Train vs. Plane, and the Climate Battle is on

In the year of the rise of the global #FridaysForFuture and Extinction Rebellion movements, another phrase indicative of the digital age that defines our modern-day knowledge and communications networks has emerged: #Flygskam. Originating from Danish, the term translates as ‘Flying Shame’ and has its roots in the Nordic countries, often heralded for innovation in environmental sustainability. With particular resonance in Sweden, it has been reported that rallying to the #Flygskam cause has contributed to notable modal shifts with passengers voting with their feet and filling Swedish Railway (SJ) trains at the expense of short-haul Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) flights, leading to a decline in entry and exit counts at Swedish airports.

In the era of the Climate and Ecological Emergency agenda as set out by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in their 2018 and 2019 reports respectively, can the #Flygskam agenda propel a step-change in transport carbon emissions with train winning over plane for short-haul travel?

Aviation currently accounts for around 2-3% of global total carbon emissions by sector. If air traffic grows against a projected decarbonization of other sectors, its contribution is set to rise to 20-30% by mid-century. But growth at what cost? Surely it is time to come face-to-face with the reality that growing fossil fuel reliant forms of mobility is incompatible with decisive action on carbon emissions? Time for the notion of efficiency per passenger kilometer to be prioritized in determining our transport modal choice, with efficiency, in this case, being measured on the metrics of energy consumption and corresponding carbon emissions.

Flight over Greenland: The view from the top perfectly depicts the dichotomy of aviation. Aviation has unlocked planetary exploration, but at what cost to Earth systems such as the climate and cryosphere, as seen here in continental Greenland.

Interestingly, many of Europe’s top-ten busiest air routes link cities within 500 – 1000 km of each other (for instance, the top scoring Tolouse to Paris route for instance with 2.31 million passengers in 2015). The busiest route from Amsterdam Schiphol airport is to London Heathrow (with 1.7 million passengers in 2018), a distance little over 500 km. A common trait of many of these high-passenger flow, short-haul air routes linking European cities is that they are often well provisioned with surface-based transport such as rail and coach services. Take the Amsterdam-London example where there are numerous daily services available via a short change of train in Brussels, and since April 2018, a direct Eurostar train in the London-Amsterdam direction with a travel time of 3 hours 52 minutes. The capacity of these three direct train services alone is equivalent to that of 12 of the airliners that typically fly the route.

The low-carbon impact credentials of rail transport are well publicized. However this concept requires close scrutiny and attention to detail. The Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) have published detailed data on the carbon emissions per passenger kilometer for various modes of transport. These data outline an order of magnitude difference in Eurostar emissions in comparison to short haul air. Rail offers a much denser passenger capacity potential, particularly with long or double-deck high speed trains as commonly found on France’s TGV network where trains plying the flagship Paris-Marseille route in just 3 hours offer over 1,000 seats per journey. Powered by renewable energy sources (or in the case of France, mostly nuclear) carbon emissions tumble. It’s important not to get too carried away though as speed and energy consumption are inextricably linked. We need to question the ‘need for speed’ and focus on the optimum balance of travel time, passenger load factors, and energy consumption for ultimate efficiency on inter-city travel.

Eurostar train at London St. Pancras station: Electrified rail (powered by renewable energy) offers a significant way forward for order of magnitude decarbonization of short-haul international travel.

So where does this lead in regard to the future of aviation? At the policy level, and in the context of net-carbon zero aspiration, it would seem prudent for governments to drive modal choice from air to rail for domestic and international short haul journeys. But for long haul inter-continental travel things become a lot more tricky. A rail journey from London to Beijing currently calls for a nine-day epic via the iconic Trans-Siberian Railway! Airbus has begun trials on the electric turbofan engine, but the application of this on a long-haul, high capacity jet such as the Airbus A380 is likely several decades away. In this domain, the hierarchy of decision making would include first scrutinizing the rationale and value of any journey (e.g., weighing the benefits of a short weekend break in a far flung country against a six week cultural/environmental exploration) and second (and on the basis of going ahead with taking a flight) prioritizing overall efficiency in the flight plan. Given that a significant portion of fuel is burnt in getting airborne, climbing to cruising altitude and getting back to terra-firma once again, applying efficiency logic points towards achieving the lowest possible number of take-offs and landings for maximum distance traveled and people moved. In practical terms, this equates to point to point journeys, on high capacity, ultra-long range, lightweight and fuel-efficient airliners such as the Airbus A350 or Boeing 787. This is the thinking behind many of the recent innovations in ultra-long haul flights, such as Singapore to New York or London to Perth (Australia).

The efficiency agenda is certainly not a new concept to the transport sector. Indeed, most of our innovations in the industry have come about as a result of some form of step-change in efficiency. Now though, in an era of climate emergency, it’s time to prioritize efficiency gains with the highest benefit for the natural systems upon which we depend.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on Sept. 3, 2019.


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