Category Archives: Transportation emissions

Climate change: Should you fly, drive or take the train?

[Editor: This story is Euro-centered, but the information is applicable here in the U.S.  — and VERY interesting…  – R.S.]

BBC News, 24 August 2019

Greta ThunbergThe climate campaigner Greta Thunberg chose to sail to a UN climate conference in New York in a zero-emissions yacht rather than fly – to highlight the impact of aviation on the environment. The 16-year-old Swede has previously travelled to London and other European cities by train.

Meanwhile the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have faced criticism over opting to fly to Sir Elton John’s villa in Nice in a private jet.

So what is the environmental impact of flying and how do trips by train, car or boat compare?

What are aviation emissions?

Flights produce greenhouse gases – mainly carbon dioxide (CO2) – from burning fuel. These contribute to global warming when released into the atmosphere.

An economy-class return flight from London to New York emits an estimated 0.67 tonnes of CO2 per passenger, according to the calculator from the UN’s civil aviation body, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

That’s equivalent to 11% of the average annual emissions for someone in the UK or about the same as those caused by someone living in Ghana over a year.

Aviation contributes about 2% of the world’s global carbon emissions, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). It predicts passenger numbers will double to 8.2 billion in 2037..

And as other sectors of the economy become greener – with more wind turbines, for example – aviation’s proportion of total emissions is set to rise.

Chart showing emissions from different modes of transport

How do emissions vary?

It depends where passengers sit and whether they are taking a long-haul flight or a shorter one.

The flight figures in the table are for economy class. For long haul flights, carbon emissions per passenger per kilometre travelled are about three times higher for business class and four times higher for first class, according to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

This is because there’s more space per seat, so each person accounts for a larger amount of the whole plane’s pollution.

Taking off uses more fuel than cruising. For shorter flights, this accounts for a larger proportion of the journey. And it means lower emissions for direct flights than multi-leg trips.

Also, newer planes can be more efficient and some airlines and routes are better at filling seats than others. One analysis found wide variation between per passenger emissions for different airlines.

For private jets, although the planes are smaller, the emissions are split between a much smaller number of people.

For example, Prince Harry and Meghan’s recent return flight to Nice would have emitted about four times as much CO2 per person as an equivalent economy flight.

Aeroplane flying overhead
Aeroplane flying overhead | Image copyright GETTY IMAGES

The increased warming effect other, non-CO2, emissions, such as nitrogen oxides, have when they are released at high altitudes can also make a significant difference to emissions calculations.

“The climate effect of non-CO2 emissions from aviation is much greater than the equivalent from other modes of transport, as these non-CO2 greenhouse gases formed at higher altitudes persist for longer than at the surface and also have a stronger warming potential,” Eloise Marais, from the Atmospheric Composition Group, at the University of Leicester, told BBC News.

But there is scientific uncertainty about how this effect should be represented in calculators.

The ICAO excludes it, while the BEIS includes it as an option – using a 90% increase to reflect it.

The EcoPassenger calculator – launched by the International Railways Union in cooperation with the European Environment Agency – says it depends on the height the plane reaches.

Longer flights are at higher altitude, so the calculator multiplies by numbers ranging from 1.27 for flights of 500km (300 miles) to 2.5 for those of more than 1,000km.

In the chart above, the high-altitude, non-CO2 emissions are in a different colour.

How does travelling by train compare?

Train virtually always comes out better than plane, often by a lot. A journey from London to Madrid would emit 43kg (95lb) of CO2 per passenger by train, but 118kg by plane (or 265kg if the non-CO2 emissions are included), according to EcoPassenger.

Chart showing emissions for different journ

However, the margin between train and plane emissions varies, depending on several factors, including the type of train. For electric trains, the way the electricity they use is generated is used to calculate carbon emissions.

Diesel trains’ carbon emissions can be twice those of electric ones. Figures from the UK Rail Safety and Standards board show some diesel locomotives emit more than 90g of C02 per passenger per kilometre, compared with about 45g for an electric Intercity 225, for example.

