Many eco-friendly people often ask the question about what is the greenest and most environmentally friendly way to travel. The simplest answer to this question is walking or biking as they generate essentially no carbon emissions, but what happens when you are planning on traveling extremely long distances that don’t offer the possibility of walking or biking? First we will take a look at the two most common methods of travel in the United States: driving and flying. In most cases, people will only fly to their destination for the sole purpose of saving time and money, and this turns out to be the only reason that you should fly.
No matter how far you are traveling, driving turns out to be the greener of the two, especially if you are car pooling. A study by grist.org showed that the typical mid-sized car emits approximately 104 kilograms of carbon dioxide in a typical 300 mile trip from Philadelphia to Boston. On the other hand, the typical commercial jet emits approximately 184 kilograms of carbon dioxide per passenger. Thus, if you have a full yet comfortable car of 4 people, you are still producing just around 104 kilograms of carbon dioxide compared to the 736 kilograms that the same party would produce in a commercial jet. All of this translates to approximately 77% more carbon dioxide emitted by flying when a single person is traveling and 607% more carbon dioxide when there are 4 people flying.
As you increase the distance of travel, the numbers do become more similar and flying becomes closer to driving as far as its carbon dioxide output. In a trip from San Francisco to Boston which is about 3000 miles, a trip in a car would contribute about 930 kilograms of carbon dioxide per vehicle to the atmosphere while a trip in a plane would contribute approximately 1,300 kilograms of carbon dioxide per passenger. This breaks down to around 40% more carbon dioxide in a trip with just one person, and 350% more carbon dioxide in a trip with 4 people. Compared to the previous example of a much shorter trip, the numbers are much closer though obviously there is still a huge disparity between the two. This shows that a lot of emissions come from the initial take off and landing of the plane. If you were planning on driving from the very bottom of South America to the very top of Canada, chances are you would reach a point where flying is actually more environmentally sound than driving. However, when traveling anywhere within the US, if you want to be greener then you should be driving.
If you want to be truly green, you should certainly be taking a look at mass public transportation like busses and trains. Busses have a reputation for being big, dirty, smelly, and emitting a lot of gasses. If you take them on a single car vs. single bus basis then certainly a bus is the worse option, but if you have a full bus then you certainly have much lower per person ratio of carbon dioxide emissions.
For long distance travel, the train is far and away the best available transportation with regards to eco-friendliness. A study by Pablo Paster of Salon.com showed that a train ride emits about half as much carbon dioxide as a car ride. Take that in terms of our original trip from Philadelphia to Boston, and that is about 52 kilograms worth of carbon dioxide during that trip. Compare that to the average per person emissions of a plane and there is about 255% more carbon dioxide emitted by a plane passenger than a train passenger.
It is important to note that a lot of these numbers are up for debate, and depending on the source that you get them from they will change. For example, a single flight from Los Angeles to New York emits from 1,924lbs to 6,732 lbs of carbon dioxide depending on which equation for calculation of emissions you use. If you use the number on the lower end of the scale, some studies will show that it is actually more eco-friendly to fly on trips over 500 miles than to drive if you would be traveling alone, though most will agree that driving in a car that gets over 25 miles to the gallon is better than flying.
The studies show that as far as traveling goes, flying in an airplane is pretty much the worst way that you could travel if you are concerned about the environment. For the most part it is cheaper and faster, but for those solely concerned about the environment there are far better options. Driving is considered the best common form of transportation because, for the most part, trains are being used pretty rarely these days in the United States. No one will debate that public transit and trains followed by car pooling are the greenest ways of traveling long distances unless you feel the desire to walk or bike from coast to coast.
Unfortunately, travelling is often a very consumption oriented activity. Particularly the mode of transportation you choose in terms of how much carbon you are responsible for emitting. However, there are a couple of great websites and mobile apps available that can help you figure out the greenest way to travel to where you want to go whether you are travelling domestically or internationally.
The Carbon Fund Calculator helps you calculate your carbon emissions for different forms of transportation. The great feature of the site is that you can not only calculate your expected emissions for you trip, but you can also pay to offset those emissions.
Another great resource to help you choose the greenest way to travel on your next vacation is the Green Travel Choice. Supported by the International Ecotourism Society, this app has similar features to the Carbon Fund Calculator, but now you can access it easily on your smart phone.
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