Resources

Long-Distance Transit & Shipping

Overview of Long-Distance Transit & Shipping 

In Part 1 of the mobility series, we discussed personal mobility and regional transportation. Challenges facing the sustainability of long-distance transit are very different due to the long distances and heavy loads. These two factors make current technologies incompatible with the realities of these transportation systems. Electricity-powered vehicles are constrained by the inability to travel long distances without charging and lack of charging infrastructure. Heavy cargo also puts an enormous strain on emerging technologies. To make long-distance travel sustainable, we must either look to advancements in technology or transform our collective behavior. 

Long-Distance Travel: Planes and Trains

Planes and trains are the two most developed infrastructure networks for long-distance travel. The challenge with trains, similar to cars, is that they are only as sustainable as the power source they draw their energy from. Airplanes, on the other hand, don’t have a readily available solution due to their mass and the inability of current battery technology to sustain commercial flights. Reducing the amount of air travel and investing in making rail more appealing is a good way to curb flight emissions. 

Trains 

As people become more aware of sustainability issues, trains become the more attractive travel alternative. Although it takes longer to reach your destination and routes are limited, railways provide a comfortable experience that aligns with the ideas of slow living. Not only do they provide a transportation alternative that is less fuel intensive, travel via train also encourages regional tourism, local investment, and the ability to create new green jobs. Did you know you can travel from Portugal to Vietnam in two weeks, stopping in at least seven different countries? This kind of slow travel shows the cultural shift necessary for reducing our global airline emissions. However, to be truly carbon neutral we need our trains to run on energy generated from renewable sources. Efforts to electrify the rail system, such as Solutionary Rail, advocate for the social and economic benefits of upgrading the existing infrastructure to run on renewables. 

Germany’s carbon-free hydrogen-cell powered train is an awesome example of the potential for sustainable rail transportation. A hydrogen fuel tank on the roof converts hydrogen and oxygen from the air into electric power. As a safety measure, the train is also equipped with lithium batteries that store excess energy and power the train when needed. It will be a slow process to modernize all trains, but this example shows the opportunity for sustainable travel within existing rail infrastructure. Current train systems are a more sustainable option than airplanes for long-distance travel. The reality is, however, that our globalized world depends on aviation for fast mobility and connecting places not accessible by land.  

Air Travel  

Aviation accounts for 11% of carbon emissions within the transportation sector. Lower costs and a growing demand for overseas travel will likely see this figure rise in the future. This, and the fact that battery technology has not advanced enough to be an option for airplanes makes it particularly important to continue developing new technologies. Currently, the most viable strategies for making aviation more sustainable include using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), using carbon offsets, and advancing electric battery storage. 

Sustainable aviation fuel is derived from renewable resources, similar to biofuels discussed in Part 1. SAF is promising because it can be used in current airplane engines without any modifications. Although it is certainly not a long-term option due to the amount of food crops that would need to be diverted to fulfil the demand, it does provide a small-scale solution to reduce, but not eliminate, greenhouse gasses from flying. If you’re concerned with the environmental impact from your flights carbon offsets can mitigate emissions. 

For now, carbon offsets are the most accessible way to reduce the impact of flying. As technology catches up to consumer demands for lower CO2 emission transportation, buying carbon offsets is a personal decision that reflects an interest in sustainability. On the other hand, carbon offsets put the financial burden of sustainability on the consumer making it a socio-economic issue. Care must also be taken to ensure that carbon offsets don’t greenwash aviation emissions by making consumers feel complacent by their contribution and unmotivated to promote real change. By transitioning away from combustion engines, airlines can reduce their operating costs by 50 to 80% making it a much more accessible option. And, we may not be so far away from electric-powered aviation afterall! 

Most of the energy involved with flying is related to taking off. Once airborne, battery-powered motors with solar panels on the wings, can sustain long-distance flights. The obstacle is getting the airplane off the ground to begin with. Innovative solutions, such as on-ground launching devices, could be implemented, but are a long way from market viability. Other options include hybrid models in which jet fuel propels the airplane during takeoff and electric batteries sustain the engines during the flight. Electrification also allows greenifying on-the-ground operations at airports. By making airport operations carbon-neutral, the overall environmental impact of flying can be reduced. 

Behavioral Impacts 

While technology advances to make long-distance travel and shipping more sustainable, the biggest action we can take is to modify our behaviors. 

As travelers, we take advantage that long-distance travel has become so easy. A weekend trip halfway across the word is doable, as is flying hundreds of miles for an afternoon business meeting. However, we can reduce our carbon footprint by using the train, embracing regional travel and using virtual communication tools. As consumers, we have enormous purchasing power to influence supply chains. What we buy can promote locally sourced and crafted products. Educating ourselves on the thousands of miles resources travel to be refined, manufactured, packaged, and ultimately sold. 

Conclusion 

Technological advancements in long-distance travel are not developing as quickly as personal mobility vehicles. Size and weight considerations make these transportation methods more demanding of their fuel sources. Though many exciting technologies are being tested and introduced to the market, the biggest influence we can have today is through our behavioral choices. Choosing lower-emission options like trains, buying locally, being conscious of supply chains, and reducing unnecessary long-distance travel when possible is immediately actionable. The realities of our globalized world demand a global transportation system and if our collective behavior demonstrates a commitment to decarbonization, we can encourage advancements and implementation in sustainable technologies for our long-distance travel options.