Trains, Planes and Automobiles

This month I have been looking at the different ways in which various transport modes approach their environmental responsibilities. As COP28 comes to a close this year in Dubai it has been interesting to see, once more, how climate change takes the centre stage in the global environmental conversation. 

A vast amount of pollution and greenhouse gases are generated from our increasing appetite for transport and travel both in the UK and internationally. Different sectors have very different funding, ambition, and governance arrangements; however, all seem to recognise the impact they have on the environment and are putting plans in place to monitor their impact and reduce it.

Starting with Aviation, we will all have been on holiday and recall the walk from the terminal to the plane, and how the air smelt and tasted. Idling planes produce a vast range of pollutants from their vast engines and waiting on the tarmac to board is one of the most unpleasant parts of our trips.

The Governments Jet Zero (great name) is an interesting read and sets out some of the challenges the sector faces as it plans towards decarbonisation. It does recognise the non-CO2 impacts of aviation fuel and its wider environmental impacts, and the development of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

Only last week Virgin flew the first 100% SAF transatlantic flight by a commercial airline, from London to New York. They used a blend of Hydro-processed Esters and Fatty Acids and Synthetic Aromatic Kerosene for any chemists out there.

The Rail industry has equally challenging but different environmental problems. As a country we have electrified many of our routes, which is a great start, however I wonder how much of the electricity required is from renewable sources. We do also still have many Diesel trains operating passenger and freight services up and down the country.

I often bring my hand-held pollution monitor on the train journeys I take for work and am surprised by some of the results. Having had a quick look online there does not seem to be much research on on-train pollution levels so I will continue with my citizen science project.

What there is much more evidence on is the pollution levels in stations. More and more studies are underway looking at how pollution, mainly from the rolling stock, but not entirely, circulates around platforms where vast numbers of passengers wait to board.

Hyperlocal monitoring, the like of which we are seeing more and more in our town centres, is a powerful tool for the rail industry to build into their environmental plans and projects.

And finally, the road transport industry, which to be fair, produces significantly more pollution and greenhouse gases than rail and aviation combined. We do have a whole host of national and local policies and projects in place and planned to maintain the good progress we are making on reducing the environmental impact of road transport.

One example is the Low Emission Zone in Edinburgh. The signs are going up at the moment, and it will be enforced from June 2024. Unlike a Clean Air Zone drivers cannot pay to drive a non-compliant vehicle within the zone, instead fines are applied and start at £60 but increase to almost £500 for the fourth ‘offence’.

It is fair to say that not all of the policies and projects that local authorities and central government are progressing are well received by the public. The ‘weaponisation’ of the London ULEZ is a good example of how well evidenced solutions can lead to civil unrest. More on this from me in 2024.    


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