'Get off that train and share a Land Rover with six friends – it’s better for the environment'

Published: 05 August 2019

► The great climate change argument
► Are cars sometimes cleaner?
► Mark Walton looks at the numbers 

There was that great moment, back in January – a moment of hypocrisy so pure and transparent it appeared in rare crystalline form. It was when the world’s elite took an estimated 1500 private jets to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to wring their hands about climate change and listen to David Attenborough. ‘Things have got to change!’ they insisted, as their jets touched down and they transferred to their limousines.

How refreshing then, that Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate protester, travelled to Davos from her home in Sweden entirely by train. She used the train again a few weeks ago, when she came to London to meet MPs – you know, inspirational climate campaigners like Ed Miliband, who himself has racked up 20,000 air miles since March 2018, according to the Parliamentary Register of Interests.  

Thunberg’s stance on air travel introduced the UK media to a new word: flygskam, meaning ‘flight shame’. Sweden is going through a crisis of conscience over air travel, not least because their per capita air-travel emissions over the last 25 years have been calculated to be five times the global average. The #flygskam trend is now helping to drive down bookings – airport operator Swedavia AB reports domestic air travel was down three per cent in 2018, after years of growth. Tågskryt – ‘train bragging’ – is now also a thing. Flygskam caught on with the British press because it’s such a great word. There’s something about the Swedishness of it that makes it so appealing – it’s like this complex environmental issue has been repackaged as an Ikea chair. Finland’s expression for the same thing, lentohapea, is never going to catch on; nor the Dutch vliegschaamte.

So it’s great that Thunberg’s flight-shaming has highlighted the issues of cross-continental travel, but as car enthusiasts we should also be sceptical about the numbers being bandied about. For example, one article in The Guardian loosely claimed that trains produce 15g of CO2 per kilometre, while flying produces 100g/km. As avid readers of CAR’s spec panels, we all know those numbers seem ridiculously low – I mean, even a Kia Picanto produces 128g/km.

So let’s drill into the figures, using the data produced by the European Environment Agency (EEA). It claims that trains release 14g of CO2 per passenger-kilometre; an ‘average car’ releases 55g/km; and a plane releases 285g/km. Watch out for the assumptions made to reach these numbers: for instance, the EEA assumes there are 156 passengers on board the train, sharing the CO2 burden. It assumes 88 passengers on the plane; and the car is travelling four-up. If you drive alone, you produce all of the CO2 yourself, which means 4 x 55g = 220g/km. Which sounds much more realistic. 

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate protester (Getty)

Now you understand how the numbers are derived, you can play around with the scenarios. Imagine Greta (above) climbed on board her night train from Stockholm to discover she was the only person on board. You or I might think, ‘Great, I can spread out a bit! And I don’t have to make small talk with strangers!’ But poor Greta, she’s thinking: ‘Oh God, no! Now I must bear the CO2 output for the entire train! Which, by EEA calculations, means 14g x 156 = 2184g per kilometre! And I’m going all the way to Davos!’

Much better that she disembarks the train at that point and climbs aboard a Land Rover Discovery 5 turbodiesel with six friends – 197g/km divided by seven means just 28g per passenger per kilometre! Better for the planet, better for British industry! 

Then you have to factor in the distances covered. The Bugatti Chiron owner is made to feel like a climate criminal, because his or her 8.0-litre quad-turbo W16 engine produces a monstrous 516g/km of CO2. But then I don’t see many Chirons doing thousands of miles up and down the motorway every year. Even assuming Greta’s train did have 155 other passengers on board, her round-trip journey to Davos gave her a personal CO2 burden of 14g/km x 4000km = 56kg. Perhaps she, David Attenborough and Ed Miliband should all just stay at home next time.

More opinion pieces by Mark Walton

By Mark Walton

Contributing editor, humorist, incurable enthusiast