Which Transport Mode Is the Greenest? What Everyone Needs to Know

alicia-walker.jpg  Outreach Executive, Mediaworks UK

  WWS contributor


If we have learned anything, it is that a proactive change on reducing global emissions through travel is effective. And we should opt for the greenest mode of transport.

Which Transport Mode Is the Greenest? What Everyone Needs to Know

Travel can include so many choices, but where possible use greener options. Walk or cycle, and for longer travel, prioritize train rides over planes. Photo: Tom Page/Wikimedia.

Since industrialization, our planet has warmed by roughly 1.2°C. Due to lockdown and COVID-19 policies over the last year, there has been a significant drop in travel and subsequently fuel consumption and emissions.

While lockdown didn’t have a dramatic effect on lowering the temperature of our planet, a temporary suspension on usual human activity like international travel, for example, did reduce CO2 emissions. We experienced a record fall in fossil fuel emissions in 2020 by 7%.

Lockdown was the first real-life example we’ve had on global reduced emissions. Without COVID-19 and the lockdown rules that followed, it would’ve been impossible to see how fewer emissions from travel would actually benefit our atmosphere.

Now that we can see evidence, it’s important that we implement them into our lives post-lockdown.

Here, we take a look at travel and which is the greenest.


Everyone needs transport


Emissions from transport account for roughly one-fifth of global carbon dioxide CO2. In wealthy countries with a bigger population, transport can be the biggest contributor to a person’s carbon footprint.

Sadly, for some of us, travel is essential. For example, work might require us to take more short-haul flights than we would otherwise choose to, we might need to drive somewhere because our public transport options are limited for where we need to go, or personal transport might be more efficient for some regular journeys.


Flying is the worst for the planet


Did you know that global aviation accounts for 2.5% of CO2 emissions? Flying is by far the least environmentally friendly method of travel. One return flight from London to Sydney releases roughly five tons of CO2, which equates to half of a person’s average annual carbon footprint.

According to Our World in Data, domestic flights are the worst offenders of carbon release per kilometer travelled with an average of 255g. This is because it takes more fuel for the plane to set off and land when travelling a shorter distance.

In April, the French government announced their move to ban some domestic air routes, forbidding air travel when there are alternative trains that take under two and a half hours. The bill is certainly a progressive one that will hopefully inspire other countries to follow suit.

However, in places like the UK, there are currently plans for airport expansions to increase flights, despite a government commitment in the UK to cut emissions by 78% by 2035. In 2020, pre-COVID, there were 40.3 million flights performed by the global airline industry. That’s a lot of CO2 pumped into our atmosphere.

Flights need to be regulated like is the case in places such as France in order for us to have any lasting impact on improving the health of our planet rather than expanding airports to encourage more daily flights in locations across the country.


More efficient modes of transport


The most environmentally friendly and sustainable ways of travelling are walking, cycling, and train. According to research by Our World in Data:

  • Cycling instead of driving a car for short trips would cut your travel emissions by ~75%.
  • Going by train instead of driving a car for medium-length journeys would cut your travel emissions by ~80%.
  • Going by train instead of a domestic flight would reduce your travel emissions by ~84%.

While we can’t always walk or cycle everywhere, when faced with the option of flying a plane or taking a train, the train will always be the greener option. Taking a national rail train emits around 41g of CO2 per kilometer in comparison to 255g by plane.

Other vehicles emit the following grams per kilometer travelled:

  • Medium-sized petrol car = 192g.
  • Medium-sized diesel car =171g.
  • Bus = 105g.
  • Motorcycle = 103g.
  • Medium electric vehicle = 53g.
  • Cycling a bike = 16–50g.

In terms of CO2 emissions when travelling by train per passenger per kilometer, 2019–20 was 4.1% lower than in 2018–19. Emissions have fallen due to increasing uses of renewable energy sources and will only continue to fall in the UK and more places around the world.

With the railway industry being revolutionized, it is becoming the greener option. Not only is fuel more sustainable, but there is rail connectivity so you can connect your devices to the Wi-Fi without being cut off from the world as you would in a plane.


In Conclusion


While travel can include so many choices, it's important we are all aware of the impact we have on the planet and how we can mitigate it as much as possible. Where possible, walk or cycle. And for longer options, try to prioritize train rides over planes.

Alicia Walker is Outreach Executive at Mediaworks UK covering a range of sectors. She is also a Designer/Illustrator.