The Sun Shines on the Railways–and Thoughts About My Carbon BigFootprint

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Image courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my carbon footprint. This internal exploration began after I’d written a quick little poem about a portion of President Trump’s beloved wall being blown down by a heavy wind, which you can read here.

One of the comments I received was from blogger Willedare, whose lovely posts at amusicallifeonplanetearth invariably bolster my spirits. Will combines recordings of his songs, research and anecdotal history about the composers, beautiful photos, and interesting insights. His blog is well worth visiting—and revisiting.

Here’s how Will raised my consciousness:

“…And due to our own desires to continue consuming fossil fuels (almost all of my friends continue to fly here and there as they have always done, taking vacations as they have always done, heating their homes and their hot water as they have always done, driving their cars — instead of walking or riding a bike or taking the bus or a train — as they have always done using FOSSIL FUELS) combined with the climate-change-denying leadership which we have elected to serve/lead us, we will all be receiving more and more ‘unmistakable jolts/From Mother Nature herself.’ Deep breath in. Deep breath out.”

And here’s my response:

“Ah, yes: we know a lot of the changes we really must make, but it’s so hard, isn’t it?

“I’m getting better at the little stuff: turning off lights, taking shorter, cooler showers, watching food purchases to try to reduce what gets thrown out and fuels methane in the landfills…

“But then I realized that the trip we just signed up for—to go to Alaska to see and hear about the impact of climate change on the glaciers and wildlife—will, in the plane trips back and forth and the small ship that hugs the land, give me a carbon footprint that’s larger than BigFoot’s, when I’m striving for one more Thumbelina-sized. Oh, the irony!

“Breathe in, breathe out—for sure! Thanks very much for your valuable reminder.”

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BigFoot, courtesy of Pixabay.com

This past week, as I exercised on a stationary bike at my gym, the delightful woman seated next to me and I began to talk. A former kindergarten/first grade teacher, now retired, she’s a full-time environmental activist.

As she described her group’s work, which is actually leading to legislative accomplishments, I told her that I’d written about climate change on my blog, but had had a rude self-awakening about my carbon BigFootprint.

The first wonderful thing she did was alleviate my guilt with some common sense real-world talk—giving me credit for the climate change discussions I’ve included on my blog as a contribution that had some meaning.

The second was to tell me about one of her organization’s efforts, which is gaining attention from powerful decision-makers and has a real chance to succeed: retrofitting the trains in our area to become solar-powered. “It’s happening in other countries, it’s feasible, economical, and it can happen here.”

Some Good News About Trains

This struck me as really big, good news. Since there’s so little of that on climate change these days, I hasten to share it with you.

It may not be happening as quickly as it should, but solar is being incorporated in trains in a number of countries—though not yet in the US, I must note. Some examples follow.

——“World’s First 100% Solar Powered Train”: The Byron Bay Train near Brisbane, Australia, 2017;

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Byron Solar Train, Australia.

——The first solar-powered diesel electrical multiple unit (DEMU) train, with six coaches and sixteen solar panels, launched by Indian Railways from a Delhi railway station; plus fully solar powered train stations in the city of Guwahati;

—— The world’s first solar-powered railway track in the cloudy UK, with a “solar farm” in the South of England powering the network, 2019 (article by Adele Berti, Railway Technology, as are the next several references);

——A planned Argentinian connection with Machu Picchu for tourists;

——A planned effort by Bankset Group, a British renewables financial investor, that may expand the potential significantly: with partners from Europe, China, and the US, Bankset has trials to attach solar panels to railway sleepers in many European and international locales;

—An Italian company, Greenrail, already has a range of solar-powered sleepers with photovoltaic panels “and also contribute to a circular economy—being made up of some recycled materials.”

But with the exception of Australia, I believe, the trains aren’t near-totally solar: they have solar panels on their roofs and are backed up by batteries charged in stations.

Still, a spokesman for Bankset Group said:

“We believe that solar panels on rails are able to provide 30% of national grids’ 24/7 energy load requirements, and that this is now the most cost-effective solution.”

But he added,

It is a political issue as most of the rail network belongs to regions and respective states; many rail lines are privatized.”

Some Muddling of the Issue

So there’s much to be hopeful about. But when we look at the carbon footprint facts concerning today’s modes of transportation—aren’t trains better than planes? Pretty simple question, yes?

