Skip The Plane? The Carbon Footprint Of 5 Other Travel Methods

Skip The Plane? The Carbon Footprint Of 5 Other Travel Methods

By Emma Murphy

According to WWF’s carbon footprint calculator, travel makes up a whopping 35% of the average person’s environmental footprint; although we should point out that this includes day-to-day commuting as well, otherwise we’d all be seasoned globetrotters.

For eco-conscious travelers, particularly those who favor international travel, this creates a real dilemma. There’s always the option to purchase carbon offsets for all that jet-setting, but travelers with a little more time may want to consider skipping the plane. 

For globetrotters thinking about slow travel, we've created a list of five travel methods that are (often) greener than air travel, evaluating the pros and cons of each; not just in terms of sustainability but also practicality, time and cost.

Train

Trains can be incredibly eco-friendly, especially if they’re using renewable energy. They have the ability to transport hundreds of people over several hundred miles (sometimes across country borders). Indeed, it’s one of the best modes of green transport for international travel on this list.

According to the US Transportation Energy Data Book, rail travel is only responsible for roughly 1.61 megajoules (energy units) per passenger kilometer compared with 1.85 for aircraft. The carbon emissions from trains are also less damaging than those from planes, as they are not released into the upper atmosphere.

The journey might take a bit longer but modern trains have all the amenities you need: Wi-Fi, bathrooms, dining cars, table seating for working or group conversations, and quiet rows for peaceful solitude. You may be able to book a sleeper train and catch some ZZZs on the way too.

You can see more of the country from your window seat than from the top of the clouds.

Watching the world go by on a long train ride. Photo by Zygmunt Spray.

Watching the world go by on a long train ride. Photo by Zygmunt Spray.

Bus or Coach

Buses and coaches are often incredibly eco-friendly choices. They’re able to transport dozens of passengers and some of them even utilize renewable energy sources. According to the Getting There Greener Guide from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a couple travelling by coach, rather than flying, can cut their emissions anywhere from 55-75%.

Most of them come with free Wi-Fi, air con and sometimes they’ll even show a DVD on the mini-screens they have throughout the vehicle. There’s nearly always a bathroom on board. (Pro tip: take some eco-friendly hand sanitizer because a bathroom doesn’t guarantee soap.)

Bus or coach travel can match the eco-friendliness of train travel without the need to keep your belongings on you at all times, sofor those of us who can’t pack a carry-on to save our lifejust drop your suitcase as you board.

Biking

What’s better than feeling the wind in your face as you speed down a dirt track towards your destination? Cycling’s the ultimate in eco-travel according to the Transportation Alternatives program in NYC, just make sure to stay safe: always wear a helmet, stick to designated routes, use lights if it’s dark, and be aware of our animal or insect friends that could be crossing your path.

This might be slightly impractical if you’re travelling more than a few miles (unless you have the stamina of Lance Armstrong Chris Froome). On the other hand, if you don’t have a specific destination, you could see where your pedals take you.

Driving

Time to get the controversial one out of the way. Driving is not generally thought of as an eco-friendly form of transportation but sometimes it can surprise you; i.e. travelling somewhere without an airport, which requires driving for a length of time when you arrive.

For example, to get from Las Vegas, Nevada to Anaheim, California it takes roughly 4.5 hours by car or a one-hour flight from McCarran to LAX. However, once you’ve factored in the time to get to and from the airports (just over an hour from LAX to Disneyland) and the time going through security, it’s quicker, most cost-effective, and eco-friendly to drive.

If you’re travelling in a full car, then you can easily reduce the carbon impact per person. The Getting There Greener Guide from the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that a family of four travelling by car will produce 89 pounds of carbon per 100 miles, which is only 13% higher than a person travelling alone. Climate scientist Dr Peter Kalmus, from the Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory, estimates thatbased on that party of fourflying is roughly 10 to 20 times more harmful to the environment than driving.

So cars can be eco-friendly, as well as super-convenient; for extra green points, rent a hybrid.

Boat

Not all that long ago travelling by boat was literally the only option for people who wanted to travel across continents (and sometimes even within their own country). Granted, it does take longer than a flight, you can always make the ride a part of the trip, and many boats have restaurants and entertainment onboard.

It’s important to remember, however, that not all water transport is created equal; cruise liners, for example, have a higher environmental impact than planes, due to fuel consumption, damage to the oceans and the high volume of electricity needed to provide all the services people expect of a luxury cruise.

Modern boats, however, are produced to be as green as possible. They're made out of light metals like aluminumthe less the boat weighs, the less fuel it needs. They're also painted with a non-polluting paint which stops corrosionfewer repairs means less raw material usageand are specifically designed to be as hydrodynamic as possible

Many boats are now using biodiesel, which dramatically cuts the pollution levels; Sailors for the Sea’s Green Boating Guide estimates this to be roughly 5 pounds of CO2 emitted per gallon for biodiesel compared with around 20 pounds for marine diesel and Jet A.

Philippe Holthof estimates that the average CO2 output is 0.12 kg per passenger kilometer by ferries as opposed to the 0.35 kg per passenger kilometer for domestic jet-engine flights according to Lipasto, a transport emissions calculator from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.

Though boats are often seen as a short journey solution for islands just off the coast of the mainland, there’s been a rise in international ferry travel over the past few years. They tend to produce less greenhouse gas per mile as it uses the heat generated by its engines to heat passenger areas or water. Most ferries also have a power-save mode to reduce the amount of energy used for lighter loads. You could even hitch a ride on a cargo ship for a truly unique trip.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether the ecological impacts outweigh the time and efficiency of travelling via plane; after all, not everyone can take enough vacation days to facilitate a slow travel trip. Sound off in the comments section below.

To check the best method for a specific journey, head to the WWF’s Travel Helper.

Published: 10/5/2016

Emma is a freelance writer with a First Class BA in Journalism and over a decade’s experience in content production for newspapers, magazines, online publications and local radio. She specializes in social justice, politics, pop culture and sustainability.
She takes her coffee seriously and wears odd socks because life’s too short. When she is not writing, she can often be found daydreaming about the cat island in Japan.