Once upon a time, humanity existed without planes, trains and automobiles.
These days, we’re so used modern means of transportation, it’s easy to just, well, go through the motions without pausing to calculate the cumulative toll—an unsustainable cost that gets billed directly to Planet Earth.
The carbon cost of flying, driving or taking any other form of fossil-fueled transportation is major.
Before we truck on, here are some need-to-know stats about our freewheeling lifestyles. Transportation is the largest source of carbon emissions in the U.S., accounting for about 28 percent of all GHGs produced. That’s because more than 90 percent of the fuel we use to get around—be it by car, truck or plane—comes from petroleum.
Not only does transportation account for a colossal share of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions globally, but that quantity has also been going up for decades.
Transportation is the largest source of carbon emissions in the US, accounting for 28%.
Now, you might assume the carbon footprint of flying is largely to blame, and it’s true that planes are big GHG emitters (more on this later). But the biggest transportation-related contributor to climate change isn’t your once-in-a-while long weekend in London or Paris.
Instead, look closer to home.
The impact of cars on the environment is among the prime offenders. Road transportation accounts for 11.9 percent of total global GHGs. Turns out, cars (and, more to the point, SUVs and pick-ups) are called gas-guzzlers for good reason.
No one loves endless commutes and traffic jams, but it's not east to quit them: Emissions from transportation, driven by our collective dependency on automobiles, are expected to grow at a faster rate than emissions from any other sector. And while a shiny new EV is cool and all, the environmental impact of electric cars hasn’t put a dent in GHGs (yet) because people are just driving more and more. (Plus, just building that electric vehicle creates a lot of emissions, even before it leaves the factory.)
The bright side to all this?
Our current predicament makes the opportunities clear: Since a gigantic amount of greenhouse gas emissions originate with everyday activities like just driving from point A to B, we can make a mega-difference for the environment by changing those totally commonplace choices.
Read on for our guide to lowering your carbon footprint by rethinking how you get around town—and beyond.
Greening the daily grind
Good: Carpool into the future
Are you among the more than 76 percent of American commuters who drive to work—all alone—every day?
Join the 9 percent who carpool and think about how many cars you’re taking off the road, while still getting where you need to go.
According to The Rideshare Company, a non-profit organization, the US could save 33 million gallons of gas per day if the average commuting vehicle carried just one additional person. Plus, fewer cars = less stress-inducing gridlock.
You can organize a carpool the old-fashioned way, with a sign-up sheet in the lunchroom at the office. Or go high-tech via your company intranet or Slack group, or a carpooling app built for the job, like groupcarpool.com.
Side note: You may be wondering if it’s safe to carpool during a pandemic. Since the situation can change rapidly, always follow guidelines from your local health authorities.
Good: Think fuel-efficiency first
If you drive to work, choose a more fuel-efficient, less-polluting vehicle when it’s time to upgrade, and consider an electric or plug-in hybrid electric.
SUVs are the second-biggest cause of the rise in global carbon dioxide emissions during the past decade.
And if you’re sticking with a gas-powered car, remember that size really does matter.
Did you know that SUVs are the second-biggest cause of the rise in global carbon dioxide emissions during the past decade? The more mass, the more energy it takes to move it, so as a general guideline, a smaller car will have a smaller carbon footprint.
That said, don’t upgrade on a whim: the process of manufacturing vehicles emits an enormous amount of GHGs, so you’ll need to take that into account. Keeping your current ride well maintained makes a big difference when it comes to emissions, too.
Better: Commute without a car
Driving may offer the most direct route to your job, but for the environment’s sake, it’s worth researching the alternatives.
Catch a bus, train or streetcar if public transit is a workable option; plan ahead to sync up with the ride schedule. While it might take a little longer, since you won’t be behind the wheel, you’re free to use the time for something more interesting than grumbling about traffic. May we suggest a good book?
Better: Live closer to work
Think location, location, location.
Moving out to the ’burbs may have its appeal (ooh, nice big backyard), but sprawl equals reliance on driving and ever-growing gas emissions from cars.
Nearly 10 percent of American workers had a one-way commute of 60 minutes or more.
When possible, try to live near where you work, ideally close enough to get there on foot, bike or transit—or at least close enough to make your drive a brief one.
According to Census stats from 2019, nearly 10 percent of American workers had a one-way commute of 60 minutes or more, which is two hours a day you could be spending on much more worthwhile activities, like extra family time or keeping the dust off your home gym equipment.
Best: Switch face time for FaceTime (or Zoom)
Do you rack up the miles just to have face time with colleagues or clients, even if these in-person business meetings are, frankly, unnecessary?
Well, there’s FaceTime—and Zoom, Microsoft Teams and a myriad of other video-chat apps.
Best: Sell your boss on the idea of a “satellite office”
Or perhaps you can convince your manager that your company should join the work-from-home movement. As the pandemic has proven, offices are optional for many companies, and some have already made remote working policies permanent.
Zero commute means lower transportation-related carbon emissions, although the big-picture environmental impact is a bit more complicated.
Some research suggests, for example, that remote working could lead to higher energy consumption in winter, since heating lots of individual homes could take more power than heating one office building. (In other words, working from home gives you even more incentive to reduce your household carbon footprint.)
