On the right tracks

We chartered a train to Glasgow for COP26 and took 500 people with us. This is what we learned.

Policy makers should start holding the aviation industry accountable for its emissions.

The world’s eyes are turned to Glasgow with COP26 - this year’s edition of UN’s annual climate conference - takes place this fortnight. 

Delegates, scientists, and activists made their way to Glasgow by car, plane, and even by foot and - even a chartered Eurostar train dubbed the ‘climate train’ that cut its way through the Belgian landscape.

The train was buzzing with activity as it made its way towards Glasgow at 250 km/hr. The 500 passengers, spread out over 15 coaches, participated in different workshops and activities.

Windmills

As I made my way through the train, I could hear activists learning about climate litigation, journalists holding interviews, delegates discussing negotiations, and young people brainstorming ways to make rail travel more attractive.

The mission of the climate train is to put focus on the need for alternatives to aviation.

Rail travel has a markedly lower climatic impact than flying: a seat on a flight from Amsterdam to Glasgow has a climate impact equivalent to 10 spots on our train, a Danish daily calculated, with help of a climate expert. With our climate train, we effectively showed that rail travel is a viable, sustainable alternative to short-haul flights.

In the coming years, long-distance rail trips like ours from Amsterdam to Glasgow need to become the norm. Because while air travel already makes up around 3% of global emissions, this number is expected to increase rapidly.

It is notoriously hard to reduce emissions in the aviation sector. While windmills and electric vehicles are already mature technologies, airplanes are much harder to decarbonise that cars or power plants.

Aviation

Policy makers should start holding the aviation industry accountable for its emissions.

The sheer amount of power needed to keep an airplane in the air and the weight of batteries make electrical air travel a pipe dream for decades to come. Worse, burning fuels at great height causes additional climate impact due to the formation of chemtrails.

Thus biofuels, touted by some airliners as the future of air travel, only take away half of the problem. A convincing tech-fix is nowhere in sight.

Also politically, air travel has a unique position. Because airplanes navigate international airspace, aviation is its own category in climate agreements, thus far exempt from any binding target.

The current proposals to reduce aviation emissions, including the recent pledge to achieve carbon neutral aviation in 2050, are entire voluntary and heavily rely on dubious offset schemes and problematic biofuels.

At the same time, aviation emissions are distributed extremely unequally; research shows a tiny one percent of the world population are responsible for half of all emissions from aircraft, while a large majority never flies.

Hub

The privileged few are unlikely to give up their flying habits, while more people demand access to international travel. Without further measures, aviation emissions may thus quadruple by 2050. Thus, the urgency to overcome a political stalemate and find good alternatives to air travel is indisputable.

The participants of the climate train came up with proposals for how individuals, rail companies, and policy makers can play their part in accelerating the transition away from air travel and towards rail travel.

Firstly, individuals should realise they have many roles in society: many are not only consumers, but also employees, employers, activists, and/or advocates.

They should use the influence they have in each of those roles: to go beyond changes their own travel habits, and exert influence on travel policies on a company, national, or even global level, as we will attempt at COP26.

Next, the rail industry should prioritise connectedness and inclusivity. Rail companies should build connections on multiple levels: to other major rail companies, so booking tickets will be more straightforward, to local public transport operators, so public transport becomes a door-to-door experience, and local society, so train stations can be a meeting hub.

Restructuring

At the same time, rail companies should double down on efforts to make rail travel accessible to families, people with disabilities, and people with limited travel budgets.

Finally, policy makers should start holding the aviation industry accountable for its emissions by including aviation in climate agreements and demanding that the aviation sector brings their emissions in line with the 1.5C goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

They should also use economic tools, such as imposing taxes on tickets and airplane fuel and putting a higher price on carbon emissions from airplanes, while investing in high-speed rail networks.

Finally, some particularly noxious practices such as flight advertisements and short-haul flights where rail alternatives are available may need to be entirely banned.

As world leaders meet at COP26 to discuss how to tackle the climate crisis, it is clear the aviation sector can no longer be allowed to evade responsibility for its disproportionate climate impact. Now is the time to jump on the climate rain and start restructuring our transport system.

This Author

Tiem van der Deure is a co-organiser of Rail to the COP.

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