The source of the electricity can make a big difference if you compare a country such as France, where about 75% of electricity comes from nuclear power, with Poland, where about 80% of grid power is generated from coal.

According to EcoPassenger, for example, a train trip from Paris to Bordeaux (about 500km) emits just 4.4kg of carbon dioxide per passenger, while a journey between the Polish cities of Gdansk and Katowice (about 465km) emits 61.8kg.

As with plane journeys, another factor is how full the train is – a peak-time commuter train will have much lower emissions per person than a late-night rural one, for example.

Car exhaustImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Can driving be better than flying?

Yes, if the car’s electric – but diesel and petrol cars are also in many cases better options than flying, though it depends on various factors, particularly how many people they’re carrying.

According to EcoPassenger, a journey from London to Madrid can be done with lower emissions per passenger by plane, even accounting for the effect of high altitude non-CO2 emissions, if the car is carrying just one person and the plane is full. If you add just one more person into the vehicle, the car wins out.

Coaches also score well. BEIS says travelling by coach emits 27g of CO2 per person per kilometre, compared with 41g on UK rail (but only 6g on Eurostar) – though again this will vary depending on how full they are and the engine type.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg sailing on yacht to New York
Climate activist Greta Thunberg sailing on yacht to New York | Image copyright FINNBARR WEBSTER

What about travelling by boat?

The BEIS has also put a figure on ferry transport – 18g of CO2 per passenger kilometre for a foot passenger, which is less than a coach, or 128g for a driver and car, which is more like a long-haul flight.

But ferries’ ages and efficiency will vary around the world – and a ferry won’t get you to America, although a cruise ship or ocean liner would.

The cruise industry has long been under pressure to reduce environmental impacts ranging from waste disposal to air pollution, as well as high emissions – not only from travel but also from powering all the on-board facilities.

Carnival Corporation and plc, which owns nine cruise lines, says its 104 ships emit an average of 251g of carbon dioxide equivalent per “available lower berth” per kilometre.

And, while the figures are not directly comparable, they suggest cruising falls in similar territory to flying in terms of emissions.

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    MUST SEE: All about particulate matter air pollution in the Bay Area

    From James Leach of Lafayette, CA, on YouTube
    [Editor: This is a really important, really helpful, informative and challenging video. I thought I knew all about air pollution, but I learned a lot here.  It’s 38 minutes, so get comfortable or bookmark and come back when you have a little time.  – R.S.]

    Clearing the air

    By James Leach, published on Aug 19, 2018
    Solving the particulate matter air pollution problem in Lafayette, California and the San Francisco Bay Area Region.

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      America’s 2018 carbon emissions – the biggest increase in eight years

      Repost from The New York Times

      U.S. Carbon Emissions Surged in 2018 Even as Coal Plants Closed

      By Brad Plumer, Jan. 8, 2019
      Passenger planes at the Phoenix airport in July. Greenhouse gas emissions from airplanes and trucking increased sharply in 2018. Credit: Angus Mordant/Bloomberg

      WASHINGTON — America’s carbon dioxide emissions rose by 3.4 percent in 2018, the biggest increase in eight years, according to a preliminary estimate published Tuesday.

      Strikingly, the sharp uptick in emissions occurred even as a near-record number of coal plants around the United States retired last year, illustrating how difficult it could be for the country to make further progress on climate change in the years to come, particularly as the Trump administration pushes to roll back federal regulations that limit greenhouse gas emissions.

      The estimate, by the research firm Rhodium Group, pointed to a stark reversal. Fossil fuel emissions in the United States have fallen significantly since 2005 and declined each of the previous three years, in part because of a boom in cheap natural gas and renewable energy, which have been rapidly displacing dirtier coal-fired power.

      Yet even a steep drop in coal use last year wasn’t enough to offset rising emissions in other parts of the economy. Some of that increase was weather-related: A relatively cold winter led to a spike in the use of oil and gas for heating in areas like New England.

