It’s no secret that air travel is terrible for the environment, but how many people take this into consideration when booking their flights? Prior to Covid-19, flying has been on the rise. Although we’re seeing a slowdown, it is only temporary and people will eventually return to the skies.
The flight shaming movement has gained some traction over the past few years, causing travelers to make conscious decisions, though only on a small scale. If more people start to take the environmental impact of flying into consideration and look into train travel or other sustainable modes of transportation, maybe we can see a decrease in demand.
The Environmental Impact:
In 2019, airplanes contributed 915 million tons of CO2 emissions, that’s 2% of emissions worldwide and 12% of emissions from travel. Calculations from Blue Sky Model show that planes produce an average of 53 lbs of CO2 per air mile. In a previous post relating to carbon offsets and the aviation industry, I mentioned that air travel is expected to triple by the year 2050.
Although some airlines are investing in carbon offsets, and the ICAO and EPA have emission standards in place, it may not be enough. A lot of the focus is on CO2 emissions, but there’s much more to it. Aside from CO2, aircrafts also emit Nitrous Oxide, methane, and water vapor at high altitudes.
According to Jeff Overton at the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, water vapor itself has a short life span within the atmosphere and causes minimal warming directly. However, it indirectly contributes to the productions of contrails and contrail-induced cirrus clouds. Like other greenhouse gases, these contrails and clouds absorb infrared radiation and warm the atmosphere, but the effect is 3 times stronger than CO2.
The Future of Rail Travel
The goal is to make the most sustainable choice in regards to transportation. Of course, there are going to be times when flying is necessary, like family emergencies, work obligations, or trips overseas. But train travel is the most sustainable alternative and is where we should start shifting our focus.
A report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows that trains produce the lowest amount of greenhouse gases when compared to other modes of transportation, yet they only carry 8% of the world’s passengers.
The best rail systems in the world are found in Europe, Russia, and Asia, and are commonly used among travelers. These systems have been well designed and many run on electricity, whereas trains in North and South America still run on diesel. Although the train system in the U.S. doesn’t have the same efficiency or infrastructure, Amtrak has plenty of routes across the country and is making progress.
According to their website, the company is in the process of designing 28 high speed trains to add to their Acela Express service. Currently the Acela Express has two routes, one between Washington D.C. and New York City, and one between New York City and Boston. Their website also states that the decision to expand this fleet is based off the popular demand of these routes. If this new service continues to grow and succeed, it could potentially change the way we travel, expand railways, and make train travel more accessible.
The reality is that we need to drastically slow down air travel because our planet can’t keep up. The airline industry is made up of corporations focused on profit, and will continue to grow if the market demands it. In order to prevent this from happening we have to do our part, spread awareness, and make the best choices possible. Let’s give trains a chance and build a sustainable future.