Transport Carbon Emissions: Which is best? Plane, Train, Car, EV?

Travel is at the heart of the outdoor community. Travelling to explore new places and experience new things is very enjoyable and has many positive benefits. However, it's undeniable that the way we choose to travel can significantly contribute to climate change which is damaging the outdoor environments that we love. I recently read a very well written article by Rosie Watson: Building a sustainable outdoor community after COVID-19. Quote: 


"COVID-19 has driven the message home to appreciate the local, but more importantly, climate science is telling us clearly that flying for adventures or sport cannot be justified. Therefore, flying for adventures should not be communicated as a desirable behaviour within our culture, no matter how intrepid or boundary-pushing the trip was."

The impact of travel varies significantly depending on the chosen mode of travel, I often get asked by friends and family what is the difference in carbon emissions for different forms of transport. This is a topic that I'm very interested in, I always try to include a comparison chart embedded in each of my travel related blog post. However, these charts are difficult to reference therefore this blog post will be dedicated to the cause! 

I created this chart myself since most of the online carbon calculators are not very accurate. Here is a link to my Google Spreadsheet so you can follow my calculations and data sources for yourself and modify to fit your specific journey.

I choose the journey between Manchester to Avignon as an example since it's a common journey for UK climbers to reach the French climbing destinations. It's also a journey which can easily be made by train or plane since Manchester has an airport and mainline train station. This makes calculations easier. Valence is one stop earlier on the train and Marseille is one stop later. 



Here are the assumptions and details for each transport type:



Flight

  • Assuming 254 gCo2/km, including aviation multiplier
  • Excluding any driving to the airport or hire care at destination.
  • 2hr flight + 2hrs check in/out = 4hs
  • Cost estimate (per person): £45 one way including check-in bag 

Van 

  • Assuming 158 gCo2/km, official European average efficiency for diesel vans manufactured in 2018. Older vans will be significantly worse. 
  • Assuming 2 people occupancy and a Eurotunnel crossing, ferry crossing will be higher carbon.   
  • 16hrs driving + 2hrs break (15 min every 2hrs) = 18hrs 
  • Cost (per person): £80 fuel + £40 tolls = £120

Car 

  • Assuming 120 gCo2/km, official European average efficiency for petrol / diesel passenger cars manufactured in 2018. Older cars will be significantly worse. 
  • Assuming 2 people occupancy and a Eurotunnel crossing, ferry crossing will be higher carbon. 
  • 16hrs driving + 2hrs break (15 min every 2hrs) = 18hrs 
  • Cost estimate (per person): £50 fuel + £40 tolls = £80

EV

  • Assuming efficiency of 3.5mi/kWh, this is what we average in summer in our e-NV200 campervan cruising at 60 mph. More efficient EVs e.g Tesla Mode 3, Kia e-Niro, Hyundai Kona should be able to average more like 5 mi/kWh in summer. 
  • EV carbon emissions in UK and France were calculated separately using the electricity grid carbon intensity for each country. France has a very low carbon intensity (gCo2/kWh) since much of its energy comes from nuclear, the UK is not bad since we get almost half of our energy from wind. Driving an EV in Poland would result in higher EV emissions since Poland still generates a significant amount of its electricity from coal, but is still better than petrol/diesel vehicle.
  • Assuming 2 people occupancy and a Eurotunnel crossing, ferry crossing will be higher carbon.
  • 16hrs driving + 2hrs charging = 18hrs  (Tesla Model 3) 
  • Cost estimate (per person): £0 - £25 charging + £40 tolls = £40 - £64 
Tesla Model 3 charging stops*

*Obviously not everyone (myself included) can afford a £40k Tesla! However, I included the screenshot from AbetterRoutePlanner to illustrate the viability of EVs on longer trips with current EV technology. No doubt this technology will become more affordable. This journey is easily possible with EV with less range, we've successfully travelled all over UK & Europe in our 2ndh hand 2014 24kwh Nissan LEAF and e-NV200 self-converted camper van.  

Train

The lowest carbon and most enjoyable / relaxing ways to travel long distance. The trains in Europe are in my experience very reliable and are a joy to use. Baggage capacity only limited by what you can carry, a hold-all with wheels is very useful since there is often a bit of walking to do between platforms. 

Top-tip: if you can't get a direct TGV from London to Avignon (they only run during the summer and not during a pandemic!) choose to change in Lille as opposed to Paris. Changing trains is Lille is as simple as walking across to a different platform, while changing in Paris requires travelling a few stops on the metro between stations. 
  • Assuming electric high speed train using 30Wh per km per person. A train journey on a diesel train will be significantly higher, fortunately most of the European train network and main lines in the UK are electrified. 
  • Train carbon emissions in UK and France were calculated separately using the electricity grid carbon intensity for each country. 
  • Time: 2hr 10min from Manchester to London then 5hr 50min from London to Avignon. Worth allowing 1hr 30min for the change and check-in in London. Total: 9hrs 30min 
  • Cost estimate (per person): Manchester to London: £30, London to Avignon:£50. Total = £70




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