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

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