Updated: Nov 14
Now that we’ve looked at what we eat and wear, the next most important piece is how we get from place to place. Transportation accounts for about a quarter of global CO2 emissions and is growing fast. The need and the desire to get from place to place occupies a central place in our lives. As things ground to a halt in the pandemic, I was struck by the contrast to our normal state of near-continual motion.
For some, the additional stillness of the pandemic is a boon — and I’m one who believes more stillness is usually a good thing. Nonetheless, moving around is always going to be a central aspect of human life. So how do we do it sustainably, in a way that doesn’t burden the future?
Let’s get the easy one out of the way: flying. We already know we should be flying less, and yes, it’s as bad as you think. If a sustainable carbon budget is somewhere between 1 to 2 tons per person per year, taking one long haul flight could cost up to twice your budget. We should fly as little as possible and opt for the longer bus or train ride instead. When you think about what you’re doing for the future, those extra hours on the train feel may like a small price to pay. And, you’re probably saving cash too.
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as merely flying less. Driving alone the same distance as a long flight, in a gas-guzzling car, may emit even more greenhouse gas. Now, if you bring another person in the car and thereby replace two plane seats, you cut your emissions in half. Carpooling makes driving a more sustainable option. So, to aim for a sustainable lifestyle, we need a way to compare our transport options and have a framework for choosing between them.
This helpful chart (again from Our World In Data) compares transport options from the perspective of UK residents. You have to mentally adjust for the size of your country: for example, a U.S. domestic, cross-country flight is comparable to a long-haul flight from the UK. In any case, train is nearly always the best option, followed by bus or carpooling. If we must drive, each person we bring with us makes a huge difference in our carbon footprint, while also improving the traffic and air quality around us.
Choosing an electric vehicle clearly makes a big difference. Importantly, however, the difference depends your local grid and how much of its electricity comes from renewables. Unfortunately, focusing on electric vehicles alone probably won’t be enough to meet our sustainability targets, because we won’t likely be able to transition to renewables fast enough. So, we need to think of ways to reduce car travel overall.
We don’t necessarily need new technology for this: for many of us, this simply means walking more. If its possible to take the extra time to walk, you basically eliminate your impact. A bike or e-bike is about 75% less impactful than a car for short trips. Even starting now to replace one of your normal car rides in this way makes a difference.
For many of us, the difficulty of this depends on where we live. In many places the distances or lack of alternatives make the car a primary choice. So, a complete solution requires pushing for a better design of our housing developments in the first place, so people are less dependent on cars. And if we start to demand it — by using alternative transit more and pushing governments to increase their funding — we could make massive changes. According to one estimate, we already know how to redesign our cities so that, by 2040, half of all travel could be done by walking, cycling or mass transit.
The choices we make in transport, and the pressure we put on our government to spend our tax dollars on sustainable methods, will have a centrally important impact on future generations. Writing this has inspired me to get my bike out of storage, and to make the two-day drive to Florida with my partner rather than flying. Generally I’m going to think more about restructuring my plans so I can use my legs more to get from place to place. Walking also makes it much easier to stop and smell the roses.
A last word for those of you who’ve been asking this whole time: what about offsets? Can’t we simply buy carbon offsets for our travel to make it sustainable? I do buy offsets for my travel, but as this video explains, it’s not as helpful as we might think, and certainly is not a complete solution to sustainable travel. So yes, we should buy them, but it’s not enough. Make the other changes, you can, however small. All of our small changes add up to a better world for the future generations.