December 8, 2023

The years to come will be a time of big choices regarding transport – the country’s most polluting industry. The UK government’s response to the issue to date has been inconsistent in its decision to intervene in order to stop the demise of Flybe (Europe’s largest regional air carrier) and then give the green light to the high-speed rail plan, the HS2.

Decarbonizing transportation would reduce 26 percent of UK CO2 emissions, which results from the way people travel. However, Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently said that taking this step could pose “difficult and complicated” issues. To this point, Johnson is almost certainly right.

The Gilets Jaunes protests against the increase in fuel duty in France demonstrate the delicate balance between strong climate action as well as continued economic growth and ease of use. However, shouldn’t the government let an operator of regional flights fail and instead invest in high-speed railways instead? The answer isn’t so straightforward.

Carbon footprints are often misleading.

Aviation is among the fastest-growing fossil fuel users, and airlines contribute approximately 3.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from humans. This may seem low; however, the single flight across the Atlantic between London and New York can grow your carbon footprint to the extent of the total heating expenses of a typical European.

At higher altitudes, contrails – the lines of white that we see in the sky are created by the wings of aircraft. These clouds at high altitudes aren’t able to reflect sunlight well; however, the ice crystals that are inside can hold heat. Contrary to low-level clouds, that has a net cooling impact, the contrails add substantially to global climate change, increasing the percentage of aviation’s part in greenhouse gases to about 4.9 percent.

Flights are responsible for warming the earth by more than their CO2 emissions. Aapsky/Shutterstock

Most of the time, the environmental benefits of high-speed rail have been taken as a given. However, not all studies show the possibility that high-speed rail is able to reduce emissions from aviation in the event that it attracts sufficient passengers from other air routes. However, the climate-related impacts of aviation versus different modes of transportation depend on a lot more than engines and the altitude at which they travel.

We can evaluate the emission levels of various forms of transport by measuring the emission produced by each vehicle when it moves one person one km. This is a way to measure the amount of CO2 released from the vehicle’s exhaust. However, it doesn’t take into account greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the construction and maintenance of vehicles, as well as the road infrastructure like runways, tracks, and airports – as well as producing fuel.

The warming effects of various greenhouse gases occur over a variety of durations and range from just a few days of intense warming to centuries of gradual influence. In order to create an equivalent unit for measuring the effect of different gases warming effects, the warming effects are standardized for a specific time. The standard time frame will be 100 years.

If it was five years ago, the effects of contrails could cause more global climate change than any of automobiles in the world. They raise the temperatures of the earth in brief, violent blasts. In longer timeframes, such as 20, the short-term impacts are not as important and allow aviation to look more attractive – and fly more securely than automobiles over the same distance.

The majority of comparisons focus on the emissions generated by vehicles when they’re being used. Khunkorn/Shutterstock

It’s not the entire story, however. The energy requirements for different modes of travel differ. The direct combustion of fossil fuels by engines, like jet kerosene used in aircraft, releases greenhouse gasses. In the case of high-speed rail, which is electrically powered operating trains, the train generates zero emissions, excluding the fossil fuels used to create electricity elsewhere.

Read more: Electric cars won’t save the planet without a clean energy overhaul – they could increase pollution.

Developing HS2 will mean deploying stations, tracks, and centers of communication, and they’ll need ongoing maintenance. These all need energy and material investments, which will create further greenhouse gas emissions through manufacture, transport, and use. That could increase the carbon footprint of rail by between 1.8 and 2.5 times, over just accounting for the operation of the trains. For aviation, the same infrastructure requirements are relatively small and are responsible for a 1.2–1.3 increase, with road transport showing a 1.4–1.6 increase.

Comparing life cycle

The life cycle method provides an understanding of the places and the sources of emissions and also compares transportation modes on a more comparable playing field. This helps us realize that the largest greenhouse gas emissions that occur in the air and on roads originate from flying and driving, and train travel’s effects on climate are mostly due to the emissions resulting from the construction of the infrastructure. The emissions from operating trains tend to be lower due to the dependence on electricity. However, there are emissions from the manufacturing and maintenance of renewable energy sources to be taken into consideration.

Every mode of high-speed transportation has an environmental cost. Being able to evaluate the energy needs and carbon emissions of various transport options is the initial step toward addressing their environmental impact.

Governments frequently try to convince individuals to change their habits in order to reduce the amount of flights they fly. However, with the HS2 program, the presence of local flights indicates that only 44% of the drivers and 1 percent of passengers in airplanes are likely to alter their habits.

The easy thing is to point fingers at aviation and see rail as a green alternative. But, governments need to think about and consider the actual environmental impacts of a transportation project at every stage of its creation.


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