Revealing the sustainability myth of trading planes for cars
In 2019 Greta Thunberg stated: “I don’t fly because of the enormous climate impact of aviation per person”.
Ever since, flight shaming has been a current topic that each one of us is familiar with. Actually, since 2019, consumers move from eco-status to eco-shame. Either by being flight shamed, or by flight shaming others and yourself. Regardless of which side of flight shaming we stand on; society does agree on one point: Flying is bad for the environment and is ecologically worse than other means of transport.
Greta Thunbergalthough controversial as an activist for some people, is overall seen as the individual with the biggest impact on the European opinion about flying. In 2019 she positioned herself by refusing to take airplanes completely. But she also mentioned that: “By stopping flying, you don’t only reduce your own carbon footprint but also that it sends a signal to other people around you that the climate crisis is a real thing and that helps push a political movement.”
Without any doubt, our flight behaviour must be reduced, especially for short distance trips. But is flying really the worst means of transport in every situation? Or could it be that under certain conditions, taking the plane is less harmful for the planet than taking a car?
Without any doubt, trains and busses are proven to be the least polluting modes of transport, when looking at average numbers. The good news is that the use of busses and trains is currently on the rise in Europe.
To determine whether the train or the bus is the better medium, one must look at a variety of factors:
- When evaluating the efficiency of buses in Europe, note that these mainly run-on Diesel. Additionally, their load factor is a crucial parameter influencing their level of CO2 pollution.
- Concerning trains, the evaluation clearly depends on the models, countries and the clean energy production.
- On the one hand, trains can either be diesel powered, hybrid trains or fully run on electric power. This is essential, due to the difference between the CO2 emissions levels occurring from the type of model.
- On the other hand, we must consider the country’s internal policies. Even if a train is powered by electricity, the source of production of such electricity is the determining CO2 emission factor.
But what about the plane-versus-car situation?
Studies have revealed that the aircraft is the most polluting choice for short routes. Against the general belief, that planes are always the most inefficient means of transport, taking the car for “longer” routes may be more harmful than the airplane.
Now throwing this into the room, keep in mind that we are talking about averages. What does that mean? To put our idea into a framework, let’s imagine a trip from Luxembourg to Lisbon. This is a 2,125 km trip on the road, served non-stop by Luxair, TAP, Ryanair and EasyJet. Flixbus offers a 1- stop connection, alternatively a 3-stop train ride.
The assumption, that taking the car from Luxembourg to Lisbon is more harmful than taking the plane, is only true under the following conditions:
- The load of the car equals the average of 1.5 people.
- It depends on the age, motor and model of the car and also on the driver’s driving style.
- Looking at planes, the actual fuel burn depends on wind, type of engine, passenger numbers, baggage loads, distance and more.
However, under the mentioned circumstances, studies have proven one rule: A car with 100% load factor is generally more efficient per traveler, than an aircraft with 100% load factor.
What does that mean for you?
Travelling the most ecological way, should generally be concluded as follows:
- Use online calculators such as Ecopassenger or Carbon Footprint, to determine your most efficient means of transport. Also, consider aspects such as the country, the model of the vehicle, the amount of people.
- Probably the most eco-friendly solution will be taking the train or the bus. If you wish to be certain about the least polluting solution, question whether the train runs on electric engines and where this “green” energy comes from.
- Due to factors such as comfort, price, or time, you might not choose to take the train or the bus. If so, the solution should be to further evaluate the specifics. Choose to drive a relatively new and C02 friendly car, and drive “green”. This means in a slow and foreseeing manner. Most importantly, you should under any circumstance load your car with the maximum number of people. If you do not travel with friends or family, try to find alternatives. Offering the transit to others via Blablacar or other car sharing applications, could be one example.
- Honestly, it is still difficult to make an environmental friendly car, a reality for everyone. You might not be able to realize this goal of a 100% loaded and eco-friendly car, and that’s ok. In such a case, it might be worth considering the plane in order to increase fuel efficiency. To do so, use an online calculator like Ecopassenger and pay attention to the specific airline and its policies.
- A last piece of advice is to invest in Carbon offsetting programs. Even though these can be seen as a form of buying your way out of guilt, they do have an impact. Through regulated standards, they compensate for the CO2 emissions released by the aircraft. Therefore, if you do take the plane, carbon offsetting programs should definitely be purchased.
Or maybe, try to avoid the matter completely and be a “green hero”. Take a look in your garage and think about taking your trusty bike on a vacation instead of taking the plane or the car!
- Will you start using Blablacar to fill up your car load ?
- Do you believe that Carbon offsetting programs should be included in the price of airplane tickets?
- Which factor is the most relevant for you when choosing your means of travel? The price, comfort, time or a direct connection?
- 5 Trends for 2020 (and 21 for 2021!) – TrendWatching
- Startup BlaBlaCar Raises $115 Million for Long-Distance Carpooling and Bus Travel – Skift
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- Climate change action: We can’t all be Greta, but your choices have a ripple effect – BBC News