Green Tau: issue 13

Reducing carbon emissions: Transport

21st August 2021

Transport in the UK (the getting from a to b and back rather than the transporting of goods) accounts for about 20% of the average person’s carbon footprint. If we are to achieve net zero by 2050, reducing – or actually zeroing – transport emissions is critical.  

There are two key means of transport which are already carbon neutral: walking and cycling. Whilst long distance walking or cycling may not be the most practical ways of getting around, they are ideal means of making all those short journeys. Approximately 60% of journeys of less than 2 miles are currently made by car. Walking and cycling are not just good for the climate, they are good for our health too!

As well as walking and cycling ourselves, we can also be active in pressing our local authority and the government to do more to support cycling with the provisions of cycle lanes, cycle parking, cycling courses, subsidised cycles for those with disabilities and for those on low incomes. Living Streets is a charity that promotes and enables walking. One of its aims is to increase the number of children walking or cycling to school. A generation ago, 70% of pupils walked or cycled to school; now it is less than 50%.

There are 32,697,408 cars on the road in the UK – and most are quite literally on the road – parked that is! Only 0.5% meet the ultra low emissions standard, ie hybrid vehicles that produce less than 75 grams of CO2 per kilometre from the tail pipe and electric vehicles that produce zero emissions. In other words most cars in the UK are heavy polluters both in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and in terms of air polluting chemicals and particulates. Air pollution caused the deaths of 15,000 people in 2019.

Reducing or eliminating the use of fossil fuel cars will substantially reduce the UK’s carbon footprint. Where journeys cannot be made on foot or by cycle, public transport offers a more carbon efficient alternative, whilst at the same time reducing congestion on roads. Most of Transport for London’s bus fleet are either electric or meet the ultra low emissions standard. Ideally similar policies should be  implemented in other parts of the country. This is dependent upon Government disposition and funding. Levelling up should include levelling up access to frequent, reliable and affordable public transport. 

Public transport includes trams (electric), coaches and trains. Disappointingly only 38% of the UK rail network is currently electrified compared with 55% in France and 100% in Switzerland.  Nevertheless for UK rail passengers emissions average out at 35g per passenger km. This compares with 100g (small fossil fuel car) and 200g (large fossil fuel car) per car per km. Rail travel will

need to continue to grow to achieve net zero targets, replacing not only car journeys but air flights too. Short haul flights give rise to a particularly high level of emissions – 254g per passenger km. Travelling from London to Berlin by plane has a carbon footprint of 160kg compared with 40kg by train. Even by train, the journey can be made in a day, and increasingly there is now the option of making the journey overnight.

Long haul flights are an even greater concern vis a vis net zero targets. A return flight from London to New York emits around 3.3 tonnes of CO2 per person – ie about one third of the average carbon footprint for someone living in Britain. It is hard to see how continuing to make such journeys can be compatible with a net zero target – yet many people will have good reasons for wanting to do so – eg to visit close family. Some companies offer carbon offsetting packages where you pay to enable someone else to reduce their carbon emissions, or where you pay to plant trees etc that will at some future date absorb sufficient CO2 to equal what you have already generated. What it does not do is to eliminate or reduce carbon emissions in the  present moment.

One alternative to long haul flights might be to travel by ship where destinations involve crossing oceans (it is possible to travel London to Singapore by train!) You can travel as a passenger on board a cargo ship: Liverpool to Newark takes  11 nights and costs from £1300.  Whilst the carbon footprint of cargo ships is not great – 3 to 15 grams of CO2 per tonne cargo per km – the add on cost per passenger is minimal. 

Reducing our carbon footprint to achieve net zero is demanding and will involve both substantial changes to the way we travel and imaginative ones too!

Author: Judith Russenberger

Environmentalist and theologian, with husband and three grown up children plus one cat, living in London SW14. I enjoy running and drinking coffee - ideally with a friend or a book.

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