It's not an exact science, and I'm certainly no expert, but there is a growing realisation that climate change is a reality, not just a myth. Air travel is now the fastest-growing contributor to global warming, and avoiding a flight when there are easy alternatives is probably the biggest single thing that any individual can do to cut their carbon footprint and limit their own impact on the environment.
Cut your CO2 emissions by taking the train, by up to 90%...
Eurostar has done its homework and commissioned independent research to assess the CO2 per passenger produced by a London-Paris Eurostar journey versus that emitted by a passenger on a London-Paris flight. The research looked at actual Eurostar passenger loadings, actual Eurostar power consumption, the way Eurostar's electricity is generated, actual aircraft loadings, actual aircraft fuel consumption, and so on. The conclusion was remarkable: Taking the train to Paris instead of flying cuts CO2 emissions per passenger not just by a measly 10% or 20% or even 50%, but by a staggering 90%...
And with airport security tightened, check-ins up to 2 hours even for a 1-hour flight, plus the time and cost involved in getting to and from remote airports at each end, taking the train city centre to city centre will probably cut your stress levels by a similar percentage.
Incidentally, the environmental benefit of taking the train instead of a plane may be much greater than 90%. Airliners emit their CO2 directly into the upper atmosphere, where it is likely to do over twice the damage of the same quantity of CO2 emitted at ground level (estimates vary between 2 & 3 times the damage, but 2.7 is the factor normally used). This factor isn't included in the Eurostar findings. Here are some estimated comparisons (showing CO2 quantities alone, excluding the upper atmosphere effect):
CO2 emissions per passenger...
Out & back by plane...
Out & back by train...
3.5 hours, 244 Kg/CO2
2.75 hours, 22 Kg/CO2
= 91% less
3.5 hours, 193 Kg/CO2
4.5 hours, 24 Kg/CO2
= 87% less
4 hours, 250 Kg/CO2
8 hours by Eurostar+TGV, 36 Kg/CO2
= 85% less
4 hours, 136 Kg/CO2
Overnight by Dutch Flyer train & ferry, 27.2 Kg/CO2
= 80% less
4 hours, 174.8 Kg/CO2
8 hours by train & ferry, 46.8 Kg/CO2
= 73% less
5 hours, 435 Kg/CO2
48 hours by Eurostar, train & ferry, 63 Kg/CO2
= 85% less
Journey times are one-way centre-to-centre. Kg/CO2 is per passenger for a return journey. The source is The Observer, 29/01/06, except for London-Paris which is taken from independent research commissioned by www.eurostar.com, and London-Dublin & London-Amsterdam. London-Amsterdam & London-Dublin are calculated using the DECC/DEFRA figure of 22.54g of CO2 per passenger kilometre x the ferry distance (201 km Harwich-Hook & 105 km Holyhead-Dublin) plus train connections calculated using www.ecopassenger.org. The equivalent flights are assumed to be from Luton-Schiphol & Luton-Dublin.
Eurostar's Tread Lightly programme...
In addition to producing over 90% less CO2 than an equivalent flight to start with, Eurostar pledged to reduce its own emissions by 25% by 2012, and have offset every traveller's CO2 free of charge since November 2007, making Eurostar journeys carbon-neutral at no cost to travellers. Eurostar has launched a 'tread lightly' initiative, looking at recycling their own waste and that collected off the trains. Full marks to Eurostar... For more information on these initiatives and on Eurostar's emissions research, see www.eurostar.com/environment. In fact, Eurostar managed cut their CO2 emissions per passenger by 31% by early 2009, three years ahead of target, and then raised the target to 35%.
Where can I get accurate CO2 emission figures?
A good source for European train/plane/car emissions comparisons is www.ecopassenger.org. It will compare emissions for journeys such as Birmingham to Paris or Paris to Rome.
High-speed TGVs across France are technically similar to Eurostar and use electricity from the same sources, so are likely to make a similar environmental saving as Eurostar when compared to flying. Sleeper trains across France to Italy, Spain or the south of France may have fewer passengers per car than a high-speed train such as Eurostar, but on the other hand they travel at only 100mph or less and so use far less energy than a power-hungry 186mph high-speed train. Put another way, a sleeper train carries several hundred passengers with one conventional locomotive, whereas Eurostar has two big power-cars plus two more powered bogies in the adjacent passenger coaches as well. So sleeper trains are also likely to make a significant saving on CO2 emissions when compared to flying.
Ferries used to be a problem for CO2 emission calculations because of the need to allocate CO2 between the freight, motorists and foot passengers carried by the ferry. However, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) have now allocated CO2 emissions from ferries on the basis of weight, giving a figure of 22.54 grams of CO2 per passenger kilometre for ferry foot passengers.
But can't you offset the CO2 from a flight?
Having talked with several experts, the consensus is that 'offsetting' is not a long term solution to climate change. Partly because your money doesn't always get to where it should do (there have been some scandals, and in any case much of your money disappears into 'admin costs'), and partly because there's a limit to how many wind farms can be built or new forests planted. Most importantly, 'offsetting' is an excuse for the travel industry to simply carry on polluting without changing their business practices. The real answer to CO2 emissions is not to try and offset them, but to stop producing as much CO2 in the first place.
Alternatives to flying...
The alternatives to flying are easier and more practical than you may think. For step-by-step instructions on how to plan and book train travel from the UK to almost any country in Europe on this website, just use the menu to the left.
Doing yourself a favour, as well as the planet...
I didn't start seat61.com to avoid flying, either for environmental reasons or otherwise. I started it because overland travel by train can be so much more enjoyable and fulfilling than today's commercialised air travel experience. In an increasingly globalised world, where every flight is the same stressful non-experience, trains and ships show you more of the country you're visiting and its culture. On business, train travel can be productive, with room to work and powerpoints for laptops on many trains at first class seats. On leisure journeys, time together on the train can actually be quality time with your loved ones. You might just find a train journey a more interesting and rewarding experience that in reality doesn't take that much longer than flying...