A solitary trip in a petrol or diesel-powered car may release more emissions per passenger than an intra-EU flight, a new EU study into the environmental impact of transport modes has found.
“The emission impacts of aviation are invariably higher on a passenger-kilometre basis” than rail, found the report, produced by the European Environment Agency (EEA), an EU body.
“However, flying is not necessarily the most harmful choice. This role is often taken by the conventional car, if single occupancy is assumed,” it adds.
While vehicles with a single occupant were found to be the most polluting transport mode over 500km, the same car journey with multiple passengers dropped per person emissions below that of air travel.
Indeed, occupancy levels was the “single most important” factor when judging environmental harm.
“Whether a train, plane or car is almost empty or 80% full makes a big difference to the result. This factor alone can make a mode of transport the best or the worst choice for the environment,” the report states.
The EEA produced the study to help decision-makers enact transport policies that contribute to meeting European Green Deal targets.
Train travel was declared the most environmentally friendly transport mode aside from ‘soft’ mobility options such as walking and cycling.
The report concludes that shifting passengers from air to rail travel will play “a key role” in meeting the EU’s goal of reducing transport emissions by 90% compared to 1990 levels.
Already there is an increased awareness of the “environmental and climate problems caused by air transport,” leading Europeans to reconsider their travel decisions, according to the authors.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen travel rates fall drastically, but prior to the outbreak the demand for passenger transport was increasing across Europe.
At present, transport accounts for a quarter of all emissions within the EU. Road transport is responsible for 72% of the sector’s emissions, while marine transport and aviation represent 14% and 13% of emissions, respectively.
Rail’s share is only 0.4%, the scant emissions produced by diesel-powered trains.
Not all findings were positive for rail, however, with the report showing that long-distance high-speed rail produces noise pollution comparable to, or higher than air travel.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]