(source: Alf van Beem)

At 61, the engineer Jean-Marc Jancovici is a climate activist icon. He eats little meat, has no phone, and nearly never flies. “La décroissance ne fait pas plaisir,” he jokes, explaining that his contributions to fighting consumerism and pollution are not about maximizing personal comfort but attenuating his impact on nature. However, Jancovici’s approaches have sparked recent debates.

It is widely known that air travel contributes significantly to global warming: planes emit 3.5 percent of world carbon emissions, more than many countries, and up to 5 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.  After studying these statistics, Jancovici modeled a new idea, to simply ban citizens from flying. A cap of four lifetime flights, he argues, would reduce carbon contributions sufficiently to prevent a global climate disaster.

At first glance, the professor’s plans seem unrealistic. His proposal subtly contradicts the widely recognized “right to free movements,” and to those who grew up in the age of globalization, air travel is a necessary part of that right. Put to the test, however, many French citizens agree with Jancovici’s project. When the Consumer Science and Analytics Institute (CSA) asked the French public, 41 percent of respondents said they would support such a ban, and as global warming accelerates, this minority seems likely to grow. Younger demographics surveyed were even more enthusiastic about the idea: 59 percent of them were willing to limit if not stop their plane usage altogether.

These statistics make sense put into context. Western Europeans and North Americans take on average fewer than two flights per year. In 2022, 4 in 10 American adults flew at all due to the cost and inconvenience of travel. In contrast, the global top one percent contribute to half of aviation-related CO2 emissions as the world’s biggest flyers. The reason many French citizens embrace Jancovici’s plans is not simply that aviation worsens the current climate crisis – the issue is that a tiny fraction of the population creates a disproportionate share of carbon emissions. Supporters advocate that the flying ban would achieve greater climate justice by ensuring that the majority does not pay the cost of  a small group’s lavish lifestyle.

But what would an air travel ban mean for France? Besides the fact that those compelled to fly will find a way to do so anyway, the economic fallout of such a decision could be considerable. Take Toulouse, Airbus’ international headquarters, where generations of engineers and manufacturers gather from all over to share their aspirations for the future of air travel. Toulouse is just a microcosm of the 1.1 million French jobs air transport creates, that add to 4.2 percent of France’s overall GDP. Where would those jobs go without an air transit industry? Additionally, limiting air transport would restrain France’s tourism revenues that rake in 58 billion USD each year. An air travel ban could also hurt France’s social diversity, particularly by disincentivizing immigration. Immigrants living in France would feel cut off from their home communities and those who would otherwise move to France would feel inclined to search for work elsewhere. For some critics, this proposal seems like a way to isolate lower-income immigrant communities and make their immigration process more difficult.

In essence, Jean-Marc Jancovici has highlighted an important trend in favor of rigorous climate policies. The disproportionate plane usage by globalized elites and the imminence of irreversible climate damage lead many young French voters to push for a flying ban to hold their wealthier counterparts accountable. Nonetheless, because of the economic, cultural, and social ramifications involved, French leaders are unlikely to proclaim flight bans soon. Instead, they are looking to invest in cleaner jet fuel, encourage alternative modes of transportation, and sponsor green infrastructure projects. It will be interesting to see how France confronts these issues at the COP 28 summit in Dubai this December.

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