Should flying between Canberra and Sydney be abolished? | Audrey Quicke

If a flight is so short you don’t have time to finish your complimentary cheese and biscuits before having your rubbish whisked away for landing, chances are there’s a more environmentally friendly and convenient way of getting to where you’re going.

The French government’s recent decision to ban short-haul domestic flights between cities that are connected by a train or bus trip of less than two and a half hours has sparked some energetic debate this week about whether Australia could follow the French in moving away from short-haul flights.

So could Australia invoke a similar ban? An obvious candidate would be the sub-one-hour Canberra to Sydney flight, often frequented by bureaucrats and politicians. However, without meaningful policy reform, the idea is unlikely to take off.

For decades, cleaner and faster transport options (like high-speed rail up the east coast) have been touted in Australia but rarely delivered. The French government is in a position to ban some shorter flights because viable substitutes exist – but the same cannot be said here. The two main alternatives to the Canberra-Sydney flight are the train or the bus, and neither option comes in under two and a half hours. In fact, the Paris to Lyon stint is nearly 200km longer than Canberra to Sydney, but the train takes half the time, with more frequent services.

In an ideal world, alternatives to the Canberra to Sydney flight would already include a reliable, affordable, and frequent high-speed train, and an electric bus fleet, made in Australia and driven in a dedicated bus lane.

The roadblock to realising these alternatives is the lack of long-term transport planning with clear climate objectives. Australia has no guiding transport decarbonisation policy and no emissions reductions target for the transport sector. In comparison, France has set emissions targets for the transport sector and developed a green recovery plan on decarbonising transport. The Australian government’s emissions projections released last week show that transport emissions in Australia are expected to continue rising, staying above pre-pandemic levels until 2035.

We’ve also failed to see transport through a national security framework, despite being precariously reliant on foreign oil to power our transport system. Australia’s final Liquid Fuel Security Report is long overdue, and transport alternatives powered by domestic renewable fuel have only half-heartedly been pursued.

Now, with a new federal government, the cogs are slowly turning. We’re finally on track to getting an electric vehicle strategy, fuel efficiency standards are in the works, and a high-speed rail authority is being established. But the transport sector is still without a guiding framework and clear decarbonisation goals, despite public support for both these policies.

France’s short-haul flight ban isn’t their only transport policy worthy of note. For over a decade, they have had a feebate system (bonus-malus) that levies a fee on more polluting cars and uses the revenue to make cleaner cars cheaper. They also offer trade-in schemes, providing citizens money to spend on electric bikes in return for trading in old, high-emitting fossil fuelled cars. As of this year, car advertisements in France must now be accompanied by messages urging carpooling, walking, cycling or public transport.

These are the kinds of transport policies that come from strategic, long-term transport planning, guided by climate objectives. Plenty more examples exist internationally. In comparison, Australia doesn’t yet have fuel efficiency standards, doesn’t subsidise electric bikes and our television advertisements include blatant greenwash, advertising supposedly “carbon neutral” petrol.

Much of Australia’s malaise towards cleaner transport alternatives stems from an attachment to flying (second only to our love affair with the motor vehicle) justified by the belief that Australia is unique in its transport quandaries. After all, we Aussies have large distances and low populations to contend with, right? But our populations, like our transport emissions, are growing – as are the transport technologies that allow cleaner long-distance travel.

And, yes, we do have the money to pay for better and cleaner transport. The federal government has spent billions replacing our submarine fleet, and last year, Australian governments subsidised fossil fuel production and consumption to the tune of $11bn. The money is there. If we wanted to build fast trains instead of new, curfew-free airports, we could. If we wanted to make public transport free instead of subsidising utes for small business owners, we could. If we wanted to build protected bike lanes and walking paths instead of new highways, we could.

But good transport policies require leadership and planning that transcends the short-term political cycle and petty politicking. Australia desperately needs a long-term clean transport strategy.

In the meantime, senior public servants and politicians traveling between Canberra and Sydney might consider taking the train – and using the extra three hours to reflect how they can help better the public transport system for both people and planet. They’ll have plenty of time for cheese and biscuits, plus the $9.50 beef bourguignon to boot – bon appetit!

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