Yes. We don’t like to talk about it – but it’s high time we did: CO2 emissions of air travel are 20.5 times higher than train, per kilometer*, per passenger, according to the European Environmental Agency. Cars are somewhere in between – see infographic below:
Let’s at least break the taboo. Join/Help/Share/Take a look at/Like I Try Not To Fly! (And in case you’re wondering why we spell passenger with two a’s – however terrible our English may be, that’s not us, but the folks at EEA.)
It is always a bit difficult to compare emissions per kilometer per transport option, because of course there are a lot of varying factors, like the ‘average number of passengers on a train’ – or the weight and aerodynamics of a specific airplane model.
In all calculations, air travel is always (by far) the most carbon-intensive means of transportation per kilometre (of course multiplied by the usually also much larger distance) – and trains are always the least polluting option, still better than carpooling in a small, modern, energy-efficient car.
Passenger planes emit 285 grams of CO2 per pessenger per kilometer – trains 14
If you have a lot of statistical data at hand, for instance as a government or a union of nations – you can come a long way calculating the numbers. And of course the European Environmental Agency has just that. In 2014 the EEA published a special report called ‘Focusing on environmental pressures from long-distance transport’ (PDF). Their main conclusion: despite all sorts of technological improvements, transport emissions are not declining. And that is Europe only.
[*) If you fly intercontinentally to see the Sun (which makes absolutely no sense – the planet is a sphere, it will turn towards it, if you have just a little patience) of course the differences in CO2 emissions become much larger. If for instance you live in Amsterdam, taking a train to spend your holidays at the (French) Mediterranean, comes at just 2.7 percent of the CO2 emissions of a holiday in Thailand – one that would 'force' you to fly.]
Of course air travels becomes progressively worse than other transport options when distances increase. We may need a solution at some point.
How to break the air travel taboo? Well. Let’s at least Try:
It’s a rainy Sunday so we had some time to think today. We would say there are 5 problems with air travel – which we think combinedly are quite concerning:
- Flying emits a lot of CO2. For an individual making or not-making intercontinental flights far outweighs the CO2 impacts of other (annual) lifestyle choices
- Air travel may not yet be a major contributor to global CO2 emissions – but it is rising extremely fast. The (direct, financial) costs of tickets are very low and comes within affordable reach of a large bulk of the human population in developing nations
- There is no sustainable alternative. Ships can use hydrogen, even sails, cars can go electric – but for air travel oil would remain the only viable fuel option. Whether that would be fossil oil (normal kerosine) or biofuel makes very little difference to the environment and the climate.
- Just like with shipping CO2 emissions from planes are ignored by the UN – succesfully blocked by transport hub countries that do not want to take responsibility for the emissions. So effectively there is no plan.
- We don’t want to talk about it. Even meat/animal protein consumption is an easier subject to discuss on Facebook than air travel.
And we are going to change all that! We don’t even know how yet. But we can sure use all your help and support. So please join I Try Not To Fly – and do invite your friends to follow. Let’s (at least) break the taboo!
© Rolf Schuttenhelm | www.bitsofscience.org