Rail travel is greenest mode of motorised transport

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, rail travel remains the best mode of motorised passenger transport in Europe, according to two transport and environment studies published by the European Environment Agency (EEA).

Transport accounted for a quarter of EU greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. Emissions come primarily from road transport (72%), while marine transport and aviation represent shares of 14 and 13 per cent of emissions, respectively, and rail a share of 0.4 per cent (emissions by diesel trains only). On top of the direct contribution to global warming and air pollution, emissions that take place during the production, transmission and distribution of energy used by trains and aircraft were also considered. Transport also causes non-exhaust emissions of air pollutants, e.g. from the abrasion of brakes and tyres.

The Transport and Environment Report 2020 (TERM) specifically investigates the impacts of rail and air passenger travel, concluding that rail travel is the best and most sensible mode of travel, apart from walking or cycling. While aviation’s emissions are much higher on a passenger-kilometre basis, flying is not necessarily the most harmful choice – travel by petrol or diesel-powered cars, especially if traveling alone, can be more harmful.

Figure: Emission costs of different transport modes (500 km)

A separate EEA Briefing on goods transport says that rail and shipping have the lowest GHG emissions per kilometre and unit transported, while aviation and road transport emit significantly more.

Source: EEA, 24 March 2021.

Link: https://www.eea.europa.eu/highlights/motorised-transport-train-plane-road

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