Japan's aviation and rail industries must speed ahead together toward decarbonization!
Japan's aviation and rail industries must speed ahead together toward decarbonization!
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis, many countries and global citizens are pushing to redesign the structure of our societies. Both COVID and the climate crisis are similar in that they have upended societies and, in this process, disproportionately affected disadvantaged people. It is within this context and in the face of economic recovery efforts that many have called for global sustainability and human rights, beginning to turn away from the blind pursuit of economic growth. To make these calls a reality, decarbonization -- reducing greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate catastrophic global warming -- is indispensable.
Our homes account for the most amount of greenhouse gas emissions in our daily lives, followed by our means of mobility. Various options exist to mitigate emissions in the home, including improving the energy efficiency of household appliances and switching to renewable energy. Similarly, in the mobility sector, as the first step toward creating sustainable and inclusive societies, more countries have turned their attention to long-distance transport, which the average person does not use on a daily basis but nevertheless consumes vast amounts of energy. Globally, the momentum to transform long-distance transport -- to allow air travel and rail transport to complement rather than compete with each other -- is building.
Contrasting the forward-thinking efforts seen abroad, the Japanese Diet formally decided to require that airlines submit “network continuation plans” (plans to show how they intend to maintain their network of flights) to receive any public aid. On top of this, competition within the current long-distance transport system network is increasing, with a push for even more flights (e.g. plans for further construction to create a fifth runway for Haneda Airport, plans to encourage the commercial/civilian use of the Yokota U.S. Air Base’s infrastructure) and for the resource-intensive Linear Chuo Shinkansen (a magnetic-levitation train that would connect Tokyo and Nagoya in less than half the time it takes currently via conventional bullet trains). These plans come at a cost to our health and the environment: many groups and individuals have raised concerns that these initiatives will exacerbate noise and air pollution, increase risks of land degradation and landslides, and adversely impact water resources and ecosystems. It is clear that Japan’s public transport system is becoming increasingly unsustainable.
A world where one could easily travel to and receive products from faraway places is certainly convenient. However, in such a world, every person necessarily both directly and indirectly consumes immense amounts of energy and emits vast amounts of greenhouse gases. To create a sustainable, decarbonized world, it is paramount that societies and economies break free of their dependence on high-speed long-distance travel.
Public transport is a necessity for our future. The vision for a better mobility system is inextricably linked to our vision for society and our vision for the business model of a business integral to that society. It will inform how we as individuals ought to live and ensure that we lead healthy and safe lives. As the third largest economy in the world, Japan is responsible for immense amounts of greenhouse gas emissions at home and abroad. Yet, at the same time, Japan has also been sharing its transport technologies, including infrastructure, with countries in need of such systems. Considering this history, Japan can and must proactively do its part to create a sustainable world by realizing a decarbonized transport system in which air travel and rail transport exist in harmony.
Are airplanes really that environmentally unfriendly?
At operation, airplanes emit roughly six times more greenhouse gas emissions compared to Shinkansens. Apart from climate impacts of actually flying, there are other environmental impacts associated with the production of airframes, from the mining of raw materials to the disposal of aircraft. Given that, legally speaking, the useful life of an aircraft is also generally shorter than that of a train, the shorter life cycle of planes may also make them the more resource-intensive mode of transport. It is also important to note that air travel depends on jet fuel and many challenges must be tackled before electricity-powered airplanes can be introduced. This means that, even if energy systems around the world decarbonise, airplanes will continue to be powered by jet fuel, which will necessarily imply emissions when used.
Worse yet, emissions from international flights are not currently directly included in the Paris Agreement, which makes such emissions more difficult to track compared to sources such as fossil fuel combustion. This is because emissions are measured at the jurisdictional ‘source’ or place where greenhouse gases are released.
The fact that flight emissions are not measured nationally does not mean that they do not exist. Air travel pollutes and this cannot be ignored.
Couldn’t this issue be mitigated by the use of sustainable fuels?
As mentioned, there are climate and other environmental impacts associated with the production of the body of the aircraft itself, from the mining of raw materials to the disposal of aircraft. Moreover, given the impacts of climate change such as vegetation changes and food security challenges, the sustainability of alternative fuels such as biofuels must be called into question.
So all is well if we just use rail transport?
Rail transport is generally less emission-intensive per capita than air travel and can be viewed as sustainable. However, faster transport requires more energy, which means more greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the emissions of the Linear Chuo Shinkansen, which would halve the time currently necessary to travel between Tokyo and Nagoya by conventional bullet train, are four times those of their conventional counterparts. Regardless, there is much progress to be made in decarbonizing our current mobility system, which includes accelerating the renewable energy transition.
Isn’t air travel important for rural economies?
