Earlier this week, CNN published fascinating satellite images that uncovered a thought-provoking revelation about how we commute every day. These images, which were produced utilizing Descartes Labs Sentinel-5P satellite data, compared the amount of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the air during the first three weeks of March this year to the exact same time frame in 2019.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, nitrogen dioxide (a.k.a. emissions) primarily gets into our air when the fuel from our vehicles, power plants, and off-road equipment is burned.
Image Source: CNN
Not surprisingly, the satellite images demonstrated a significant decrease in nitrogen dioxide over the more saturated parts of the country during the past few weeks, as compared to 2019. The change in pollution is due to the raging spread of the Coronavirus epidemic, which has closed down cities and towns across the U.S. More and more American households have been kept from commuting to work, school, restaurants, private parties, and nearly all public places that people typically travel to on a daily basis. This amazing discovery seems to be an unintended, yet positive, benefit the Coronavirus has had on the world since the first cases of the virus were discovered in November 2019.
Similarly, Forbes posted a video released by the European Space Agency using Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite imaging. The video shows a time-lapse over China from 20 December 2019 to 16 March 2020. As the video progresses, you can see the dark red spots that represent pollution vanishing from the atmosphere over China. During this time, the COVID-19 virus forced the government to cancel flights, trains and buses, and block the entrances of highways in order to contain the Coronavirus epidemic. Toward the end of the video, as China begins to reopen businesses and allows citizens to return to their regular way of life, the pollution visibly thickens.
An air quality researcher, Fei Liu, from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center weighed in about the satellite image phenomenon: "This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event. I am not surprised because many cities nationwide have taken measures to minimize the spread of the virus." Learning lessons are often derived from major disasters. Maybe we needed COVID-19 to show us how detrimental our colossal carbon footprints are on our precious planet Earth.
The U.S. and China are the top two countries with the highest emissions per capita (person), although both countries have worked hard to reduce their carbon footprints during the past few decades. For example, according to The World Bank, the U.S. emissions per capita in 1980 equalled 20.8 metric tonnes. This number has reduced slowly but steadily to 16.1 metric tonnes in 2018, according to a 2019 report by the Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research. To give you a conceptualization, each person puts out emissions that are equivalent to the weight of an entire fire engine every year.
Many of us around the world are confined to our homes due to the Coronavirus right now, therefore, this is certainly a great time to consider how we can reduce our environmental footprints on the Earth. Even if we start with one thing - how we travel - since our transportation preferences and habits are key factors that contribute to our individualized carbon footprints. Not all modes of transportation disperse emissions into our atmosphere and some emit significantly less than others. With that said, what are the most eco-friendly ways to travel?
Which Modes of Travel are Eco-Friendlier?
There is nothing like taking a road trip across the country or flying to a completely different continent to appreciate new customs, cuisines, languages, and scenery. That kind of travel leaves behind an enormous carbon footprint, however, unless you consciously determine the most eco-friendly ways to travel and then use them. What options do we have?
When aeroplanes burn fuel, they produce greenhouse gases, mainly a gas called carbon dioxide (CO2). Yes, this is the same carbon dioxide or CO2 that we exhale when we breathe. However, the CO2 that we emanate is part of a natural life cycle. We breathe out, plants “breathe” our CO2 in, animals eat the plants, and we eat the animals. After we eat, the oxygen we breathe in is used by our cells to break down sugar, resulting in energy and carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is the waste product of this process, which is called cellular respiration.
Although the carbon dioxide that we breathe out releases into the atmosphere, it is eventually absorbed by plants in this neverending life cycle. Plants then absorb carbon dioxide and use photosynthesis to convert it into oxygen for us to breathe. The following infographic demonstrates this life cycle.
Image Source: Byjus
The greenhouse gases produced by aeroplanes are not converted in the same life cycle, and, unfortunately, they contribute heavily to global warming. When gases, including carbon dioxide (CO2), water vapour, nitrous oxides, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), enter our atmosphere, they simulate the glass windows of a greenhouse. This allows the sun’s rays to pass through the atmosphere but traps the heat of the Earth from radiating into space, resulting in the warming of the Earth’s climate (I.e. the greenhouse effect). This leads to warmer conditions overall, increasing the temperature of the oceans, melting of glaciers, rising of the sea level, shifting climate patterns, and more precipitation and evaporation.
To gain a better understanding of the impact travelling by plane has on the environment, let’s analyze an economy class flight returning to New York from London. The flight would emit approximately 0.67 tonnes of CO2 per passenger, according to a calculator created by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Since the annual average emissions equal 5.8 tonnes per person in the U.K., that means that each passenger used up 11.5% of their total annual emissions quota on that one flight.
