What’s the most environmentally friendly way to travel?

Planes, trains and automobiles – Lauren Keith investigates which transport modes are most sustainable

Wednesday 28 July 2021 11:33
How cities are tackling climate change

The majority of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions – a startling 27 per cent – come from transport, a number that’s hardly budged in 30 years, even as other sectors have decreased. Despite this stagnation, more British travellers are now starting to recognise the environmental perils of flying – with some even subscribing to the Swedish-led flygskam, or “flight shame”, movement and opting to prioritise flight-free travel.

“We need to fly less until sustainable aviation fuels are available, which I'm confident will come in the not-too-distant future,” says Justin Francis, co-founder and CEO of Responsible Travel, a Brighton-based “activist” travel agency. “We've been arguing for some time that when we do choose to fly, we need to stay for longer so that our money truly benefits local communities and conservation initiatives. By taking fewer but longer trips, we will also reduce transport emissions.”

So, if planes are out of the picture, what is the most environmentally friendly way to travel?

The answer, as with so many environmental conundrums, is: it depends. Walking, cycling and other forms of human-powered transport are the obvious choices with the smallest carbon footprint, but two legs or two wheels can only take you so far.

“Taking a train, bus or coach is definitely more environmentally friendly than flying, and accelerating the adoption of zero-emission buses and trains will further shift the balance in favour of these two modes of transport,” says Alice Ridley, head of media and communications at Campaign for Better Transport, which has been advocating for more sustainable public transport in the UK since the 1970s. “Rail is more environmentally friendly than bus, but which one you choose will probably depend on the length of the trip you need to take. Both have a lower carbon footprint than flying or driving.”

Train or bus: which is best?

Drilling down into the numbers, it gets complicated quickly. There are numerous factors involved when determining which offers the lowest emissions, including how full the bus and train services are, whether the coaches and train engines run on diesel or electricity, and how that electricity is generated. Some argue that the calculation should even stretch all the way back into how the roads and rails were constructed.

Instead of worrying about exact carbon footprint figures that are nearly impossible for travellers to determine accurately, consider what you’re going to enjoy the most and choose that, suggests Cat Jones, founder of Byway, the world’s first platform for flight-free holidays.

We don’t need to stop travelling; we just need to be smarter about how we travel

Alice Ridley, Campaign for Better Transport

“As a society, we’ll make enormous climate progress when slow travel holidays become a mainstream alternative to flight-based holidays, for lots of people, lots of the time,” Ms Jones says. “As an eco-conscious traveller, you should ultimately choose the flight-free transport that best suits you so you’ll repeat and recommend to your friends. That’s how we shift the focus from one-off individual actions to a collective, sustained shift in culture.”

At the end of the day, the simplest answer to travelling more sustainably is to go flight-free.

“The single most environmentally damaging thing an individual can do in their daily life is to get onto a plane,” Ms Jones says. “Avoiding two UK-to-Mediterranean flights is better, from an environmental perspective, than spending a year as a vegan.”

What are the best resources?

Mr Francis of Responsible Travel recommends looking through the travel carbon footprint stats on Our World In Data, which include helpful details on making green travel decisions based on the distance you’re going. The website EcoPassenger dives in even further, asking for your specific journey details, breaking down the figures by the type of air pollution per mode of transport, and providing settings that allow travellers to adjust for the type of car engine and number of passengers. Byway’s website allows travellers to browse a selection of no-flight itineraries around Europe or to use its holiday building tool to create a bespoke trip.

Should I stop travelling altogether?

After the coronavirus pandemic revealed how halting travel drastically reduced pollution in some places – the clearest illustration being in arguably overtouristed Venice, where the canal water became clear for the first time in years – some have argued that not travelling full stop is the most sustainable solution. But plenty of green travel advocates disagree.

“We don’t need to stop travelling; we just need to be smarter about how we travel,” Ms Ridley says. “One double-decker bus can remove up to 75 cars from the road, and domestic flights in a country the size of the UK are quite frankly unnecessary.”

Ms Jones echoes the sentiment: “Travel is delightful, and when done slowly, it can be restorative to communities and to the environment,” she says. “It brings economic opportunities, it broadens horizons, and it lifts the spirits. Making slow, flight-free travel mainstream, and helping people choose grounded travel over flying because they want to, not because they ought to, is one of the most impactful things we can do to deal with the climate crisis.”

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