In this Our Changing Climate environmental video essay, I look at the greenest form of travel. Specifically, I look at the carbon footprints and emissions of trains, cars, planes, and buses when traveling on vacation or for business. Ultimately, the greenest way to travel greatly depends on the context of the trip. For example, the number of passengers or distance travel greatly affects the efficiency and the “greenness” of the trip.
Transcript Provided by YouTube:
This video is sponsored by Brilliant, if you stick around until the end, I’ll give you
a link to get 20% off a premium membership!
For many people, summer means travel.
And whether it’s going home to visit family or exploring a new place, travel means using
some form of fossil fuel reliant transportation.
But the problem I’ve encountered as I browse through the various train, plane, and bus
tickets have been finding out which is the greenest option.
When I look towards news headlines, climate activists like Greta Thunberg seem to be flocking
towards trains as a way to travel without an excessive carbon impact, but does a long
24-hour train ride have less of an emissions footprint than a 2-hour flight?
I feel like it’s important to at least try and figure out some environmental guidelines
for deciding which transport option to take, especially when considering that in 2014 the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that the transportation sector accounts
for 23% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
So, today I have a simple question: when traveling, which form of transportation requires the
Unfortunately, the answer to that question is not-so-simple.
The carbon footprint of planes, trains, and cars depend on a number of contextual factors
like infrastructure, the build of the vehicle (like electric or diesel), location, and distance.
So instead of trying to decide on the ultimate form of green transportation, we’re going
to look at how various factors, including distance and number of passengers in the vehicle,
change the emission footprint of different transport modes.
So, let’s start with a relatively short distance: a quick business trip between Toronto
and New York City.
National Geographic looked at the various transportation options, and according to their
number crunching, the plane wins the award for shortest distance traveled at, 352 miles
or 566 km, with cars and buses taking second place at 472 miles or 759 km, and trains chugging
along in last place with a 544 mile or 875 km transit.
So, planes have drastically less distance to travel, but that doesn’t necessarily
equate to fewer emissions.
Instead, if we look at the amount of passengers transported per trip combined with the gasoline
fuel equivalent of the mode of transportation, we get some surprising numbers.
According to National Geographic, the electric car is by far the most efficient fuel-wise,
but taking the bus also requires fairly low emissions.
It gets pretty interesting when we switch our attention to planes, traditional cars,
National Geographic pins the total CO2 per passenger for a plane trip at 75.3kg and claims
a train requires 84.3 kg.
But these numbers vary a little bit depending on how it’s calculated.
Part of the reason why a train can be so emissions intensive is that many trains still run on
In this case, the train that reaches almost all the way to Toronto from New York is the
Empire Service, which uses a dual-mode engine, that runs primarily on diesel, but switches
to electric when it reaches Penn-Station.
So, in short, the best way to travel between Toronto and New York is by bus if you don’t
own an electric vehicle, and the worst is via a flight or train.
But what about longer distances?
Do things change?
Especially when you consider that a lot of a plane’s emissions come from taxiing, take-off,
and landing, it seems like the longer the distance traveled the more efficient the flight
According to a peer-reviewed report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the emissions
associated with a 1,000 mile or 1609 km solo trip reveals some interesting conclusions.
Taking the bus is still by far the best option due its ability to transport a large amount
of passengers on a comparably small amount of gas.
Shockingly, however, flying in an economy seat has roughly the same carbon emissions
associated with it when compared to a typical Amtrak train.
As flights get longer, and if the flight is non-stop, the carbon load becomes smaller
per mile, but if you’re flying out of a congested airport with constant delays like
Chicago’s O’Hare, that footprint can balloon in size.
Essentially, the more time the plane spends in the air going from point A to B, and the
less time it spends taxiing or circling the airport waiting for runway clearance, the
more efficient it will be.
Ultimately, the “greenness” of travel is heavily dependent on context.
There is no hard and fast answer to the best form of travel for the environment.
But, if you are in desperate need of a rule of thumb here’s a tentative green transport
line up for a solo traveler: In general, a bus is better than a train is better than
a plane which trumps the average car and SUV.
But that order can vary depending on distance traveled and amount of passengers within that
Ideally, an application like google maps could calculate the various emissions associated
with your particular route and transportation options.
That way you’d be able to quickly understand the environmental consequences of your trip.
Right now, however, we have to rely on carbon footprint calculators like Terrapass or Tripzero,
which can be a bit clunky and confusing to use.
At the end of the day, we can only do so much to minimize our carbon footprint when traveling.
Calculators and catching a greyhound are great, but innovations for infrastructure and technology
are necessary in order to quickly decouple emissions from transportation.
Rapid electrification of cars, buses, and trains and the creation of a reliable clean
energy grid will make the uncertain process of green transportation much more certain.
One of the cornerstones of any clean energy grid is solar power.
And in order to understand how to best harness the output from the Sun, we need to understand
the physics behind this renewable resource.
Unfortunately, I don’t know much about physics, or for that matter, how a solar panel works.
But luckily, Brilliant has an amazing course on the physics of Solar panels.
Brilliant is a problem-solving website that lets you explore the world of math and science
by not just watching stuff, but doing stuff.
And that’s exactly what you’ll get when you dive into their Solar Energy course.
This course is awesome because you’re not just sitting back and reading, instead Brilliant
peppers in all sorts of quizzes to keep you engaged and learning.
Ultimately, if you’re like me and like to learn through experience and interaction,
Brilliant is the way to go.
So, if you want to start learning about the physics behind solar energy, go to brilliant
dot org slash OCC, or click the link in the description, and sign up for free.
As a bonus, the first 200 people that go to that link will get 20% off their annual premium
Thanks for making it all the way to the end of the video.
I just want to give a quick shout to all my patreon supporters, who’ve helped me make
this YouTube channel into a full-time pursuit.
Thank you thank you thank you, and I will see you in two weeks!
This post was previously published on YouTube.