In a world where transport is so much faster, easier and more accessible than it used to be, it opens up infinite possibilities to see and travel the world. However, as climate change intensifies and scientists acknowledge that time is running out for humans to rectify the damage they have inflicted on the planet, people are starting to step back and question the nature of the travel industry.
There is, however, still a significant way to go to slow down the rate of climate change to a great enough extent to ensure a future for the planet. In the last fifty years alone, glaciers across the world have lost over 9 trillion tonnes of ice; the rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide from human activity is increasing more than 250 times faster than it did from natural sources after the last Ice Age; and since the Industrial Revolution, oceans have absorbed so much carbon dioxide that they have suffered a 30% increase in acidity so far.
How does the Sustainability Movement Correlate with the World of Transport?
Taking Covid-19 travel restrictions into account, the transport industry was the largest emitting sector in the UK in 2020, producing 24% of the country’s greenhouse gases.
It comes as no surprise that some modes of transport are significantly better for the environment than others, but are the ‘good’ ones really as good as we think they are?
As far as ‘environmentally-friendly’ goes, flying goes at the bottom of the list.
Aviation is the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases in the world and yet less than 20% of the world’s population has ever flown. If it represented a country, aviation would be the 7th largest emitter of CO2 in the world and it independently makes up 12% of all transport emissions. These stats place it as the most environmentally damaging mode of transport out there.
In the Department for Transport’s latest Official Statistics published in October 2021, they found that, on average, the greenhouse gas emissions for a single passenger travelling by plane from Glasgow to London was 155 KgCO2e. In comparison, a single passenger making the same journey by coach produced only 21 KgCO2e. These figures are demonstrative of the huge rates of CO2 produced by the aviation industry.
Obviously, it is not always possible to replace a flight with a train or another mode of transport, but if you were to cut out just one 5-hour flight, it would reduce your carbon footprint by one tonne. Although this journey would take longer by train, it may travel through other countries (e.g. Europe) or states (e.g. America) and offer stop-offs along the way. This would not only be a more affordable and environmentally friendly way to travel but would also enhance the whole travelling experience. Although flying has its advantages, being environmentally friendly is not one of them.
Cars are responsible for 12% of all greenhouse gas emissions in Europe. Within this, company cars are not only responsible for more than half of new cars sold but also for 73% of all new-car emissions. In light of this, there has been a huge push towards a future of electric cars that move away from fossil fuels. In 2020, sales of electric cars more than trebled, reaching 10.5% across Europe.
However, are electric cars really as green as we think they are? Apparently not…
As with fossil fuel cars, the manufacturing of electric cars begins with extracting and refining raw materials to produce components necessary for the car to run, notably the battery. The batteries in which electric cars store their energy have huge environmental consequences as they are made of rare earth elements (REE), such as lithium, cobalt, nickel and graphite. These elements exist beneath the earth’s surface and thus rely on mining to access them. For every one tonne of REE produced, 75 tonnes of acidic waste and one tonne of radioactive residues are also produced. Furthermore, not only does the energy used to produce these car batteries add up to nearly half of their environmental impact but there are also few effective ways to reuse or recycle the batteries, meaning that the majority end up being incinerated or thrown into landfills, both of which have further environmental consequences.
Electric cars are not carbon-negative vehicles. Whilst the post-production of electric cars may be more environmentally friendly, the production and manufacturing process of electric cars is not. However, ideas to increase the sustainability and eco-friendliness of electric cars are being developed, and that we have created a vehicle that produces no CO2 post-production is undeniably a big step forward. There may not yet be a perfect solution, and it is important to consider all the facts before simply accepting that electric cars are better for the environment than conventional ones, but the speed at which technology is advancing towards a more sustainable future is encouraging.
In terms of speed, efficiency and environmentally friendliness,trains probably come out on top. They are one of the most energy-efficient modes of transport and while they carry 8% of the world’s passengers and 7% of global freight transport, they represent only 2% of transport energy.
