This blog post has been written by doctoral students Nick Langridge and Michael (Mike) Rogerson, who receive Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funding from the South West Doctoral Training Partnership (SWDTP).
The world is facing ecological crisis. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that 1.5℃ of global warming would likely be reached, or exceeded, in the early 2030s (IPCC, 2021). Even with promised mitigation policies, the world is on course for over 3°C of warming by the end of the century (IPCC, 2022).
Air travel is a controversial topic in debates around climate change (Ritchie, 2020). Despite contributing only 2-3% of global carbon emissions (5% when including other greenhouse gases) (Timperley, 2020), air travel is incredibly carbon intensive and accounts for a very large share of an individual’s carbon footprint. The small proportion of emissions attributed to air travel is therefore largely down to huge inequalities in who gets to fly. Only 3% of the global population take regular flights, and the vast majority never fly at all (Ibid).
Greenhouse gas emissions from air travel are also growing rapidly (Tabuchi, 2019). While emissions from transport as a whole were roughly stable between 2017 and 2018, those from international aviation increased by nearly 4% over the same period. Between 1990 and 2020, emissions from international aviation have risen by over 140% (Eurostat, 2021).
Within academia, air travel is a common occurrence. The greenhouse gas emissions of the sector are therefore high. Despite the shift to more online meetings, travel is still seen as a necessary part of academic life (Bjørkdahl et al., 2022). It is therefore important that academics begin to consider alternative options. Over the last few months, we have taken various journeys by rail and discovered the joys of this option as a preferable alternative to flying.
Earlier this year, I made my way from Bath to London where I caught the Eurostar to Paris. After an evening in Paris, where I managed to have dinner with an old friend, I caught the direct train to Barcelona, stepping out at Sants Station just 6 hours and 43 minutes later. Later this month, I will be venturing further, bound for Copenhagen with a welcome stop-off in Cologne on route.
I have always enjoyed train travel and crossing countries by rail is a fantastic experience. You see the landscapes change, discover new places, meet new people (and, potentially, old friends), and have more time to think, relax, work, and prepare for whatever awaits at your destination. While many see the additional time as a burden, for me, train travel is a less stressful, more productive, and greener way to travel.
I have travelled from Bristol to conferences in Venice and Berlin and for a research visit in Copenhagen by train this year. I have found the experience comfortable and convenient. The rail networks in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Italy all have very good WiFi and I was able to work, getting up to stretch my legs, visit the dining car, etc., whenever I wanted. I also got to stop off in Hamburg, Amsterdam, and Milan to break up journeys and visit contacts in those cities.
The benefits are not all external, however. Travelling by train means leaving from a city centre to a city centre, avoiding both the travel to and from the airport (usually from a train station!) and arriving hours in advance, making your way through security, and spending more time, on top of that, waiting to board and then take off. With this summer’s airport chaos, train travel has also meant not having plans pulled from underneath us at the last minute, knowing our luggage will also arrive with us, and other associated stresses.
Air travel remains the cheapest means of transportation, and this won’t change without improvements to rail infrastructure and pricing arrangements which better reflect the ecological situation we are in. Our train trips cost between three and five times what flights to those destinations would have cost. But as academics privileged to be able to travel for our work, we need to find ways of reducing our carbon footprints when doing so. Travelling by train is an enjoyable (and productive) way to do so.
Bjørkdahl, K., Duharte, F. and Santiago, A., 2022. Academic Flying and the Means of Communication. Springer Nature.
Eurostat, 2021. Greenhouse gas emissions by source sector [Online]. Available from: http://appsso.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/nui/submitViewTableAction.do [Accessed 5th May 2022].
IPCC, 2021. Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis.
IPCC, 2022. Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change.
Ritchie, H., 2020. Climate change and flying: what share of global CO2 emissions come from aviation? [Online]. Our World in Data. Available from: https://ourworldindata.org/co2-emissions-from-aviation [Accessed 5th May 2022].
Tabuchi, H., 2019. 'Worse Than Anyone Expected’: Air Travel Emissions Vastly Outpace Predictions [Online]. The New York Times. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/19/climate/air-travel-emissions.html [Accessed 5th May 2022].
Timperley, J., 2020. Should we give up flying for the sake of the climate? [Online]. BBC. Available from: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200218-climate-change-how-to-cut-your-carbon-emissions-when-flying [Accessed 5th May 2022].