Key points in this post:
- Understanding Your Carbon Footprint
- Comparison of carbon footprints for different transportation methods
- Factors that Determine Sustainable Travel
- The Most Sustainable Ways to Travel
- Real-World Scenarios: Short-Distance Routes
- Tips for Reducing Your Carbon Footprint
You may be used to the threat of climate change coming up in dinner table conversations. You might have friends who became vegan for environmental reasons. But what about the impact of our beloved vacations?
In 2019, there were 1.1 billion scheduled service passengers to and from the US alone, and transportation is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. That doesn’t mean you can never go on a tourist trip again — but if you care about your ecological impact, you can opt for the most sustainable ways to travel.
Not sure how options like trains, buses, and planes compare? We’ll break down which factors affect a transportation method’s environmental toll, the top ways to travel (along with real short-distance routes), and other ways to reduce your carbon footprint.
Understanding Your Carbon Footprint
Let’s get our terminology straight before we dive deep into the data. What exactly do we mean by a “carbon footprint” in relation to travel?
A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gas a person or activity emits. This is displayed in units known as “carbon dioxide equivalents” for simplification (which express how much CO2 would have an equivalent impact on global warming).
You don’t need to be burning fuel yourself — if you purchase a clothing item that required a lot of energy to produce due to air miles and factory usage, that also contributes to your carbon footprint.
When doing or owning almost everything seems to increase our carbon footprint, any change you make can feel like a drop in the ocean. In reality, changing the way you move around can have a huge impact.
For instance, the carbon footprint of a domestic flight is 246g of carbon equivalents, while a petrol car is 170g and a bus is 97g (according to Our World in Data).
Imagine how much of a difference it would make to the total emissions of the United States if everyone committed to ditching their cars and taking the bus instead. Sure, it might be unrealistic to expect all 300 million people to make that change — but we often underestimate how much influence we have on the people around us. If your friends and family see you making more sustainable choices, it often has a knock-on effect.
Factors that Determine Sustainable Travel
Have the statistics above inspired you to make a change? You’ll love eco-conscious travel: A way to enjoy a guilt-free vacation without feeling bad about your contributions to melting the ozone layer.
Now, let’s take a closer look at what you should pay attention to when comparing the eco-friendliness of transportation (other than carbon footprint).
One of the most crucial metrics is fuel efficiency: How far a vehicle can travel with a given amount of fuel. It’s measured as passenger miles per gallon.
With this in mind, let’s see how the fuel efficiency of different transport options compare. Buses can travel 180 passenger miles per gallon, while cars (specifically, SUVs) reach just 52 miles per gallon and trains can go 59 miles. Planes can travel just 40 miles per gallon.
No wonder the Swedish have the word “flygskam” — literally flight shame — to describe their unwillingness to use air travel.
Another one to watch is CO2 emissions. They’re often mixed up with carbon footprint, but CO2 emissions only account for the release of carbon dioxide rather than all greenhouse gases.
So, let’s compare again.
Using the same data as before, buses release 24 kg of CO2 emissions per passenger, while cars emit a whopping 80.7kg, trains 84.3, and planes release 75.3kg. That’s right — cars actually fare worse than planes here.
While fuel efficiency and CO2 emissions are the most important metrics to watch out for when it comes to sustainability, there are also factors of lesser importance.
- How full the services are
- Efficiency of route used
- Type of fuel (e.g., diesel or electricity for train)
- Sustainability of production required to create transport route
The Most Sustainable Ways to Travel
If you’ve been paying attention, you can probably make an educated guess about our recommendations for the most sustainable ways to travel. That’s right — the winners are intercity buses and trains.
Now, let’s explore the pros and cons of each in further detail.
We live in a world where everyone is overstressed and short on time, so it’s hardly surprising that buses aren’t a popular travel option. But bear with us a moment — you may be able to get further than you realize this way.
And despite the reputation buses sometimes get, they can often be more comfortable and convenient than taking a plane. No worrying about making it through the airport in time and standing in queues — and most buses come with comfortable seating and air conditioning.
They’re often a popular option for backpacking across Asia, Europe, and South America. In the latter, you can get from Lima, Peru to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil entirely by bus — that’s a distance of a whopping 6,200 kilometers. There are also plenty of routes in the US and Canada offered by big companies like Greyhound, Flixbus and Megabus, as well as countless smaller bus companies providing local services.
