Summer is upon us in the UK, and jetting off around Europe seems tantalisingly easy and very, very cheap.
But flying comes at a cost to the environment. When I calculated my ecological footprint earlier this year, I was saddened (but not surprised) to find that (a) my footprint is about three times bigger than my fair share and (b) over half of it is from flying! And I’m not the only one worried about this impact. The Swedes have come up with a term for the specific kind of environmental guilt that you feel when flying – flygskam (literally translated as ‘flight shame’, it is a trend that even has the airlines worried).
Luckily, living in Europe we have a decent alternative – catching a train (cue some tagskryt or ‘train bragging’). When we were deciding how to travel to Poland for a wedding this summer I was feeling a bit flygskam just thinking about flying, so we looked into whether it would be possible to catch the train instead. It isn’t as easy as jumping on a £20 budget airline flight, but it is certainly possible and a bit more interesting.
Of course, being the sustainability nerd that I am, I wanted to understand how much catching a train actually reduced emissions compared to a flight (and whether we could justify the extra time and higher price).
My findings in a nutshell? Flying costs about a third of the price, takes about a quarter of the time but results in six times the greenhouse gas emissions as staying on the ground.
Comparing the options
First of all, comparing the options in terms of greenhouse gas emissions (because given the climate crisis I think this should always be the first consideration). From the graph below, you can see that the emissions from each leg of the train journey (in pink) seem minuscule compared to the flight (in blue). Not too much of a surprise, but it is also worth pointing out that trains do not have zero impact – there are still emissions associated with journeying by train while they are powered by fossil fuels.
The problem with flying is that flights are simply too cheap! The ticket price sometimes doesn’t even cover the cost of transporting a passenger, even without accounting for the costs to the environment.
In the UK, just 15% of people take 70% of the flights. A ‘frequent flyer tax’ has been suggested by environmental groups (and awesome people like Caroline Lucas) as a way to equitably increase the cost of flying to a level that actually reflects its true cost. Check out #afreeride for more information.
Travelling off-peak in the UK and taking a bus for the last leg of the journey reduced the cost of the train option a bit. Even so it cost much more than flying (and there weren’t even super cheap flights available for the route we wanted). Interestingly, for the extra £200 or so we could have purchased about 20 tonnes of reputable carbon offsets, offsetting the flights about 40 times over. However, offsetting should always be a last resort as it is literally that – emissions in one place are offset by an emissions reduction somewhere else, with no actual overall reduction in emissions.
And finally, time! Annual leave days are more of a constraint on my holidaying than money (I realise that is an extraordinary privilege). There are some cases where catching a train can be quicker than flying, for example, you can get the Eurostar from London to Paris much quicker than flying. While the flight time is very quick for short haul flights, the overall time required to get from the origin to destination can be quite a bit longer once time is factored in for getting to an out-of-town airport, allowing time for queues at check in and security, navigating a large airport, early boarding, and doing all that in reverse at the other end.
However when travelling 1,600 km, the journey time starts to play a bigger role. But time spent on the journey is not necessarily wasted. In addition to writing this blog post, I also spent time looking out the window, reading, napping and chatting to my partner. All quite enjoyable activities! Even though we had pretty short stopovers in each location, we also made good use of the time. In Brussels we have a delicious, low-waste, plant-based lunch at Greenway. In Cologne we visited the cathedral. And in Berlin we had dinner and drinks in a beer garden by the Spree.
A growing number of companies are recognising the benefits of allowing staff extra leave days to be able to travel more sustainably – check out Climate Perks for more information. I think this would go a long way to help incentivise people who wouldn’t otherwise consider taking the train, by removing the real or perceived barrier of it being much slower than flying.
(By the way, we completely missed that tight change in Brussels because the Eurostar was delayed. Fortunately, there is a policy where we could get our tickets stamped and jump on the next train to Berlin via Cologne. It meant a bit less time to hang about in Berlin, but overall not a big deal.)
Making a decision
Even with all the facts laid out above, it was still tricky to decide how to travel. It wasn’t just me travelling, but also my partner (who can get pretty bad travel sickness). In the end we went with a compromise – the 24 hour overland journey on the way there and a flight home. Progress not perfect!
And while the prospect of spending 24 hours on trains and a bus was a bit daunting, it was more pleasant than expected. There’s something really lovely about getting a sense of the distance covered and moving through landscapes and cultures, which is skipped out entirely by jumping on a plane. I think it’s safe to say that I’m a big fan of train travel, so look out for more train adventures to come!
Woke and Confused is a relatively new podcast and possibly my favourite in the sustainment lifestyle category. Episode 3 explores the issue of flying and flygskam.
If you are planning a crazy train journey across Europe, there are a few handy websites that will be a huge help. The Man in Seat 61 is an incredibly detailed resource. I had all but given up trying to navigate different train websites and routes when a work mate pointed it out. Loco2 allows you to find and purchase train tickets pretty much all over Europe (very useful when local train websites are being buggy). Ecopassenger compares not just carbon emissions but also a range of other environmental metrics for route options. It only works for relatively simple journeys, but the results are fascinating.
If you have to fly, make sure to offset the emissions. Even if the airline doesn’t offer offsetting, it is possible to purchase them through other organisations. Make sure you purchase reputable offsets that are certified in accordance with a standard like the Gold Standard.