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What is the greenest form of transportation – train, plane, or car?

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We travel a lot and more by plane

One of the goals of the European Green Deal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation by 90 percent by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. However, this could be helped significantly not only by the proliferation of electric cars, but also by the mode of transportation that We choose it for our other trips.

According to a report by the European Environment Agency

In 2018, a total of 569 billion km were traveled by air in the European Union 27 and 407 billion km by rail.

The latter includes 126 billion kilometers traveled by humans using High Speed ​​Rail (HSR). The chart below shows that since 1995, the total value of passenger kilometers per flight in the European Union’s 27 countries has increased from just over 200 billion kilometers to 569 billion kilometers per year. This is mainly due to the sharp expansion of the aviation network in recent years and the significant increase in the number of discount companies following the liberalization of the sector. According to the European Commission The number of flights operated by discount airlines in the European Economic Area increased by 88 percent between 2006 and 2017. There was also an expansion of rail transport in Europe, which increased by 30 percent between 1995 and 2018. Meanwhile, the mileage of high-speed rail (HSR) increased particularly rapidly, nearly tripling over the same period.

Source: EEA – Transport and Environment Report 2020

Regarding this, it is interesting to note that in 2018, international passengers accounted for only 8 percent of the total number of rail users. Based on a previous Eurobarometer survey 78% of European Union citizens surveyed did not use the rail trains for international trips. In other words, most people use rail transportation mainly for domestic travel.

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In aviation, a slightly different picture appears, with about half of the passengers traveling outside the European Union, while 35% use this mode of transportation between the member states of the European Union. Consequently, only about 15 percent of travelers choose domestic travel for domestic travel. The largest passenger traffic was handled by Spain and Germany last year, followed by France and Italy.

Source: EEA – Transport and Environment Report 2020

Of course, the coronavirus epidemic has completely disrupted the terrain, with estimates by the International Air Transport Association last year, for example, that the number of kilometers traveled in flying will not reach pre-epidemic levels by 2024. In the context of the economic recovery, the situation of companies could improve. Reduced flight first, then others’ modes.

Environmentally polluted aviation

Both aviation and railways have a certain impact on the environment, including operating equipment, providing needed fuel, creating related infrastructure, noise pollution, etc. Thus the extent of the overall environmental impact consists of a number of components, not just the direct effects of the process.

In 2018, 24.6 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the 27th European Union were directly attributable to the transport sector.

Within this, aviation was responsible for 13.2 percent of pollution, and rail transport was responsible for 0.4 percent, while road transport was 71.8 percent in total, while the rest could be attributed to maritime transport.

If we quantify these costs, then

The total environmental cost in EU 28 is 32.7 billion euros for aviation and about 7.8 billion euros for railways. However, this is nothing compared to the estimated environmental costs of 161.2 billion euros for passenger cars.

These include costs for noise, air pollution, climate change and fuel demand (WTT). If other environmental impacts were taken into account, the costs would rise further. However, it is also important to distinguish within each category of transportation, as it does not matter whether it is a short or long haul, electric or diesel-powered train. The figure below shows that if we take into account the absolute costs of each mode of transportation, the environmental impact costs of long-haul journeys are the highest, while train transport appears to be much cheaper in any way on the aggregate level.

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Source: EEA – Transport and Environment Report 2020

However, this can give a somewhat misleading picture of the reality, as the total cost also depends on the extent to which some form of transportation is used. In the past, we’ve seen that airlines have higher kilometers of travel than rail, and that international flights – and longer distances – account for a large percentage of aircraft traffic. If the previous total cost per passenger kilometer is projected, then a completely different picture can already be seen. It can already be seen from this approach that short-haul air transport has a higher cost in terms of passenger kilometers, and that all classes of rail transport perform better. The most cost-effective solution in terms of environmental impact is the use of high-speed, conventional electric trains.

Source: EEA – Transport and Environment Report 2020

So should we use the train instead?

According to a study by the European Environment Agency (EEA), the answer to this question is clearly yes, if our goal is to reduce the cost of environmental pollution, but there are also things to consider here that are fundamentally related to network development.

Agency researchers have misrepresented one more so far and conducted a study of the environmental impact costs of each mode of transportation, allowing for a more detailed breakdown. For example, the figure below shows the cost per passenger for 1,000 kilometers, including various types of aircraft, electric and conventional internal combustion vehicles, high-speed and intercity flights. From this, it appears that air transportation still incurs the highest costs when compared to forms of rail transport or passenger cars of 4 people.

However, if only the driver is in the car and not carrying passengers, then conventional petrol and diesel cars are already the most polluting.

In the case of electric cars, the environmental impact cost is relatively higher for personal transportation, however, most of this is caused by noise pollution, according to the study. Finally, it should be noted that rail transport is also considered the most environmentally friendly mode of transportation in this approach.

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Source: EEA – Transport and Environment Report 2020

Based on the foregoing, it can be concluded that rail transport is less harmful to the environment in almost all respects, whether compared to aviation, traditional internal combustion or electric passenger cars. In comparison, the environmental impact of aviation is six times the environmental impact of high-speed electric railways. However, this is only true if they are operating in appropriate use. However, one important finding of a study by the European Environment Agency (EEA) is that in addition to optimizing use, passenger car emissions costs are much lower, but this also has a significant impact on the environment when used alone. However, in almost all respects, the flight performance is worse than other modes of transportation and is especially expensive on short-haul routes. This is mainly due to the fact that takeoff and landing are fundamentally related to emissions from aircraft.

Therefore, one of the most important results of the study is the existence of statistically significant differences in the cost of the environmental impact according to the degree of use.

In addition, experts point out that although rail transport is less harmful to the environment and it may be beneficial to develop the network, it is also important here. It is very important that the infrastructure is not expanded in an environmentally friendly way. This includes the production of steel, cement and fuels used in construction. In this respect, building some networks may require significantly more resources if, for example, bridges or tunnels must be excavated in order to build a railway line. Finally, experts also indicate that it would be more appropriate to divert rail travelers to the more polluting short-haul aviation, first and foremost, by intelligently expanding and developing networks.

(European Economic Area)

Cover photo: Jonas Güttler / picture alliance via Getty Images