As we’ve seen, buses are the most sustainable option in terms of fuel efficiency and CO2 emissions. However, they can fit fewer passengers than trains and contribute to road congestion.
Buses are great for going from city to city if you have a few hours to spare. But if you need to get from A to B on a tight schedule, you can’t always afford to be at the mercy of traffic.
That’s where trains come in — they’re faster than buses and not affected by road traffic. Plus, since they can fit more passengers than buses, they can be more efficient in this way.
One environmental drawback of trains is that, in North America, they generally run on diesel, and the production of rails itself is carbon-intensive. But some argue that once everything is in place, they have the potential to more than offset their initial negative impact.
Besides, trains don’t need to run on diesel forever.
Zero-emissions trains are coming, powered by hydrogen, which could swing the balance further. Germany launched its hydrogen-powered passenger trains recently, and other countries are following.
It’s also worth giving an honorable mention to sustainable transport methods like walking, cycling, and boats.
We haven’t covered them in detail since they’re often not practical or accessible choices. But if you happen to be a long-distance cyclist or have a destination you can reach by waterways, fantastic. These options are extremely sustainable.
Real-world scenarios: Short-Distance Routes
Still not convinced that taking the bus for your next vacation is the right move? Fine — a healthy dose of skepticism can be a good thing. But let’s change your mind by giving you a few real-world examples.
Boston to New York
You can get from Boston to New York in four hours and 15 minutes by bus, and you’d emit just 11 kg of CO2. In contrast, going by plane would take you even longer (4 hours 35 minutes) and emit 82 kg of CO2.
Los Angeles to San Diego
For those of you on the West Coast, we’ve got some news.
On this route, a bus emits just 7 kg of CO2 per passenger, compared to the 48kg emitted when traveling by plane. This time, there is a larger time differential — the journey takes two and a half hours by plane but four hours and 15 minutes by bus. But hey, at least you can spend those extra hours looking out the window.
Ottawa to Montreal
Canadians can benefit from the wonders of intercity bus travel too. Going from Ottawa to Montreal would emit 7 kg of CO2 by bus and 41 kg by plane. And there’s only a small difference in the schedules — the bus takes two hours and ten minutes, while the plane takes three hours and 39 minutes. Not a bad trade-off.
Sydney to Canberra
Let’s get out of North America now. Over in Australia, going between Sydney and Canberra by plane takes about 60 minutes and emits 185 kg of CO2. And the trusty bus? It takes 3 hours, but emits just 10 kg of CO2 per person.
That might sound like a long journey, but rest assured Greyhound Australia has a luxury service complete with air conditioning, a toilet, and reclining leather seats.
Amsterdam to Brussels
Now, over to Europe, where buses are even more popular than on the other side of the Atlantic.
Going from Amsterdam to Brussels takes about 45 minutes on the plane, or 3 hours and 30 minutes by bus. In the scheme of things, a very small difference. Yet there are emissions of 86 kg per passenger when going by plane, compared to just 7kg when taking the bus — a massive difference and something to think about.
Read also: 21 routes where bus travel beats flying
Tips for Reducing Your Carbon Footprint
In an ideal world, reading this article would convince you to never take the plane again.
But unfortunately, we live in the real world — and it’s not always going to be convenient or even feasible to do that. Fortunately, there are other ways to reduce your carbon footprint.
One of those is offsetting your carbon emissions. This involves calculating your emissions from a journey and canceling them out. This could mean investing in sustainable projects like reforestation, since trees soak up carbon dioxide. However, make sure you do your research and choose a reliable project, since greenwashing (marketing something as ecological that may not be) can be an issue.
You can also opt for direct routes to reduce fuel consumption when traveling by car and plane. Resources like EcoPassenger and Greentripper help you to calculate exactly how big a carbon footprint your journey will have, helping you make a better decision.
Hit the Road (the Eco-Friendly Way)
Sustainable travel might sound like wishful thinking, but it’s an achievable goal. Wherever in the world you are now and wherever you want to go, opting for the bus or train over the plane will help the environment in crucial ways by reducing CO2 emissions and your carbon footprint.
Why not give it a go? You might be surprised at how comfortable and enjoyable the journey turns out to be — and the planet is bound to thank you.
For help organizing your next sustainable journey, check out Busbud for all your planning needs — complete with global coverage and convenient comparisons.