals amounts to approximately 100 flights per day from London [xi]. Heathrow to Amsterdam alone fills over 2 million seats per year.
Emissions reductions internationally have the potential to be greater than our domestic reductions, as Eurostar emissions are up to 15 times lower than the equivalent flight [ii], as opposed to just six times lower for National Rail [i].
Push for a global 700km policy
Applying a 550km policy globally would remove about 5% of passenger emissions [xvi]. If a 700km rule were applied, the reduction would be closer to 10–15% of global aviation emissions. In Europe this would include some of the busiest routes (Barcelona-Madrid; Frankfurt to Berlin; Paris to Toulouse, Munich to Berlin [xvii]) – routes of less than 150 km, which are easily served by train [xviii].
Further afield there are 25,000 flights in North America under 100 km and another 27,000 flights under 250 km, with similar figures in Asia Pacific.
Any move away from domestic flights requires alternatives. Whether demand would move to cars or rail is largely dependent on the price of trains and having adequate infrastructure for the demand.
The Government could raise investment in the rail network or fund a price cap on long distance rail journeys by actively taxing aviation in the same way as other transport forms. A kerosene tax & VAT would raise an extra £7 billion annually to HMRC [xx]. The lack of tax on aviation fuel gives the industry huge subsidies that keep prices low and encourage growth in an industry that is too mature, on too great a growth curve, and too polluting for subsidies at this level to still exist.
Domestic flights might seem attractive in terms of journey time, but for short haul flights the travel time can be at least doubled. The fastest London-Amsterdam Eurostar is just under 4 hours, which is very close to the Heathrow-Schipol journey time once transfers and check-in time is accounted for. London-Edinburgh is 4 hrs 20 mins by train, and comparable by air.
While we wait for the government to take action, we as consumers can make stronger decisions on how we use aviation: avoiding it for shorter distances, and reducing our frequency of travel.
- Use rail wherever possible — especially under 700km journeys. The time taken is roughly similar and the carbon savings are 70–90%. Rail Europe gives detail on CO2 savings and routes across Europe.
- Treat flying as a special occasion, a once or twice a year activity at most. In the UK, 15% of people take 70% of the flights [xxi]. This means that frequent flyers are responsible for about 5% of UK’s total emissions [xxii]. If you are one of these frequent flyers you can make meaningful reductions.
- Ask your employer for an extra day off in lieu of the extra travel time you might need — they might support your sustainable travel choice. See Climate Perks from climate charity Possible.
- Consider whether holidays and stag/hen parties can be taken in the UK.
The UK, as a historically and disproportionately large emitter [xxiv], has a responsibility to lead from the front. We need political will to meet our net zero targets, and we need to not be content with doing ‘just enough’ to hit 2°C. Covid-19 has shown us that even with dramatic lockdowns our emissions haven’t dropped enough, which shows the size of the task ahead.
In order to prevent serious climate crisis consequences [xxvii] we need to move much faster, with the government making bold policy in all sectors to create the significant reductions we so desperately need. Covid-19 gives us the opportunity to ‘build back better’ and build a green recovery. For aviation, a 700km policy for domestic & international flights would be a good place to start.
[i] Conversion Factors 2019 ‘Business travel -air’ & ‘Business travel — land’ https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/greenhouse-gas-reporting-conversion-factors-2019 Rail passenger km 0.04115 kg CO2e . International rail 0.00597 kg CO2e. short haul flights are approximately 0.15832kg CO2e, domestic flights are 0.25493 kg CO2e and long haul 0.19562 kg CO2e.
[iii] Committee on Climate Change, ‘Net Zero Report’, May 2019 https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Net-Zero-Technical-report-CCC.pdf
[iv] Committee on Climate Change, ‘Meeting the UK aviation target — options for reducing emissions to 2050’ 2009 https://www.theccc.org.uk/archive/aws2/Aviation%20Report%2009/21667B%20CCC%20Aviation%20AW%20COMP%20v8.pdf
[v] Own calculation — only 6% of domestic 550km journeys are taken by air. 6% of the 5% domestic aviation emissions = 0.3%
[vi] https://www.caa.co.uk/Data-and-analysis/UK-aviation-market/Airports/Datasets/UK-Airport-data/Airport-data-2018/ Table 12. Own analysis of Total Passengers all routes and those destinations
[vii] 1063.39 km x 0.25493 kg CO2e for domestic flights and Rail passenger km 0.04115 kg CO2e
[viii] https://www.caa.co.uk/Data-and-analysis/UK-aviation-market/Airports/Datasets/UK-Airport-data/Airport-data-2018/ Table 12. Own analysis of Total Passengers all routes and those destinations achieved in under 4.5 hours by train is 16,272,951 passengers of the 46,021,427 total passenger journeys.
[ix] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/aviation-statistics-data-tables-avi avi0105 & tsgb0114 https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/tsgb01-modal-comparisons
[x] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/aviation-statistics-data-tables-avi avi0105 — Spain (17.5%), Italy (6.3%), Germany (6%), France (5%), Republic of Ireland (5.1%), Netherlands (4.4%), Poland (3.2%) and Portugal (3.2%) and Belgium (0.7%) and Luxembourg (0.2%)
[xi] London has 20 flights per day to Paris, Brussels 11, Amsterdam 55 and Luxembourg 10 flights per day
[xiii] Estimate based on our UK international flight destinations — Netherlands 4.4%, Belgium 0.7%, Luxembourg 0.2% most of which originate from London & a portion of France (5%).
[xvii] OAG ‘Busiest Routes Report’ April 2020
[xviii] OAG ‘Busiest Routes Report’ April 2020
[xx] If aviation paid the same level of duty, and VAT on its fuel as motorists it would £11 billion per year compared to the £3.8 billion that the Air Passenger Duty raises
[xxii] Aviation is 7% of UK emissions, 70% of flights are taken by 15% of population. 70% of 7% is 4.9% of total UK emissions.
[xxiii] Conversion Factors 2019 ‘Business travel -air’ https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/greenhouse-gas-reporting-conversion-factors-2019
Tom Smallwood is an environmentalist (MSc) who researches and writes about how to address our high emissions. You can read the full article here.