If one person flies ten times in one year to get to their travel destinations and back home again, their flights alone add up to more than the total amount of emissions that an average person typically uses in the U.K. These are sobering statistics for someone who enjoys getting to their destination quickly on a plane and arriving back home just as fast when their holiday is over. This information has also led to a movement called flightshaming.
Flightshaming is a real thing nowadays. It started out in Sweden, where it is called flygskam (pronounced “fleeg–skaam”), and means the shame that you feel when you travel by plane because of the environmental impact. The movement has made its way onto social media, with travellers touting their eco-friendly choices of travel instead of flying. Hashtags, #stayontheground and #tagskryt (the Swedish way of saying “train bragging”), are used to drive the point home.
It is safe to say that flying, while it will get you wherever you want to go faster than any other mode of transportation, is also the least sustainable choice of travel. While all modes of transportation result in greenhouse gases, one single flight creates more CO2s than any other mode of travelling. Because of the environmental impact of flying, many travellers have begun to use railways and buses instead.
Railways, Buses, and Boats
In Sweden, the better choice for travelling, in many Swede’s opinions, is to take the railway. This is apparent with the recent increase in passenger numbers on Swedish Railways. The total number of passengers in 2018 rose by 5% from 2017, and then the first quarter of 2019 showed an 8% increase in passengers. In contrast, Swedavia, the operator of Sweden’s ten busiest airports, reported that domestic passengers decreased by 3% in 2018, and then fell another 8% from January to April of 2019.
Buses and trains still propel emissions into our air, but the difference between a train and a plane is often expansive, especially if you are considering flying your private jet to your chosen destination. The following infographic shows the different modes of transportation and the CO2 emissions per passenger. Take notice that a plane and a regular fuel-powered car are quite similar in emissions per passenger - and also the worst for our environment. For those who want to travel in eco-friendly style, a boat or railway would be the most eco-conscious choice.
Image Source: The New Economy
And then there were eco-friendly electric cars...
Are Eco-Friendly Electric Cars the Best Way to Travel?
Image Source: PXFuel
Electric cars are not one-size-fits-all when it comes to emissions. There are Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs), Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs), and all-Electric Vehicles (EVs), and while they are all boasted to be eco-friendly, it is important to understand that the off-board electricity required to power these vehicles most likely results in emissions. The power grid, unless sourced by wind or the sun, puts off emissions into our air. So, we have to take power plant emissions into account when considering the true eco-friendliness of each vehicle.
Additionally, when they are not running solely off of the electric-powered battery, these vehicles might still emanate lower tailpipe emissions. Although some fully electric cars (EVs) are designed without any tailpipes (which equates to zero lower tailpipe emissions), Hybrid Electric Vehicles and Plug-In Hybrid Vehicles are equipped with tailpipes that result in lower tailpipe emissions. When taking all of these factors into consideration, the bottom line is: HEVs, EVs, and PHEVs still reduce emissions per person, even though they use electric power.
One way to make travel nearly 100% eco-friendly is to charge an all-electric car with renewable electricity, such as a wind or solar energy source. An electric-powered vehicle can navigate between 100 to 300 miles (depending on the model) before the driver would need to recharge the battery. For long-distance travelling, this would mean that you will need to locate wind or solar sourced charging stations every 100 to 300 miles until you reach your destination. This might be feasible as we head into the future and more solar- or wind-powered electric car charging stations are built.
At this point in time, however, it is difficult enough to find a regular electric powered charging station to battery-up the car. Unless you have a helpful tool like PlugShare, which locates electric charging stations in specific areas around the world. The name, address, phone number, and hours of the charging locations are provided, plus several other important details. Many of the electric charging stations cost a fee to park and charge, and because it will take time for the battery to refill, most are situated in areas that have restaurants, shopping, and other amenities within walking distance for your convenience. A few of them even have WiFi. All of these details are listed on PlugShare.
The following infographic created by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency provides a visual demonstrating the difference between gas vehicles, electric vehicles powered from the grid, and electric vehicles powered with renewable energy:
Image Source: PCA
As you can see, even when electric vehicles are powered with electricity from power plants, their carbon dioxide emissions are two-thirds less than gas-fueled cars. This is because electric vehicles are approximately four times as energy-efficient as gas-fueled vehicles. Another perk of these cars - they do not require transmission fluid or oil like regular gas-fueled cars. The eco-friendly benefit? Electric cars do not leave all of those swirly rainbow puddles of oil that you see on parking lots and roadways, either.
It makes sense that electric cars have risen in popularity alongside the eco-conscious movement. Many electric vehicles are low-maintenance, do not require any fluids, and have fewer parts to fix when things do go wrong. On top of those invaluable advantages, they are much more eco-friendly than any other type of transportation and can even be reduced all the way down to zero emissions if you purchase the right model, making them a great way to travel if you are aiming to reduce your carbon footprint.