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Europe’s fight to curb CO2 emissions is increasingly being take to the continent’s skies. Now one of its biggest economies, Spain, is following France in an attempt to curb the impact of polluting aircraft.  

Under an agreement struck by Spain’s coalition government, the country is pushing to ban domestic plane routes where passengers are instead able to take a train in less than two and a half hours.

It could affect routes for several major Spanish airlines, and maybe even the country’s fleet of gas-guzzling private jets.

However, critics argue specific clauses in the ban would mean it had little effect while hurting Spain’s competitiveness, and leaves the country on a war path with its airlines and its money-stretched citizens. 

Flight ban may hit private jets

Spain’s proposal, which was first brought to the table last year, is a clear statement of intent as the country aims for net zero emissions by 2050.

The country has invested heavily in high-speed rail infrastructure for the last few decades, meaning a 2 ½ hour train will go further than in many other countries. 

Air links connecting the capital Madrid to major cities like Barcelona, Valencia, and Alicante are all geographically in the firing line. 

A study carried out by the environmental group Ecologistas en Acción suggests a full implementation of the ban would affect three million people and almost 21,000 flights, local publication 20 Minutos reported

The group also estimates it would save more than 300,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually.

But scratching beneath the surface reveals an array of clauses and opposition that will dampen environmentalists’ hopes of significantly moving the dial on emissions.

Spain’s ruling contains a clause that means connection flights to international hubs will be exempt from the ban.

That means Madrid-Barajas Airport, which has formed much of the basis of much analysis, will likely be exempt from any bans. It also means that the impact on commercial operators is likely to be negligible.

Where it could prove more effective, though, is in mitigating the use of gas-guzzling private jets.

The Spanish coalition government’s draft document details that it is looking at the feasibility of extending flight bans to the use of private jets, which are often the bigger culprits of inefficient, CO2-emitting short-haul journeys, reports Euronews.

According to Greenpeace, more than 45,000 private jets departed from a Spanish airport in 2022, emitting 243,900 tonnes of CO2.

However, Greenpeace’s study shows many of those private jets went to luxury party destinations on Spanish islands like Ibiza, which don’t have alternative train routes.

The proposed law is in its very early stages and is expected to go through several amendments before passing through the Spanish parliament. There is no timeline for the law being passed and it is unclear which routes will be affected.

Spain follows French neighbors

Spanish lawmakers need only look north to understand how their proposed flying ban might play out, and it doesn’t look pretty.

Neighboring France introduced a similar ban on short-haul flights last year. 

However, similar curbs allowing for international travel, combined with other logistical issues around travel times, mean the ban has only affected three routes between Paris-Orly Airport and Bordeaux, Nantes, and Lyon.

In its report, Ecologistas en Acción said that because of the exemption for international hubs, the ban in Spain would be “purely symbolic.”

Still, the Spanish government is likely to face fierce opposition from airline carriers, regardless of its apparently negligible impact on travel routes.

Last year, Spanish airline Iberia published a report last year highlighting that domestic flights accounted for less than 1% of total CO2 emissions in Spain.   

“Without domestic flights, it is not possible to meet the demand of the millions of travellers who need to connect with their medium- and long-haul flights,” Iberia’s global head of sales, Beatriz Guillén, said in a report.

The airline said there needed to be a much bigger network of high-speed rail routes before domestic flights could be replaced.

The country also faces a fight winning over its cost-aware residents. A study by Greenpeace analyzed 14 routes within, into, and out of Spain, finding that on 13 occasions a plane was the cheapest option.

“On average for all routes analysed for Spain, the train cost almost 4 times as much as the polluting plane,” Greenpeace’s authors wrote in the report. 

“Spain has the second-largest price difference between rail and air, after the U.K.”

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