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"To Fly or not to Fly": Sustainable Travel from A to Z


Car, bus, train, or plane, we all have our preferred method of transportation when it comes to traveling, and our choices often depend on factors such as comfort, speed, and cost. Yet, an increasingly important consideration is the environmental impact of traveling, specifically carbon emissions. 

As the knowledge of climate change and the threats it poses becomes more widespread, many people are purposefully choosing transportation that produces less carbon emission to reduce their carbon footprint, this way opting for sustainable traveling.

 

But which methods of travel emit the most carbon and should be avoided and which method of transport should be used instead? Among the various modes of transportation, air travel is notorious for its high carbon emissions per passenger. Consequently, those committed to sustainable travel are encouraged to consider alternatives like buses and trains, which offer lower emissions (Prillwitz & Barr, 2011; Graver et al., 2019).


The benefits of cutting down plane usage

Choosing to reduce plane travel isn't just good for the planet; it can also make journeys more pleasant for travelers themselves. 

When we fly less, the demand for air travel drops. This decrease helps cut down on carbon emissions. A clear example of this was seen in 2020 during the global lockdowns. With fewer people traveling, there was a significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide (Ram et al., 2022). This reduction helps to give us a glimpse into how changing our travel habits can positively impact the environment.

For example, an article and online tool from The Guardian (2019) shows that one flight from Amsterdam to Brussels emits 82 kg of CO2. If we reduced 100 flights like this in a year (8200 kg of CO2 emission), according to the U.S. EPA's Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator it would be the equivalent of: 

  • The emissions that are reduced yearly by 8.7 acres (3.52 hectares) of forest. 

  • The emissions released yearly by driving 19 000 miles (30 500 km) in an average gasoline-powered passenger vehicle.


Additionally, skipping the plane means skipping the airport stress. Think about it: no more long lines at security checkpoints, no more rushing to airports far from city centers. Instead, choosing alternatives like trains and buses can be more convenient. These often depart from and arrive at terminals located right in the heart of cities, saving you the time and hassle of getting to and from the airport. This switch not only benefits the planet but can also lead to a more relaxed and enjoyable travel experience for you.


The worst enemy of a sustainable traveler: Short-distance flights. 

Short-distance flights are particularly problematic for eco-conscious travelers. Despite their convenience, they are disproportionately carbon-intensive. If you fly, do it wisely by prioritizing long-haul journeys to minimize your carbon footprint. Overall, longer flights have lower carbon emissions than frequent shorter flights, as Graver et al. (2019) outline in their study. 

In 2018, shorter flights of less than 1500 km made up a third of the overall carbon emissions from all passenger flights, with a higher carbon intensity per kilometer than longer flights. In terms of this carbon intensity, shorter haul flights produce an average of 110g CO2/RPK (revenue per kilometer) compared to about 75g-90g CO2/RPK on flights longer than 3000 km (Graver et al., 2019). 

Emphasizing the difference in carbon emissions between short and long-distance flights can also be useful for making realistic and effective policies to reduce air travel. As an example, the University of Amsterdam has a travel policy against financing flights for staff members and researchers to destinations that can be reached by train within 6 hours.


What about long flights?

Longer flights are quite hard to substitute with other modes of travel, as flying would sometimes be the only realistic choice, judging by the lengths of the commutes certain travelers have. For example, it would be quite difficult to travel from Amsterdam to Tokyo if we didn’t consider flying. However, despite the intercontinental cases when long-distance travel cannot be accomplished without a plane, a more sustainable way of long-distance travel is still possible, as new solutions are currently in the research and development phase.

A study conducted in Sweden shows five traveling scenarios for 2060 that will help limit global warming to 1.8 degrees to stay within the range of the 2015 Paris Agreement (Akerman et al, 2021). The researchers used a back-casting approach to design low-carbon ‘Images of the future’, allies to make decisions on long-term consequences, such as the climate impact of long-distance travel. The first scenario requires the replacement of fossil fuels with drop-in fuels, among which biofuels are the most common. Then, the improvement of a high-speed rail network will serve as a strategic solution to prompt people to accept this lower carbon but more time-consuming mode of transport.

