Comparing Travel Carbon Footprints

How do you find out what your travel carbon footprint is? There are a lot of widely held views  built on hearsay and misinformation. The deeper I look, the more  complicated the story seems to get. One of my aims is to educate myself on travel environmental issues. Then to share my findings on this site and hopefully start a discussion for all involved to gain further enlightenment. This should end up as a regular feature on transport sustainability and eco-myths. The idea is to research and discuss information that will enable anyone with an interest, to discover how much of a carbon footprint a particular travel option would generate.
Statistics published by transport operators and environmental pressure groups tell totally different stories. But as the “X Files” slogan reminds us; “The Truth Is Out There”. These posts will attempt reveal that truth, or at the very least get a lot closer to the real story.

The airline industry comes in for a lot of flak from environmentalists, but in their favour their carbon footprints are widely available, even if they do just report emissions of carbon dioxide and fail to include oxides of nitrogen that also contribute to climate change. In addition the altitude at which the emissions occur, leads to a bigger impact on the climate than discharges at ground level. Flights even create artificial clouds that are visible to the naked eye. There are some transport operators that publish no figures whatsoever and then paint themselves as green due to the lack of evidence to the contrary. They may be innocent until proved guilty, but they certainly aren’t providing evidence of their real carbon footprint either.

When it comes to finding low carbon travel options, we don’t even have a complete map, let alone SatNav.

Fortunately information is available. “How Bad are Bananas: The Carbon Footprint of Everything” by Mike Berners-Lee, makes recommended reading for anyone wanting to know more about the subject. Unfortunately it is not comprehensive, so don’t expect to find ferries and cruise ships in the current edition.

High speed train
The lack of transparency of transport’s place in the carbon footprint league table is exploited heavily by travel PR / Advertising Departments. To take an example High Speed Rail is sold with a big “Environmentally Friendly” label attached. Few ask why, and take it for granted. They suspect that airlines have large carbon footprints, so automatically assume that rail must be a lot better. But using this criteria how long will it be for the airlines to apply the same label? When space tourist rocket flights to space start, I can imagine the slogan:

“Don’t take the rocket, go by jet it’s better for the environment”

perfectly true as a statement; but you get my point?

Perhaps it comes across as a little negative? Certainly anyone choosing a fast train instead of a flight is reducing their carbon footprint. I opt for rail before flying but am aware that the issue is way more complicated and there is always more that I can do in my travel and lifestyle choices. I know very well that taking a high speed train doesn’t make me greener than green.  Complacency can prevent us all from making our travel more sustainable.  But if High Speed Rail isn’t as green as some of the alternatives, what are they and do they make viable alternatives? I for one would like to see an energy label for transport options like those that come with electrical appliances or cars. All things to discuss in future articles.

About John Williams

John Williams looks at travel from a responsible consumer's perspective. He is doesn't accept hosted trips, so don't expect gushing reports of experiences that neither he, you, nor our planet can afford. He, is the first to acknowledge that when it comes to sustainable travel, he has a lot to learn. TravelCrunch is a platform for sharing his learning, but if you have any tips or disagreements feel free to air them in the comments.

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