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Carbon footprint of transportation

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As concern about climate change has grown, individuals are becoming increasingly conscious of their impact on the environment.
Transportation emissions often make up the largest portion of our individual carbon footprints. For that reason, evaluating transport options is a natural place to start, whether it is for a daily commute or a leisure trip abroad.
So, what’s the most eco-friendly way to go from one place to another?
The above infographic charts the carbon footprint of transportation per passenger-kilometer for different vehicles based on data from the UK Government’s methodology paper for greenhouse gas reporting.
Editor’s note: Because the original labels in the study are very UK-specific, we have changed the copy of some of the labels to better suit an international audience.
The carbon footprint of transportation is measured in grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents emitted per person to travel one kilometer. This includes both carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Here’s how the carbon cost of travel compares for different means of transport:
Flying on a short flight or driving alone are the most carbon-intensive travel methods. However, adding one more passenger to your car ends up cutting the emissions in half, making driving more efficient.
Specifically, it’s worth breaking down categories of flights more, as their emissions depend greatly on their route length:
Why are longer flights far more eco-friendly than short-range flights? It’s because take-off uses much more energy than the ‘cruise’ phase of a flight. For short flights, the efficient cruise phase is relatively short-lived.
As the world works to mitigate the impact of climate change, people may want to identify and potentially reduce their daily carbon footprint. And choosing your method of transportation is one way to do so.
Of course, walking, biking, or running are the lowest-carbon ways to go from one place to another. But car-sharing can also reduce emissions, as can switching to electric vehicles or public transport.
Over medium-to-long distances, trains are the most eco-friendly option, and for short-range domestic travel, driving is better than taking a flight. But as some countries are bigger than others, always consider the total distance you need to travel, and the breadth of options you have available.
Where does this data come from?
Source: UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, Our World in Data
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As legacy automakers transition to full electric, buyers in the U.S. can expect a wave of new EV models to arrive soon.
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Buyers in the market for an EV will have plenty of options to choose from over the next few years. It’s expected that there will be 134 models on sale in the U.S. by 2024—more than double of what’s available today.
Note: These figures may include variations of the same model. Example: The Tesla Model 3 comes in Base, Long Range, and Performance trims.
This wave of new electric models is being primarily driven by legacy automakers, many of whom are entering the EV market for the first time. For industry leader Tesla, it means that there is greater competition on the way.
This greater variety of vehicles comes at a time when interest in owning an electric vehicle is rising. In a recent survey from Morning Consult, the majority of American adults (51%) now report being very or somewhat likely to purchase a fully electric vehicle over the next decade.
Millennials are the most likely to be considering an EV as their next vehicle (70%).
Truck buyers have been waiting for their turn to experience electric power, and legacy brands like Ford, Chevrolet, and GM are ready to deliver.
Models include the recently announced Chevrolet Silverado EV, which should arrive shortly after the F-150 Lightning and Rivian R1T electric pickups. GM is also teasing its upcoming Hummer EV, which promises a whopping 1,000 horsepower.
Pickups and SUVs typically generate higher margins for automakers, so this next wave of EV models is an opportunity they won’t want to miss.
Where does this data come from?
Source: Electric Power Research Institute via Morning Consult, GM Authority, and Car and Driver
What is irrecoverable carbon, and where is it found?
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The Earth is home to some natural ecosystems that function as carbon vaults, storing massive amounts of carbon. Researchers developed the concept of “irrecoverable carbon” to identify areas on the basis of three criteria relevant for conservation:
Applying the three criteria across all ecosystems reveals that some places contain carbon that humans can manage, and if lost, could not be recovered by 2050, when the world needs to reach net-zero to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change.
The above graphic sponsored by Carbon Streaming Corporation charts global irrecoverable carbon by land area, highlighting important ecosystems of stored carbon.
According to researchers Noon, M.L., Goldstein, A. et al., natural ecosystems contain around 139.1 ± 443.6 gigatonnes (Gt) of irrecoverable carbon globally. (Because the amount of stored carbon cannot be negative, the researchers restrained the uncertainty to 0–582.7 Gt.)
Here’s a breakdown of global irrecoverable carbon by ecosystem type:
Generally, forests are among the most important stores of irrecoverable carbon, accounting for nearly half of the global total. This is because they contain various carbon sinks including trees, soil, and other living biomass.
Tropical and subtropical forests alone store around 30% of global irrecoverable carbon. These include evergreen tropical rainforests near the equator, where billions of trees absorb CO2 for photosynthesis and growth.
Peatlands, organic layers of soil composed of decaying plants and biomass, also contain around 28% of irrecoverable carbon. Additionally, wetlands and grasslands are also significant carbon vaults, making up 21% of the global total.
The 139Gt of irrecoverable carbon in these ecosystems remains within human purview to manage.
However, destroying or degrading these ecosystems would release this carbon into the atmosphere, making climate goals much more difficult to achieve. Since 2010, agriculture, logging, and wildfires have caused emissions of at least 4Gt of irrecoverable carbon.
One way to protect these areas is through the creation of carbon offset projects under the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) framework created by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). These projects work to protect and preserve these ecosystems by avoiding deforestation from commercial activities, such as logging or agriculture, or improving forest management practices.
Carbon Streaming recognizes the importance of these types of carbon credit projects in reaching net-zero by 2050 and has carbon credit streams in REDD+ projects around the world, including the Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve Project in Indonesia and the Cerrado Biome Project in Brazil.
Where does this data come from?
Source: Noon, M.L., Goldstein, A., Ledezma, J.C. et al. Mapping the irrecoverable carbon in Earth’s ecosystems. Nat Sustain 5, 37–46 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00803-6
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