Clarity and effort needed to reduce travel emissions

Train station with a train on the left hand side and mountains in the background.
Latour-de-Carol-Enveitg station in the Pyrénées en-route from Paris to Barcelona.

Ben Winchester, Research Postgraduate on the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet Doctoral Training Partnership, reflects on his recent travel experiences, and explains why more is needed from employers and the government to help individuals reduce their travel-related emissions.

Everything we do has an impact on the planet, from switching on a light to buying food. While individual actions alone can’t solve the climate and environmental crisis, the decisions we make can have a big impact, particularly when it comes to travel. There is a limit to what we can do as individuals, but some decisions can have more of an impact than others: whether we fly, take the train, or simply don’t go on that work trip abroad, we can reduce our annual emissions by up to a third.

Most of the UK is reachable by train in under 6 hours, and, despite the temptation to fly short distances internally, this is a case where travelling by train (or even car) can be both cheaper and have less of an impact on the planet. It’s faster to take the train to parts of France than to fly, and it’s not much longer (and is much lower in emissions) to reach parts of the Netherlands and Germany overland.

Infographic showing how the journey from London to Amsterdam by plan compares to travelling by train.
How does a single journey from London to Amsterdam by plane compare to travelling by train?

When it’s considerably longer and more expensive to take the train to your destination, it becomes a more difficult decision: can you afford to take that time off? Or is your employer supportive of ‘slow travel’ and willing to subsidise overland travel to that faraway conference?

Overland to Palma, Mallorca

I started my PhD during COVID, so when the opportunity came up to attend my first in-person conference, I was keen to go! The conference was in Palma, Mallorca, 830 miles from London. It didn’t seem too far – it was still in western Europe – so surely it was possible to take the train? Flying there cost just £57.05, with the actual flight just £26 for a return. It was also possible to travel on the same day, so no annual leave used up, and just one day away from work. However, flying there and back would have emitted over 500 kilograms of carbon dioxide (kg CO2e). That’s equivalent to 4.5 years’ worth of porridge or 200 cheeseburgers  – or the entire annual emissions of a person living in Bangladesh.

I decided to travel overland and by ferry. It was more expensive, £436.25 in total, but emitted less carbon: only 130 kg CO2e in total (around 52 cheeseburgers) – a saving of 370 kg CO2e. Travelling by ferry was definitely more faff to organise as there were multiple legs to book (in Spanish), as well as overnight accommodation for the return journey. I took a 10:30am train from St Pancras, which meant I could get up at 7am (relaxed compared with getting to the airport for 5 in the morning!). I was able to take as much luggage as I needed (including a late breakfast), and was able to enjoy the extra leg room compared to flying. By chance, I also happened to be sitting next to a PhD student who was working in a similar field and whom I had mutual connections with.

Both the sleeper train and ferry were comfortable, and there’s something nice in arriving somewhere slowly as well as having had a view to look at on the way! I also managed a day in Paris (a combination of work and catching up with a friend) and an afternoon in Barcelona (which was very productive for getting some marking done!). All in all, I managed to get in about 6 hours of work across the two days, roughly what I would have achieved if I’d gone into work on Monday and taken Tuesday off to travel. So, no time lost and a lot of carbon saved!

Airborne to Lefkada, Greece

For my next trip abroad (a holiday this time), I decided to give flying a try. It would have taken three days either end to travel there – three extra days of annual leave in total – and, as those days would have been 9-5 travel, working en route wouldn’t have been an option. Flying there and back cost £230 and emitted around 400 kg CO2e (around 160 cheeseburgers’ emissions). Travelling by rail and ferry would have cost £940 and emitted 120 kg CO2e (around 48 cheeseburgers), which works out at £2.20 per kg CO2e saved.

View out of the window of an aeroplane, showing the wing of the plane, and land and ocean below

Booking the flights from Heathrow was hassle-free, though the airports (at both ends) were far out and needed over an hour each end on trains or in taxis. Parts of the view were nice enough (e.g., flying over Corfu), but most of the way all you could see were clouds. I decided to offset the emissions from the flight through Climeworks: a Swiss company, based in Iceland, that directly removes CO2 from the atmosphere at a cost of 98 pence per kg CO2e (this has now gone up to £1.10 per kilogram). Whilst this is good for unavoidable emissions and, unlike some other offsets, is tangible when it comes to the amount that’s removed, it can take up to six years for the CO2 to be drawn out of the atmosphere – during which time it has contributed to global warming.

Deciding against Gran Canaria, Spain

The easiest way to not cause emissions is, of course, to not go. I was scheduled to go to a conference on Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands in June, but flying there would have cost £200 and emitted a whopping 885 kg CO2e (354 cheeseburgers or 8 years’ worth of porridge). Travelling by ferry and train would have cost over £1,300, needed an additional four days off work, and still emitted 230 kg CO2e. I couldn’t justify either the costs, the time or the environmental impact for what would have been five days there with a half-hour slot (or less) to showcase my research. Instead, I decided to find another outlet for my results and aim for a journal publication: saving money, carbon, time, and stress!

Supporting slow travel

Travelling overland to Mallorca was a much better experience than flying to Corfu: there was none of the hassle of getting to the airport super early in the morning, my ears didn’t pop because of the pressure, and I didn’t have to worry about what I could or couldn’t take with me. I was able to network on the Eurostar (as well as at the conference), catch up with a friend for an afternoon, and not lose out on any working time compared to what I would have lost had I flown. I also had the added bonus of knowing that I’d emitted three-quarters less than what I would have done had I flown!

Travelling overland, however, takes more time, so employers need to be more flexible with their annual leave allowances and provision for working remotely on long-distance trips. With flights being so cheap, it can often cost less to travel by air and “offset” the remaining emissions than it is to travel by land/sea. However, the emissions still end up in the air for many years longer than we have to meet climate targets, and there is a lot of uncertainty about how effective these offsets are. Ultimately, governments need to make sure that the prices of air travel are in-line with their environmental impacts, for example, through increased taxes and tariffs: £57 for a return flight to Mallorca when it takes £437 to travel by land isn’t incentivising the investment or actions that are needed to address the climate emergency.

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2 thoughts on “Clarity and effort needed to reduce travel emissions

  1. This is very impressive Ben. I travel everywhere by train, ferry, bus and on foot and would find planning very difficult without help from The man in Seat 61, Mark Smith..
    Roberta from Winchester

  2. For anyone reading this, it’s worth noting the ferries from BCN to Palma have big differences in terms of emissions. GNV, Transmed use older ships with higher emissions, Balearia seem to be trying to reduce emissions by using natural gas (and have an electric assisted ship for the fast ferry). Still not amazing, but a start…

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