To travel to Nepal and the USA from the Netherlands several years ago, I’ve used aircraft. For traveling to closer holiday destinations such as Spain and Italy, I’ve also taken flights to get there. Since I’ve become more conscious of climate change, I decided to investigate the climate change impact of flights. My findings shocked me.
Flights cause much more carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions than cars, buses and trains. How much more depends on the method you use to calculate it. There are various calculators available on the Internet which can calculate CO2 emissions for a specific route. Because calculation methods and results vary so widely, I’ve compared them in the table below, on the basis of a journey with the train from Rotterdam Centraal railway station (Netherlands) to our next holiday’s destination, Bari Centrale railway station (Italy). For the flight I chose a hypothetical, non-existent flight from Rotterdam The Hague Airport (IATA: RTM) to Bari Karol Wojtyła Airport (IATA: BRI).
This is one way to do the comparison. In reality, you would need to travel 200 kilometers with a car (or three hours and a quarter with the train and bus) from Rotterdam to Maastricht Aachen Airport (IATA: MST) to get a flight to Bari. You would also need to take the metro from Bari Airport to Bari Centrale, which takes around twenty minutes. This makes the comparison more favorable for the train. Also consider that the huge advantage of faster air travel can be negated in practice; the flight departs only on Wednesday and Sunday in the second week of September. We depart on Thursday with the train, which departs every day.
I should mention that the Carbon Footprint calculator has an option to include or exclude radiative forcing. Without radiative forcing, the CO2 emissions will be 110 kilo, but considering the effect of radiative forcing I think it’s fair to include it.
EcoPassenger seems to have to most refined methodology of all the calculators. If I just enter departure station and arrival station it gives me a figure of 70 kilo for the train, but it tends to select a strange route via Switzerland to come to this result. I got to the figure of 63 kilo by calculating every leg of the journey independently, for the exact trains I’ve booked:
- Rotterdam to Paris (Thalys) = 6,0
- Paris to Milan (TGV) = 16,5
- Milan to Bari (FrecciaRossa to Bologna, then FrecciaBianca) = 40,3
The difference between rail transport in France and Italy is explained by the methodology used by EcoPassenger, which is accessible on their website. They take into account which fuel sources were used for electricity production in 2013. It turns out that nuclear power had a share of 75% in French electricity consumption, followed by renewable energy with 18%. Because this gives very limited CO2 emissions the journey through France scores well. Italy doesn’t use nuclear power and had a share of 41% renewable energy in total consumption. I had expected the journey from Rotterdam to Paris to emit more because the Dutch electricity mix is lagging behind. It is heavily dependent on fossil fuels with a pitiful share of merely 14% renewables in electricity consumption.
Some of the calculators indicate a huge difference in CO2 emissions between aircraft and train. A Dutch environmental organization, Milieu Centraal, calculated the difference at a factor of 7,5 for a journey from the Netherlands to Nice in France. With Loco2, aircraft emit more than five times more CO2 than the train. EcoPassenger shows the smallest difference with a factor of more than four. Their estimate is the most conservative, but their methodology is also appears to be the best and the most transparent.
So how does 269 kilo of CO2 emissions compare? Consider for example that in the Netherlands, cars traveled 12.935 kilometers on average in 2012. They emitted 119 grams of CO2 per kilometer on average in the same year, giving a total of 1.539 kilos of CO2 for the whole year. So a return flight from Rotterdam to Bari equals four months of driving an average car in the Netherlands. This still might not seem much to you. Actually, considering that in the real world you can take a one way flight from Maastricht to Bari with Ryanair for less than € 20, you might not care.
But consider some other things. If you fly long distances, CO2 emissions will equal or exceed the emissions of a car in a year. Commuting to work with your car might be a necessity, but a holiday with a flight is certainly a luxury. With all options for video conferencing today, I think flights for business reasons aren’t essential either. You can also commute to work with electric public transport, an electric car or a more efficient bus. Electric cars and buses are already showing strong growth and are likely to replace their counterparts on fossil fuels in the near future. On the other hand there is no alternative to aircraft which run on kerosene for the foreseeable future.
Because there is no way to make air travel environmentally sustainable at this time, I think we should stop doing it altogether. We have to take action against unchecked climate change. The year 2016 will be another year with a new temperature record, just like the six other years after 2000. If it goes on like this, southwest Asia is predicted to become uninhabitable due to extreme temperatures. More needs to be done to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Why not start with air travel, which was conveniently kept out of that agreement?
The question is, can we do with less? Commercial aviation is still relatively young and became popular no sooner than the 1960’s in the Netherlands. Our parents could enjoy their holiday in the Netherlands itself or elsewhere in Europe without a flight. If they could be content with that, we should be able too. I’d still love to go to Mexcio, Brazil, India and Japan one day, so this is not easy for me either. However, I can live with less and be satisfied with holidays in Europe by train. Given the danger we are in, our climate should take precedence over my and your desires. Don’t fool yourself with arguments like ‘that aircraft will still fly without me’. This assumes you are the only one prepared to act. I’m asking you to assume something different: it might take no more than two hundred people to make one flight unprofitable for an airline.
Now you know what is at stake and you know what you can do about it. What will you choose? The earth or your own desires?