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The carbon footprint of transport

As concerns about climate change increase, individuals are becoming more aware of their impact on the environment.

Transportation emissions often make up the largest portion of our individual carbon footprints. For this reason, evaluating transportation options is a natural starting point, whether for a daily commute or a leisure trip abroad.

So what’s the greenest way to get from place to place?

The infographic above shows the carbon footprint of transport per passenger-mile for different vehicles based on UK government data. methodology document for reporting greenhouse gases.

Editor’s note: As the original study labels are very UK specific, we have changed the copy of some labels to better suit an international audience.

Planes, trains and cars: comparing carbon footprints

The carbon footprint of transport is measured in grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents issued per person to travel one kilometre. This includes both carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Here is how the carbon cost of travel compares for different means of transportation:

Means of transport CO2 equivalent emissions per passenger-km
Short flight ✈️ 255g
Medium car (petrol) πŸš— 192g
Medium Car (Diesel) πŸš— 171g
Average Flight ✈️ 156g
Long flight ✈️ 150g
Bus 🚌 105g
Average motorcycle 🏍 103g
Gas car (two passengers) 🚘 96g
Average electric vehicle πŸš™ 53g
National Railway πŸš‚ 41g
Ferries β›΄ 19g
Eurostar (international train) 🚞 6g

Taking a short flight or driving alone are the most carbon-emitting modes of transport. However, adding an extra passenger to your car ends up cutting emissions in half, making driving more efficient.

Specifically, it is worth breaking down flight categories further, as their emissions are highly dependent on the length of their journey:

  • Short flights: For example, domestic flights in a European country or flights in a US state have the highest individual carbon footprint.
  • Average flights: For example, international travel within Europe or between US states has a significantly lower carbon footprint per person.
  • Long flights: Flights over 3,700 km (2,300 mi), roughly the distance between Los Angeles and New York, have the lowest carbon footprint per person.

Why are long flights much more environmentally friendly than short flights? This is because takeoff consumes much more energy than the “cruise” phase of a flight. For short flights, the effective cruise phase is relatively short.

Reduce your travel footprint

As the world strives to mitigate the impact of climate change, people may want to identify and potentially reduce their daily carbon footprint. And choosing your mode of transportation is one way to do that.

Of course, walking, biking or running are the lowest carbon ways to get from place to place. But carpooling can also reduce emissions, as can switching to electric vehicles or public transport.

For medium to long distances, the train is the most environmentally friendly option, and for short-distance domestic travel, it is better to drive than to fly. But as some countries are larger than others, always consider the total distance you need to travel and the range of options you have.