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What is the most polluting means of travel?

The future belongs to the train. It has the best CO2 balance. But the aeroplane is no longer as polluting as we thought. In fact, the car is in last place.

On average, an aircraft emits 214 grams of CO2 per kilometre and person. Rail travel is much more environmentally friendly. A passenger on the train emits just 1/7 of that, namely 29 grams per kilometre.

But according to a new study by the European Environment Agency EEA, travelling by diesel or petrol vehicle can be even more harmful than by plane, especially when travellers are travelling alone. According to the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA), CO2 emissions even from newly registered passenger cars average 128.1 grams of CO2 per kilometre. For older vehicles and those that are heavily loaded on journeys, consumption is significantly higher.

The CO2 emissions of aircraft have improved significantly in recent years, partly because fuels have been further developed and made more sustainable, and airport charges for aircraft with high CO2 emissions have been raised significantly. Meanwhile, there are even so-called Lillium jets that will be able to transport travellers within Germany completely electrically in the near future.

But the train is unbeatable in terms of emissions. And this is despite the fact that the railways, at least in Germany, still have a lot of room for improvement. As previously reported, just about 60% of the lines in this country are electric. Only long-distance transport, a rather small part of the route network, is powered by green electricity. Many other railways run on stone-old diesel locomotives, which are real polluters without particle filters.

In other European countries, the railways are already much further ahead and have a higher proportion of electrically powered trains. In Denmark, new trains were also introduced in 2019 that are significantly lighter and thus more environmentally friendly. In Italy, train travel is now combined with plastic recycling. Train tickets can be paid for with old bottles.

So in the last few years in particular, a lot has happened in air and rail transport. Emissions from cars, however, have stagnated in recent years, according to the EEA. The VDA states that CO2 emissions have even increased by 0.7% compared to the 2016 value.  

The EU and the individual countries are indeed trying to make the mobility shift on the roads more environmentally friendly through new technologies and subsidies. Environmental zones also contribute to this development, as travelling in many European cities with old vehicles is hardly possible anymore. But the concepts still do not seem to be enough. There would have to be fewer vehicles in general, and even more should be done without cars and lorries when travelling, but also in the logistics sector.

This is the only way to achieve the climate targets by 2050.