Rerouting your dream vacation
Good: Book the cheap seats if you have to fly
There’s no getting around the fact that the carbon cost of flying is, well, sky high. The flight emissions for one round-trip journey from New York to San Francisco, for example, are estimated at 0.9 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person.
That's about half of the entire per capita annual emissions we should be at to reach Paris Agreement goals.
One round trip from New York to San Francisco amounts to 50% of our per-capita annual emissions targets.
But sometimes there’s no way to your bucket-list destination without boarding a plane.
So, when booking a ticket, remember that all seats aren’t created equal. Yes, first-class comes with plentiful leg room and welcome champagne, but it also makes your flight’s carbon footprint six times larger than an average passenger’s.
Go economy instead.
Good: Go nonstop whenever possible
Since about a quarter of plane emissions come from landing, taxiing and taking off, opting for direct flights is the more environmentally mindful choice. (Bonus: your baggage is less likely to go MIA en route.)
Also, when planning your far-flung adventures, save some of your travel budget for purchasing carbon offsets to balance out your impact.
Better: Remember trains > planes
It’s actually pretty tricky to compare the carbon footprint of transportation modes.
It’s true that planes burn large amounts of fossil fuel, for example, while you could take electric-powered high-speed rail that produces zero emissions (beyond what the generation of that electricity required). But some trains are diesel-powered—plus, building the infrastructure to run trains has a considerable carbon footprint. You can see how the math gets messy.
But as a general rule of thumb, taking a train “virtually always” has a smaller travel footprint than flying if you’re choosing between the two.
Best: Go off the grid
Not every vacation has to involve flight emissions.
Ever since COVID-19 hit, international travel has taken a back seat to staycations. And if it seems like all your friends are heading to the backcountry with tents in tow, you’re not wrong. Camping is trending—in the stay-six-feet-apart era, the appeal of outdoorsy leisure in ample open space is as clear as the fresh air.
Another upside: going without electricity is one way to shrink your travel footprint. Plus, in many cities, especially in North America, it’s possible to find campsites near the urban core. Research your options on sites like pitchup.com, which lists thousands of campgrounds across five continents.
Getting around everyday life
Good: Be strategic about online shopping
Ordering anything you need with a single click is undeniably convenient, but online shopping can be hugely polluting, thanks to truck emissions.
The vehicles transporting your goods are largely diesel-powered, and the ease of free same-day/next-day shipping has made us accustomed to impulse-ordering numerous things, with packages coming one by one. That’s a lot of truck emissions—not to mention copious bubblewrap and oversize boxes.
If you shop online, try to buy in bulk, consolidate packages and choose economy shipping (i.e., not the fastest) whenever possible.
Though undeniably convenient, online shopping can be hugely polluting thanks to truck emissions.
Good: Do your part to reduce traffic jams
Rideshare services have long been accused of making already crowded city roads even more congested, and a recent study estimates that ride-hailing trips today result in 69 percent more climate pollution, on average, than the trips they displace.
In part, that’s because people often use ride-hailing not as an alternative to driving, but to replace public transit and biking.
Stick with low- or no-carbon modes of transportation when you can, or take a pooled ride instead of hailing a car just for yourself.
Better: Plan ahead to cut excess drives to the store
Maybe you can’t give up driving entirely when you’re running errands, like shopping for groceries.
But there are still ways to reduce non-essential trips and lower your carbon emission from cars.
For example, instead of zipping to the store every single time you forget the eggs or run out of milk, can you anticipate what you’ll need soon, so you can make fewer outings? There are plenty of apps that enable a household to sync a shared grocery list, as well as tools for meal planning. Also, do as your parents did: Stock up on stuff you can freeze for later.
Better: Think about whether you even need a vehicle
Instead of a long-term commitment to car culture, maybe you could do with a casual, no-strings-attached relationship.
Beyond traditional rental services like Enterprise and others, there are car-sharing options like Zipcar and Turo. And if you don’t have immediate access to a vehicle, you’ll be more likely to adopt alternatives to driving that fit into your lifestyle.
Best: Walk more, just for fun
You probably know that running your car while going nowhere isn’t a great idea. (The idling of personal vehicles emits 30 million tons of CO2 every year in the U.S.—and wastes about 3 billion gallons of fuel.)
Similarly, driving around just for the sake of driving around isn't the best use of energy.
In the US, idling personal vehicles wastes about 3 billion gallons of fuel every year.
The joys of walking, however, are totally underrated.
It’s exercise that also feels pleasurable and meditative, and research shows that walking is a popular practice among centenarians in Blue Zones (places where locals are known for longevity). Plus, walking is as close you can get to no-emission transportation (not including the fuel, a.k.a. food, powering your own two feet).
Best: Teach the next generation
It is possible to take your kids to and from school, or ferry them around to after-school activities, without using your car.
For example, consider organizing a “walking school bus” other families in your neighborhood, or perhaps you can plan to bike together as a family to your destination.
You can also take this opportunity to start a dialogue with your children on the environment, answer any questions they might have and talk about the importance of taking everyday action to make positive change.
Every little bit counts.
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This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.