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French lawmakers OK partial ban on domestic flights in climate bill

15 April 2021 Cristina Brooks

France has moved forward with an eye-catching partial ban on domestic flights, hoping to defy critics and protesters to reach its EU-led Paris Agreement pledge of 40% GHG cuts by 2030.

The lower chamber of the French parliament, the National Assembly, signed off on the ban within the transportation portion of a bill approved on 10 April. It will formally vote on the entire bill on 4 May, it said.

Nicknamed the Climate and Resilience Bill and partially the creation of a citizen's assembly, its wide-ranging measures envision cutting the emissions of sectors such as aviation, road transport, buildings, construction, and food.

Notably, it will introduce several bans. These will target some short-haul flights within France, polystyrene (styrofoam) food containers, sales of certain high-emissions vehicles, and fossil fuel advertising.

Beyond the bans, it obliges climate-friendly public procurement, vegetarian options for government-supplied meals, eco-labels for food, a scoring system for consumer products, higher energy efficiency for buildings, regional renewable energy goals, limits on construction, and added solar panel installations while tightening laws around mining and electronic waste.

It also creates a 10-year prison penalty for those who cause serious pollution incidents, called "ecocide offenses."

But the French government's environmental advisers have said the bill still fails to fully reach France's 2030 emissions obligations. Critics include the arms-length environmental body the National Council for Ecological Transition, the consultative body the Economic, Social and Environmental Council, and the new independent state advisory, the High Council for Climate (HCC).

The HCC advised lawmakers to strengthen the bill by expanding its scope and imposing new measures more quickly to catch up with the EU. "This is all the more necessary as the raising of the European objective of reducing emissions from -40% to 55% in 2030 compared with 1990 could imply an increase in French efforts," said the HCC.

The French trucking industry strongly denounced the bill's tax on commercial diesel, noting it would "not [be] effective" in reducing GHGs or motivate fleet conversion. It was skeptical about the availability of so-called "clean" truck engines. "When will they really be available for mass rollout? When will appropriate supply networks be available to distribute energy?" said the National Federation of Road Transport in a 12 April statement.

The latest measures on diesel provide a sense of déjà vu after France's ill-fated ecotax on diesel impacted civilians, who brought Paris to a standstill three years ago. The 2018 "Yellow Vest" protests in the capital city and elsewhere led to President Emmanuel Macron's withdrawal of the tax.

The following year, Macron randomly selected a 150-member citizen's assembly to make climate policy proposals, and their advice was rewritten by lawmakers to form the Climate and Resilience Bill.

The government will not target civilians with a fuel tax this time around. Learning its lesson, it will gradually increase the diesel tax for businesses like trucking companies to encourage technology switching, while gradually eliminating tax advantages for diesel.

But the government is still targeting transportation sector emissions. "Transport is the main source of greenhouse gas emissions in our country," Minister for the Ecological Transition Barbara Pompili said in a 12 April statement.

The government plans to limit civilian vehicle emissions in other ways. The bill would create reserved lanes for carpooling around large cities, develop park-and-ride facilities, and add more urban low-emissions zones by 2024. It would impose a ban on the most polluting cars in 45 large cities by 2025 and a 2030 ban on the sale of cars emitting more than 95 grams per km of CO2, while also subsidizing electric bikes.

One of the measures proposed by the citizens was the ban on direct domestic flights, for example from Paris to Nantes, when a journey of under 2.5 hours on "much less polluting" trains is available. This part of the bill would let France "become one of the first countries in the world to prioritize trains over air travel wherever possible," according to a French Environmental Ministry's statement on the bill.

The bill also requires airlines to account for their domestic flights between major cities by buying carbon offsets, for example forestry projects in France or elsewhere by 2024. Airlines may voluntarily offset their international flights as well.

But the measures are not going far enough on emissions, Greenpeace France said on 9 April. The government pledged to ban the construction of new airports and extensions, but this will likely not stop a planned extension at Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport at Terminal 4, it said.

The law is also not consistent with the Paris Agreement because it will not force airlines to reduce their overall annual emissions, it said.

While France's latest bill may have limited aviation targets, it does give France a mandate to join in on talks to spur an EU move to extend carbon pricing to more aviation emissions in June.

Airlines in Europe have been obliged to pay a carbon price for some of their emissions under the EU's Emissions Trading System (ETS) from 2013 to 2020. However, their emissions continued to grow as 82% of airlines benefitted from carbon price exemptions known as free allowances.

The carbon pricing regime also only covered intra-EU flights, awaiting a review of a controversial global offsetting scheme known as Corsia first proposed by the International Civil Aviation Organization in 2016. That review is set to conclude in 2024, but international flights might be included in the ETS following a review of the system later this year, according to the European Commission.

It will further tackle airline emissions, by proposing its ReFuelEU regulation to boost the supply of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), which currently represent only 0.05% of total jet fuel consumption.

Europe's refiners have a foot in the door ahead of such rules. Shell recently teamed up with LanzaTech, a US-based company that creates fuel from the carbon byproduct ofcarbon capture and storage, to grow the market for lower-emission aviation fuels.

Likewise, France's Total plans to start selling cooking-oil-based SAF from its La Mède biorefinery and its Oudalle facility to French airports this year. The news came despite continued low demand for jet fuel, according to IHS Markit analysis of French sustainable jet fuel markets. The venture may rival the partnership of Finland's Neste and the aviation division of BP, which in 2019 supplied biofuel-based SAF in France.

Posted 15 April 2021 by Cristina Brooks, Senior Journalist, Climate & Sustainability, IHS Markit

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