No. That task took me down a dusty path that made my head hurt. It’s not so straightforward, and there are many qualifiers. “Flight-shame,” a new phenomenon among environmentally conscious folks, isn’t totally justified.

Let’s quickly pass over the wag who said the best carbon footprint comes from staying home and looking at postcards.

And we don’t need anyone to tell us that walking, hiking, canoeing, and biking are less damaging to the environment than other modes.

But after that, it’s hard to give a simple answer. Often, it depends…

This is important because around 1/5 of total greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, with the number closer to 30% in most industrialized countries, according to two researchers at University of California, Davis, reports Salon.

“Train virtually always comes out better than plane, often by a lot,” according to a BBC Science and Environment report. But the type of train and other variables factor in. The carbon emissions from diesel trains can be double those of electric trains.

The electricity source is also important. In France, for example, about 75% of electricity comes from nuclear power, compared with Poland, which is 80% powered by coal.

(I recognize how bad coal is, but nuclear power has scared the hell out of me since I read “We Almost Lost Detroit,” a book that describes a partial nuclear meltdown of the first commercial breeder reactor in 1966. Still, nuclear power is considered an important transitional fuel to get to a greener future.)

A 2009 study found that passenger travel on the Boston light rail, an electric commuter train in the US, produces as much as or more emissions per passenger than does a jetliner for the same reason: the electricity was generated by fossil fuels such as coal, while commercial aircraft burn kerosene, which is cleaner. I hope it’s improved since then.

The Most and Least Harmful Ways to Travel

A group called Indigo Park Services UK compared the ways to travel based on how much carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere per person, per kilometer (0.6 miles), reports Salon.

The single most harmful way to travel? Number 1 in this study are large ferries that carry freight vehicles and passengers—exactly the type onto which we shall drive our car this summer for our yearly island visit with dear friends (!).

They emit 0.85 lb of CO2 per kilometer, per person, compared to only 0.04 lb if the ferry just carries passengers on foot.

Oh no! My Carbon BigFootprint just grew exponentially. (Or maybe the ferry we take isn’t considered quite so massive…)

2. Long-haul flight, first class
3. Large gas/petrol car
4. Large Diesel Van
5. Large autogas car

A bicycle has the same amount of emissions as an electric car with solar panels—none.
So those are are 1. and 2. on the “least harmful” list, followed by
3. Electric car (no solar panels)
4. International rail (Eurostar)
5. Foot passenger ferry.

Cruise ship emissions appear to be similar to those from airplanes, though cruise lines have been pressured for years to reduce not only high emissions, but also the impact of waste disposal and air pollution, reports the BBC.

Some Interesting Data

*Traveling the same distance on a short haul flight, economy class, is environmentally better than traveling in a small car powered by gasoline.

*If you choose to go first or business class, the additional space between passengers throws off that calculation.

*Try for direct flights, as take-offs and landings use the most fuel.

*Pack lightly: “if all passengers packed one less pair of shoes, or roughly 2 lb/1kg, the aircraft’s fuel savings would be the same as taking 10,500 cars off the road for an entire year.”

*If you can’t avoid having your lap in luxury, you can check Atmosfair’s airline ranking for the most efficient airline.

*And you can actually purchase carbon offsets, which cancel emissions somewhere else in the world and are offered by most domestic and many international airlines. This New York Times article tells you how to do it.

*Though we’d all love to stretch out in a less-than-full plane, all those bodies smushed together is environmentally good, so peak-time flights are better than late-night ones.

When driving your car, you can increase your mileage by 33% on the highway and 5% locally by avoiding hard acceleration and braking.

Similarly, increased mileage occurs when you drive below 60 mph, reduce idling, and do regular maintenance on your car (oil filters, tires, etc.)

What Should Our Carbon Footprint Be?

According to the Nature Conservancy, which has a non-working calculator that I thought would help me find out my actual Carbon Footprint, the average for a person in the US is 16 tons, whereas the global average is closer to 4 tons.

If we’re to avoid a 2 degree Celsius rise, the average global carbon footprint must shrink to less than 2 tons by 2050.

“By making small changes to our actions, like eating less meat, taking less connecting flights, and line-drying our clothes, we can start making a big difference.”

(That last one about clothes drying is tough for me; I well remember the cardboard-stiff bath towels my mother would remove from the backyard clothesline. I’d happily pay carbon offsets to avoid those…)

As my new friend at the gym advised me, we don’t have to make ourselves crazy over all this, but if each of us makes some effort, we can collectively make a difference. I shall certainly pack fewer pairs of shoes next time I fly!