Fig 2. Passenger rail transport activity by fuel type, 1995-2016, IEA: ‘The Future of Rail’ Technology Report January 2019.
As with the electrification of cars, the electrification of trains also has its benefits and detriments to the environment. However, they are able to carry a large number of passengers and cover long distances effectively. In addition to its environmental advantages, rail travel can be cheaper, more flexible and more enjoyable. You aren’t tied to your seat in the same way you would be on a plane or in a car and you can spend the time reading, working or watching TV without having to worry about driving. As rail demand has increased, so too have its networks. That you can travel to and around Europe from the UK without ever having to get on a plane or in a car speaks volumes of the extensive nature of the rail industry. Its ability to provide cheap, efficient and relatively eco-friendly transport, whilst also providing stunning views along the way, makes it unsurprising that trains are one of the most popular modes of transport.
If we refer back to the table in fig 1. which shows the indicative GHG emissions for a single passenger in 2021, we clearly see that buses or coaches are the lowest emitters of KGCO2e on a journey from London to Glasgow.
In this second table (Table ENV0301) taken from the Government’s statistical data set for energy and the environment, we see that, in the last 29 years, buses have consistently emitted the lowest rate of Nitrogen Oxide than any other mode of transport. Despite not always being the fastest method of getting from A to B, buses can hold a large number of passengers and produce the lowest rate of the indirect, and second-lowest rate of direct, emissions of all other vehicles.
It comes as no surprise that bicycles and walking are the most sustainable methods of transportation. Not only do they produce 0 carbon emissions at every stage, but they are also enjoyable and good for you! Of course, it will not always be possible to cycle or walk everywhere you need to go, but if you have a choice between a 15-minute bus journey or a 25-minute cycle, both you and the environment would benefit from the latter.
Various countries and cities are running campaigns and starting initiatives to encourage people to cycle. The United States is hoping to create a cycle trail that spans from coast to coast. The Great American Rail Trail stretches 3,700 miles from the capital to the Pacific Ocean just west of Seattle, crossing 12 states.
Germany also plans to open a 62-mile bicycle highway exclusively for cyclers. This highway will connect 10 western cities as well as 4 universities, an initiative aimed at increasing sustainable transport. Is it expected to remove 50,000 cars off the roads every single day!
As well as being eco-friendly, walking and cycling can be social, cathartic, relaxing and a fantastic way to discover new places! They are also both the best and cheapest way to explore a new city!
So what can we do with all this information? Knowing which methods of transport are the most sustainable is all very well, but we need to act on this information and make eco-friendly choices if we are going to help the environment.
At WorkingAbroad we believe in the concept of Snail Travel. This is a fantastic project that we have been supporting and you can read more about it in our Low Carbon Manifesto.
Snail Travel is a Movement where travellers make a conscious effort to slow down whilst travelling; to take slower and more sustainable methods of transport to immerse themselves in the experience of travelling and to lower their carbon footprint. Snail Travel is an excellent way to explore the world at a more relaxing pace and one that allows you to take your time reaching your destination, enjoy the views around you and stop off in other countries along the way. If you hopped straight on a plane from London to Turkey, think how many countries you would miss stopping off at if you did the same journey by train.
There is no set agenda to being a Snail Traveller. All you have to do is take slower, more sustainable modes of transport to your destination and enjoy the journey on the way. Whether this is by train, by bicycle, boat or even by camel, you will be reducing your carbon footprint and creating a scrapbook of memories as you go! This climate calculator is a great way of keeping track of your carbon footprint and setting yourself targets to reduce your impact.
As the world continues to open up again, and without restriction, it is tempting to jump on a plane and get as far away as possible to take that holiday you’ve been denied for 2 years. But before you do so, have a think about its environmental impacts. You need not deny yourself another holiday based on environmental guilt, but perhaps take things slower and make the holiday the journey, not the destination.
Written by WorkingAbroad Blogger Gemma Howard-Vyse