Taking the example of Sweden, the third scenario involves individuals changing traveling attitudes, choosing to spend holidays and leisure time in Sweden’s neighboring countries that are easily reachable by train, bus, or car. Furthermore, technical solutions will take place to stick to the climate targets, with hydrogen being the preferred choice and produced only with carbon-neutral sources like wind and solar power.

Finally, the last scenario sees the combination of a series of incremental ways of reducing emissions used to the highest extent possible. These are the use of biofuels and electro fuels, the reduction of leisure travel and business travel by air, and airplanes flying below 8000 m (To reduce the climate impact of aviation by minimizing the formation of contrails and aircraft-induced cirrus clouds).


Alternatives to Flying within Europe

For those journeying across Europe, the alternatives to flying present not only a greener path but often a more efficient and cost-effective one. The continent's extensive network of railways and bus routes offers travelers the convenience and comfort often matched or even surpassed by what's found in the skies. Beyond the environmental benefits, choosing trains and buses over planes can also be kinder to your wallet. With buses typically taking the lead as the most budget-friendly option, embracing these alternatives means enjoying Europe's landscapes without the high costs and carbon emissions associated with air travel. 


The Flix Group initiative

The most recommended (sustainable) traveling alternative in Europe would be taking the train, and the most comfortable (and cheap) is the bus. Unfortunately, most buses still depend on burning fossil fuels. To dive deeper into the idea of comfortable and cheap travel (by bus), we should consider the sustainability efforts and services offered by the Flix Group, as one of the most common bus transportation providers in the EU.

FlixBus (and FlixTrain) offer travel options that are better for the environment than many traditional methods, like taking regular trains and buses. These services are catching on, with a client base of 60 million people in the year 2022. FlixBus is particularly focused on being eco-friendly, aiming to reduce the harm to the environment usually caused by travel.

A big step for them has been starting to use biogas buses for some international routes. Working with a company called Orange Clean Fuels, they're showing it's possible to significantly cut down on CO2 emissions by using alternative fuels. For instance, buses running between Amsterdam and Brussels now use a type of gas made from renewable resources, which cuts CO2 emissions by about 75% compared to traditional diesel buses. They're planning to introduce more of these eco-friendly buses across their network.

Looking ahead, FlixBus wants all their travel options in Europe to be carbon neutral by 2040 and are encouraging passengers to offset the carbon emissions of their trips. Additionally, FlixTrain has been running on 100% renewable energy in Germany and Sweden since 2018, and there are plans to use renewable energy for all their offices by 2030 (Flix Group, 2022).


The Green Office Offers FlixBus Vouchers for Interested Travelers

As we've explored, choosing how to travel can significantly impact our planet. While air travel offers speed, it also comes with high carbon emissions. For those seeking greener alternatives in Europe, trains and buses, especially those operated by the Flix Group, present a more sustainable choice. FlixBus and FlixTrain are working to reduce environmental harm and have started a small collaboration with the Green Office UvA, offering us 50 FlixBus vouchers, each for 15% off on an individual, one-way journey. If you are interested, please contact our team!



Sources: 

Prillwitz, J., & Barr, S. (2011). Moving towards sustainability? Mobility styles, attitudes and individual travel behaviour. Journal of transport geography, 19(6), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtrangeo.2011.06.011


Åkerman, J., Kamb, A., Larsson, J., & Nässén, J. (2021). Low-carbon scenarios for    long-distance travel 2060. Transportation Research Part D-transport and Environment, 99, 103010. 


Ray, R. L., Singh, V. P., Singh, S. K., Acharya, B. S., & He, Y. (2022). What is the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on global carbon emissions? Science of the Total Environment, 816, 151503. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.151503


Graver, B., Zhang, K., Rutherford, D., & INTERNATIONAL COUNCIL ON CLEAN TRANSPORTATION. (2019). CO2 emissions from commercial aviation, 2018. http://theicct.org/sites/default/files/publications/ICCT_CO2-commercl-aviation-2018_20190918.pdf


Universiteit van Amsterdam. (2023, November 17). Mobility. University of Amsterdam. https://www.uva.nl/en/about-the-uva/about-the-university/sustainability/sustainable-operations/mobility/mobility.html


Flix Group. (2022). DRIVING THE MOBILITY (R)EVOLUTION. Available online: 


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