Any thoughts you’d care to share?

Annie

31 thoughts on “The Sun Shines on the Railways–and Thoughts About My Carbon BigFootprint

  1. Annie, I love this post. Thank you so much for sharing your learning about trains and transportation. There is always so much to consider when thinking about environmental impact, and sometimes it can get downright overwhelming (and even depressing – think about the pictures of energy generating wind turbine parts stacked in landfills that was circulating on social media this week!)
    Still I think there are so many innovations happening so quickly that it gives us hope. Will government in the US catch up with the innovation of many citizens and some corporations? I hope so, but Trump’s approach has been more than disheartening…
    There is so much I would love to chat about in reference to this topic.
    A little tip from an islander where our most iconic images feature colourful lines of clothes and we all still line dry our clothes where possible – toss stiff towels and jeans in the dryer on low heat for 5 minutes after you bring them in the house. It does the trick and overall you will use so much less energy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Janine—

      So pleased by your reaction! Feel free to come back if you want to say more.

      US govt will catch up only if we can defeat trump and win the Senate, I fear.

      Great idea about drying towels outside—would probably earn a town citation for blatant ugliness, though.

      Like

  2. Wow I’m surprised at plane journeys not being number 1 on that list! As ever, such a lot of information to unpack in that Annie. Genuinely illuminating and interesting. I was reading something the other day on the carbon footprint of a simple avocado. Once it had been shipped and transported from S. America it was extortionate in terms of CO2 cost!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I hear you. I’m pretty mindful about the little stuff, too. The hard part is travel. As you know I hitchhike much, use blablacar ride share, and love those trains in Europe (when not hitchhiking). But the flights — man, I don’t know if I could ever give up flying to entry points abroad.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suspect you have one of the teensiest carbon footprints of anyone in the USA, so your air travels shouldn’t be a source of too much concern. I’m guessing you’re not flying first class or business class.
      How is your book going? I plan to buy it shortly.
      If you have time to look at my poemish pieces in my previous post, I would welcome your kind but critical observations. I write little poetry, so I’m grateful for guidance from those whose work I respect.
      Cheers!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Bravo, Annie. So informative! And encouraging. Love the solar trains. Airplanes are tough — it’s a big country, a big world. But of course, I can do more — we all can. And I am heartened to see the facts on exactly the kind of changes needed — including one pair of shoes less when packing for the plane! Giving up avocados? Who knew? Ferries? Again, that was news to me. Love it. Thanks so much for your fabulous, quirky mind, Annie, and your careful research, and your kind delivery, and mastery of language. I always learn so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” That is a 2020 resolution I made re: taking more personal responsibility – and encouraging others to do the same- re:climate change. I recognize I am pretty clueless as to what I as an individual and my family can and should do to make a difference. So my first task has been to research what small things can be done and then doing them. (Your post is most informative.) Creating this kind of a personal commitment is a critical first step moving forward for anyone. My sense is that comparatively few people are trying to take the few small steps they could in their everyday lives. As for the bigger steps, well, I have reservations for three autos on the ferries going to the same place you are this summer. Oops!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that too few people are taking those small steps—possibly even thinking about what they can do. I was pleased to discover a number that are quite workable. (The shoes in suitcase when packing for a plane is one I find mind-boggling!) Please feel free to share this post if you feel it will be helpful.

      Like

  6. Lots of interesting information Annie as usual! I line dry clothes in the summer, esp. sheets, such a lovely smell. I wish train travel was more prevalent here. I remember there being 4 trains to Toronto and 4 back every day to my home city when I was a student in the late 70’s. Now there’s one in and one out, and they had to fight Via Rail to even get that one. I’d much rather take a train to another city than drive on a major highway with all those big trucks, but we are a big country and no one seems interested in train travel anymore, other than freight.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. People who feel as you do surely exist in your community. Perhaps a letter to the editor in your local paper could start things going. There may even be efforts under way. I knew nothing about the solar train program growing in my area until I happened to talk with the involved woman in my gym.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh there’s a committee of dedicated people trying to get more trains on the schedule – they’ve been fighting for it for the past 8 years ever since Via cut back to one. Last year they announced they would be adding in one more train, but I haven’t seen anything yet. It’s a shame esp for students who need to get back and forth to school, as we do not have any bus service either, so that means parents have to drive them back and forth. We just hopped on the train. I used to go shopping in downtown London at the big Eatons centre for the day on the train. It was very convenient, and you can read while you’re getting there. Because we are such a big spread out country I don’t think it’s a priority and another factor is the train tracks are not in good shape which requires more money being spent. I think the solar panels are interesting, but not sure they would work here with our long winters but certainly worthwhile.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Australia is even more spread out, isn’t it? The train that was renovated was from 1949; I think there’s a good bet that the tracks there were old too. What’s lacking is the will—and an aroused citizenry everywhere to make this a high priority.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Canada is very highly in debt – not sure about Australia. No money for infrastructure – at least not on trains. If you live near Toronto where there are more people, it’s different, they are always expanding light rail transit and GO trains there. Trudeau has to solve a lot of problems before that one!