      But, just as important, as the United States economy grew at a strong pace last year, emissions from factories, planes and trucks soared. And there are few policies in place to clean those sectors up.

      “The big takeaway for me is that we haven’t yet successfully decoupled U.S. emissions growth from economic growth,” said Trevor Houser, a climate and energy analyst at the Rhodium Group.

      As United States manufacturing boomed, for instance, emissions from the nation’s industrial sectors — including steel, cement, chemicals and refineries — increased by 5.7 percent.

      Policymakers working on climate change at the federal and state level have so far largely shied away from regulating heavy industry, which directly contributes about one-sixth of the country’s carbon emissions. Instead, they’ve focused on decarbonizing the electricity sector through actions like promoting wind and solar power.

      But even as power generation has gotten cleaner, those overlooked industrial plants and factories have become a larger source of climate pollution. The Rhodium Group estimates that the industrial sector is on track to become the second-biggest source of emissions in California by 2020, behind only transportation, and the biggest source in Texas by 2022.

      There’s a similar story in transportation: Since 2011, the federal government has been steadily ratcheting up fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks, although the Trump administration has proposed to halt the toughening of those standards after 2021.

      78 Environmental Rules on the Way Out Under Trump.  This is the full list of environmental policies the Trump administration has targeted, often in an effort to ease burdens on the fossil fuel industry. Oct. 5, 2017
      There are signs that those standards have been effective. In the first nine months of 2018, Americans drove slightly more miles in passenger vehicles than they did over that span the previous year, yet gasoline use dropped by 0.1 percent, thanks in part to fuel-efficient vehicles and electric cars.

      But, as America’s economy expanded last year, trucking and air travel also grew rapidly, leading to a 3 percent increase in diesel and jet fuel use and spurring an overall rise in transportation emissions for the year. Air travel and freight have also attracted less attention from policymakers to date and are considered much more difficult to electrify or decarbonize.

      Demand for electricity surged last year, too, as the economy grew, and renewable power did not expand fast enough to meet the extra demand. As a result, natural gas filled in the gap, and emissions from electricity rose an estimated 1.9 percent. (Natural gas produces lower CO2 emissions than coal when burned, but it is still a fossil fuel.)

      Transmission towers near the coal-fired Will County Generating Station in Romeoville, Ill.CreditDaniel Acker/Bloomberg

      Even with last year’s increase, carbon dioxide emissions in the United States are still down 11 percent since 2005, a period of considerable economic growth. Trump administration officials have often cited that broader trend as evidence that the country can cut its climate pollution without strict regulations.

      But if the world wants to avert the most dire effects of global warming, major industrialized countries, including the United States, will have to cut their fossil-fuel emissions much more drastically than they are currently doing.

      Climate Change Is Complex. We’ve Got Answers to Your Questions. We know. Global warming is daunting. So here’s a place to start: 17 often-asked questions with some straightforward answers. Sept. 19, 2017

      Last month, scientists reported that greenhouse gas emissions worldwide rose at an accelerating pace in 2018, putting the world on track to face some of the most severe consequences of global warming sooner than expected.

      Under the Paris climate agreement, the United States vowed to cut emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The Rhodium Group report warns that this target now looks nearly unattainable without a flurry of new policies or technological advances to drive down emissions throughout the economy.

      “The U.S. has led the world in emissions reductions in the last decade thanks in large part to cheap gas displacing coal,” said Jason Bordoff, director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, who was not involved in the analysis. “But that has its limits, and markets alone will not deliver anywhere close to the pace of decarbonization needed without much stronger climate policy efforts that are unfortunately stalled if not reversed under the Trump administration.”

      The Rhodium Group created its estimate by using government data for the first three quarters of 2018 combined with more recent industry data. The United States government will publish its official emissions estimates for all of 2018 later this year.

      For more news on climate and the environment, follow @NYTClimate on Twitter.
      Brad Plumer is a reporter covering climate change, energy policy and other environmental issues for The Times’s climate team. @bradplumer
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