For as long as I can remember, word on the street has been that trains are much greener than planes. Nonetheless, some regulations changed, some entrepreneurs had big dreams, and low-cost regional flights took off (no pun intended) in Europe. You can see in the graph below that passenger-km more than doubled from 1995 to 2018.
You can also see in the next two charts that CO2e emissions approximately doubled for EU-27 international air travel from 1990 to 2018 while final energy consumption in the rail sector steadily declined in the EU-27 during that period of time.
Recently, the European Environment Information and Observation Network (Eionet), a network of theand its 38 member and cooperating countries, decided to look more closely at emissions by transportation sector, on an absolute and relative basis, and examine the environmental effect of trains versus planes for regional European trips.
The European Union has some of the best targets in the world for cutting greenhouse gas emissions and doing its part to slow and eventually stop global heating. Transportation is one of its biggest challenges, though, and the European Green Deal “includes the objective of reducing greenhouse gas emission from transport by 90% by 2050 compared with 1990.” According to the EEA, this new report concludes that, yes, shifting more people from planes to trains could help with this objective.
As it turns out, there is nothing surprising about which mode of transport is greenest — a good ole electric train. “Aviation’s emission impacts are much higher on a passenger-kilometre basis.” There was one potential surprise, though. Flying is reportedly not the worst (aka dirtiest) option. “Travel by a petrol or diesel-powered car, especially if traveling alone, can be more harmful.” (Yikes!)
Interestingly, the researchers also find that an electric car is even slightly better than high-speed rail if 4 people are in the car. If it’s only one person driving, taking a train is much better, but driving an electric car still solidly beats air travel.
If the electric car is charging 100% on renewable energy (as some networks offer), then the equation surely looks a bit better for electric cars.
Of course, telecommuting or vacationing at home beat them all!
For much more detail, view the full report here.