        Like

  7. I struggle with this idea that climate change is man made and/or able to be controlled. And yet my carbon footprint is likely lower than many who are fully bought in. We get on a plane maybe two or three times a decade and most people would rebel at the low temperature we keep the house in the winter. I drive the same subcompact car I bought in 2006.

    Although trains and other kinds of mass transit work on the dense east coast, they are virtually extinct and/or unusable in the rest of the country. We had a track locally that people claimed for years would be great for transit. The tracks got ripped up because everyone wants a trail. I would ride a bus at least occasionally if I knew where I could catch one – I live in a 60+ year old neighborhood and there is not a bus stop within a mile of where I live.

    I could be wrong, but I suspect that our climate is more durable and less controllable than most believe. And even if I am wrong, consider that just 100 years ago virtually every house in every city in the US was burning coal in a furnace. Now it is even vanishing as a fuel source for industrial powerplants in the developed world. They are, however, still being built elsewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As you are a thoughtful person, I sense some movement in your position with regard to whether human activity plays the major role in climate change.
      But I agree your carbon footprint is probably smaller than many, so that’s good overall.
      And coal’s lack of viability has been known for years—despite political efforts to deny the inevitable.
      True leadership, if we could somehow attain it, would result in a vast public-private partnership to address our failing infrastructure and sparse mass transportation with 21st century technology, creating decent jobs where needed and giving you rail options…perhaps even a bus within walking distance.

      Like

  8. No matter what your footprint is, I have to give you credit for bringing an informative discussion to the table. Solar-powered trains are going in the right direction. I hope the US can catch up by doing something innovative.
    Great post Annie.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Good stuff, I’ve been fortunate to see some interesting things in my career. Doing a summer student position at a nuclear power generation plant made me an early convert to not wasting electricity, and I have a good platform to lecture people about it (Do you know how much trouble it is to make electricity?) and seeing the staggering pollution in industrial China and doing equipment installations at aluminum smelters all over the world gives me a good platform to lecture about recycling (This stuff is 100% recyclable, do you know how much trouble it is to make this?)
    Anyway, having some experience in how big yet how small and vulnerable our world is you still have to live in the world. If you do a reasonably small amount of travel, and consume reasonably that’ll do. Going nuts on your footprint won’t make a difference with just you. What we need to do is find ways to make everyone consume a little less, that will make a difference.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that was my conclusion as well.
      Your real-world experience is noteworthy. I have read that nuclear power is “the most expensive way to boil water,” and I don’t think there’s yet a validated way to deal with the waste. Yet many reputable environmental sources see it as a necessary bridge to a carbon-free future. Any light you can shed on this matter?

      Like

      1. Well, it’s definitely part of the mix, I can see existing facilities being used well past their original best before date, it seems unlikely that the political will would exist (here in Ontario at least) to build new nuclear facilities.
        Even in the early 1990s when I was a student it was known that maintenance and operating costs were way higher than anticipated. And then there’s the waste, both the spent fuel rods and the warehouses of low level waste (gloves, building materials, etc). That’s a bit depressing.
        But research is continuing, which gives me hope that they’re not just kicking the radioactive can down the road to find there really is no solution.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Great information you have here. I am starting my own experiments in trying to lower my carbon footprint. Things a little more hopeful in the UK I feel. At least the govt here acknowledges the problem. THe rhetoric is positive, but the actions yet to be forthcoming.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Lynne. Thank you , and welcome to Annieasksyou! I’m so pleased to have you with me. I’m sure you’re right that things re: climate change are more hopeful in the UK.
      I’ll stop by and visit you soon. Cheers,
      Annie

      Like

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