Planes, Trains and Automobiles – and the Planet

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    Earlier this year Planet Tracker released a handy guide to all the different forms of greenwashing perpetrated by various corporate climate baddies.  One of these is “greenshifting,” whereby the responsibility for climate action is transferred to the individual rather than governments or multinational companies.  Several oil producers have run advertisements along the lines of “what can you do to reduce your carbon footprint,” all the while increasing their oil and gas production and reducing their climate targets.  Many environmental campaigners believe that solving the climate crisis will only come from top-down systemic changes, not the well-meaning actions of individuals.

    Baby you can drive my car

    The transport sector is a case in point.  Laundromat recently took a trip to Birmingham to see the wonderful Bonnie Raitt in concert.  Being sustainability-minded we decided to travel by train.  Having been quoted roughly £200 per return ticket for the 2-hour rail trip, sustainability was temporarily put aside as we completed the round trip by car for around £35 worth of petrol.  These types of decisions are made millions of times each day around the world, hence the planet’s current predicament.  This Thursday 19 July Greenpeace’s Austrian office published an in-depth study of plane and train ticket prices in Europe.  According to the environmetal NGO: “EU institutions and national governments continue to subsidise climate change through giveaways to airlines and airports, while closing down railway stations and lines.”

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    Greenpeace found that just 23 of the 112 inter-city routes analysed were cheaper by rail than by plane.  This situation is compounded by the fact that half of these cheaper train connections are very slow, and many of the routes are cheaper simply because there is no direct flight available.  The study also shows that even the best and most convenient train routes such as London – Amsterdam are still among the most popular short-haul flights in Europe.  Many of the cheapest flights on offer are also indirect, thus causing yet more pollution.  Greenpeace estimates the average climate impact of flying to be over 80 times that of train travel.  The pricing and ticketing methods of air travel also create enormous discrepancies, such as a flight from London to Barcelona for €12.99 versus €384 by train.

    The Swedish example

    How does NordSIP’s home country of Sweden fare?  Greenpeace’s comprehensive 136-page report covers most of Europe in some detail.  The breakdown for Sweden is among the more positive assessments: “Swedish railway company SJ belongs to the progressive ones in Europe, e.g. by reinvesting in night trains and using 100% renewable electricity.”  The quality and design of the rail network and the introduction of international night train connections are also cited as positives.  Nonetheless, the presence of low-cost airlines means Sweden does not escape the harmful price differentials.

    A quick look at the popular Stockholm – Gothenburg route underlines the problem.  Despite 28 daily train journeys available, many under 3 hours long, 455,000 passengers flew this route last year.  In Greenpeace’s words: “This useless flight is causing 56,000 tons of harmful greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to the yearly emission of 37,000 cars.”  With the trains running entirely on renewable electricity, the environmental argument against flying is rock solid.  Unfortunately, Greenpeace points to airlines like Ryanair offering €12.85 tickets as a critical factor, as well as the fact that on the few occasions when the train was cheaper it involved inconvenient early morning departures.

    We need brave economic decisions, not guilt-tripping

    The solution?  Greenpeace’s report lists a whole range of regulatory, fiscal and operational advantages enjoyed by low-cost airlines.  It would like to see a fairer playing field for train operators, thus making those individual sustainability choices easier to make.  Greenpeace also advocates for “climate tickets” offering affordable national and cross-border train travel, funded by windfall taxes and the elimination of airline subsidies.  Well-intentioned people will always try to make the extra effort to avoid harmful emissions, but the positive climate impact can only be made at sufficient scale if those choices are made far easier by systemic changes – especially in a cost of living crisis.

    Image courtesy of Bluehouse Skis from Pixabay
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