Indeed, to a certain extent, rural economies have been propped up by business and leisure travel by those living in Tokyo and other large cities. However, it is necessary to consider whether this is sustainable in the first place. The COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected rural businesses whose clients were businesses in big cities, tourists, and business travelers. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is unlikely to be the last pandemic or crisis that we will face. This means that, without redesigning rural economies for resilience, history will repeat itself. Moreover, many local communities are now rapidly aging and grappling with low birth rates. To survive this loss in local demand, they are becoming increasingly dependent on financial flows from far-away big cities. However, this has contributed to further decline in local businesses catering to local needs and employment. At this rate, simply being the 'final destination' of these long-distance transport systems will not be able to save local economies or halt the local population decline; as such, these localities must work to regain their self-sufficiency to truly survive.
Additionally, transport infrastructure requires advanced technologies, human resources, and funding for maintenance. Even as mechanization and digitalization accelerate, it would be difficult to replace all existing infrastructure, not to mention the maintenance necessary for new infrastructure. Today, there are many poorly maintained roads, bridges, and tunnels, creating disruptions to daily life and causing safety concerns. It is necessary to question whether it is worth allocating resources to maintaining long-distance transportation over local trains and buses, on which local businesses and residents depend.
**Initiatives taken by countries to make long-distance transport more sustainable**
France: ban on flights that compete with rail and suspension of airport expansion plans
The government’s bailout of Air France-KLM is contingent on banning flights to areas that can be reached by rail in 2.5 hours. The CEO of Air France-KLM has also announced that the company would reduce the number of domestic flights in France by 40% by the end of 2021. After discussions at the citizens’ assembly representing the country’s people, plans to expand Charles-de-Gaulle Airport were suspended.
Germany: ban on flights that compete with rail, support for businesses, and aviation tax hikes
The government banned flights for routes that can be reached by rail within 2.5 hours. The German Aviation Association (BDL) and Deutsche Bahn (DB) agreed on shifting domestic flights to rail transport and are planning to collaborate to improve the convenience of transit and reduce travel time between large cities. Moreover, airfare taxes for domestic flights and EU-region flights will be increased.
Austria: commitment to halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (compared to 2018 levels), ban on flights that compete with rail, tax hikes on short-distance flight airfare
In exchange for government guarantees, airlines are expected to halve their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (compared to 2018 levels). The government will also ban flights for routes that can be reached by rail within 3 hours and include an airfare tax of 30 euros for flight paths less than 350 km.
Switzerland: tax hikes on airfare and acceleration of decarbonization efforts
The government has announced that bank guarantees to aid airlines are conditional on cooperation on future climate measures and increased taxes on airfare. It was also decided that a tax of 30-120 Swiss francs per air ticket (including for private jets) will be added (the actual tax depends on travel distance and boarding class). Revenues from this tax will flow to the country’s climate fund, which will be used for decarbonization.
Sweden: 25% reduction of CO2 emissions by 2025, based on pre-COVID concerns from air travelers of the environmental impacts of long-distance transport
Additional capital for Scandinavian Airlines is contingent on the airline’s commitment to a 25% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2025, 5 years ahead of the original target year. In Sweden, 2019 saw a 9% reduction in air travel due primarily to environmental considerations, and the business travel regulations for members of parliament stipulate that modes of travel will be chosen with environmental considerations. Nationally, there is a high level of awareness of the environmental impacts of long-distance transport.
The Netherlands: Airline KLM’s advice to take the train instead of flights
Airline KLM put out an advertisement with the slogan “Fly Responsibly” to encourage people to use rail where possible and avoid air travel. Airline KLM has also been reducing flights for destinations within a 500-km radius.
The United States: President Biden’s plans to establish rail networks
As part of the country’s efforts to push for sustainable public transport, the government is considering building high-speed rail networks. While there are currently 20 round-trip flights in operation between Houston and Dallas per day, Forbes and other media outlets estimate that high-speed rail transport connecting the two cities would be competitive. During his time as Senator from Delaware, President Biden spent 3 hours round-trip commuting to work by rail and has since stressed the importance of decarbonized rail transport on numerous occasions.
Singapore: suspension of plans to offer ‘no-destination’ leisure travel due to environmental NGO pressure
Although Singapore Airlines had initially planned to offer ‘no-destination trips’ during the pandemic, the company was heavily criticized by environmental NGOs that this offering would cause unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions. Abandoning this plan before implementation, Singapore Airlines turned its aircraft into a restaurant (on the ground).
**Supporters (as of July 2021)**
Momoko Nojo (Founder and Representative of NO YOUTH NO JAPAN)
Lilian Ono (Climate activist and model)
Fridays For Future Hiroshima
Fridays For Future Furano
Fridays For Future Shiga
Fridays For Future Iwate
Fridays For Future Tokyo
Fridays For Future Niigata