Why I took the train to #HLF19
In her acceptance speech for the Abel Prize in 2019, Karen Uhlenbeck made an unusual note to the students and researchers in attendance: “Think about the planet,” she said, “and take one less flight next year.”
Her request was no accident. It’s perfectly in line with what climate scientists are saying: one of the most impactful things we can do to limit our climate impact is fly less by plane. The 7th Heidelberg Laureate Forum (HLF), where climate science was this year’s Hot Topic, was the perfect venue to put that to the test — so I took the train there instead of flying.
Why the train?
Of course, sometimes, taking the plane is simply inescapable. A simple example is traveling to places that are very far, like from Europe to the US, or from Australia to… almost anywhere. Flying is faster than any other transportation, it’s simple in these modern times, and it’s sometimes surprisingly cheap. But that being said, there are many regions where the train can be a realistically good alternative.
Mile per mile, train emissions can be up to 10 times lower than those of planes. In my particular case, coming from Birmingham, UK, to Heidelberg, would produce about 0.75 tonnes of CO2. that’s almost a ton of greenhouse gases for one single return trip (there are different ways to calculate these emissions, but this is the order on which we are on).
[By the way, here’s a calculator you can use to estimate your flying emissions]
The international average is around 4.8 tonnes of emissions per person, per year. In one blow, that’s 15% of that amount. Take 6 of these flights a year, and you’ve pretty much used up the average CO2 budget — and that’s if you live in a bubble and don’t do anything else. But this average budget is even too high. If we want to prevent catastrophic global warming, we should aim to limit our average emissions to 2.5 tonnes per year by 2030, and 0.7 tonnes by 2050.
Airplanes are one of the world’s rising CO2 emitters, and there are very few realistic ways to reduce these emissions. The first thing you can do is offset your emissions (here’s how). This is certainly worth looking into and should be considered for all plane flights. The second thing to do is to simply travel by train.
Over the same route (Birmingham – Heidelberg), the train emissions amount to 0.04 tonnes, compared to the plane’s 0.75! Needless to say, that’s a much more acceptable figure, and it’s justification enough to look for an alternative.
So can you actually travel by train, is it realistic? While the UK and Germany are relatively close, they’re still over 1000 km away. Over my particular route, the distance is around 1100 km for one leg — 2200 km both ways. I changed 3 trains over this route:
– a national train from Birmingham to London;
– an international train for London to Paris;
– an international train from Paris to Mannheim;
– a local train from Mannheim to Heidelberg (which is just 20 km away).
In total, from the time I left my house to the time I arrived at the hotel, it took me 12 hours. Obviously, that’s a pretty long travel. But let’s compare it to the plane.
The plane flight itself is a mere 2 hours. But that’s not the whole issue: you also need to arrive about 2 hours earlier than your flight, during which you need to stay in line and check-in your baggage. You also need to travel from home to the airport — this usually takes anywhere between 30-60 minutes. You also need to wait around 30 minutes on arrival, to pass through border control and pick up your baggage. You then have to also take the shuttle from the airport to your arrival hotel, which in the case of Frankfurt-Heidelberg, takes around 60-90 minutes. When you add all this up, you end up with a rough estimation of 7 hours. It’s still shorter than the 12 hours by train, but certainly comparable.
There are also other advantages to the train: it’s more comfortable and it’s easier to work or relax by watching something on a laptop or smartphone. It also feels nicer to actually see something out the window.
This isn’t to say that the train is always a solution. It’s still a long journey, and you need to plan things carefully in advance, to ensure that your connections work right. But you get some extra flexibility (you can spread your journey over 2-3 days and enjoy multiple city trips along the way), a lot of comfort, and an overall more pleasant experience.
What we can all do
The first thing to do is to be aware. We all produce greenhouse gas emissions, and emissions from planes are not trivial. Reducing the number of flights we take is one of the most impactful decisions we can make, but it’s not the only one, and it can be tackled in more than one way.
We all love what we do, and we all want to fulfill our potential and meet awesome people from all around the world. But we also need to be aware that in our quest for success, we are affecting the world in many ways, sometimes, in ways that we’re not even considering.
It’s important that we all try to play our part and build a better world for tomorrow — one step at a time.