I'm going to be traveling from London to Toulouse next year. I could take a flight for around £100, or a train journey for £170. The emissions for the flight would be about 500kg, which would cost about £10 to offset at today's prices. To be sure, I could offset it 3 times for £30, and still get there faster and save £40.

Which is the best option, to travel by train, or take the flight and use the money saved to offset 3 times the emissions of the flight?

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    How long would the flight take? How long the trainride? How are the distances travelled? How would you arive at the airport, how far is it for you to the next trainstation? How much CO2 would be emitted by the trainride? Also, how would you define "best option": moneywise? timewise? environmental-wise? Furthermore, your header indicates a different question than you asked in the body. – Erik Oct 9 '19 at 7:26
  • the per passenger CO2 emissions for the train journey are in the region of 40Kg – Christopher Gilmour Oct 10 '19 at 15:41

There is a saying in the sustainability world; "Reduce what you can, offset what you can't".

If you burn fossil fuels, you are adding CO2 to the atmosphere. While it is possible to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels with an off-setting scheme, for example by planting new trees that take up CO2, burning fossil fuels still raises the amount of carbon that is part of the Earth's carbon cycle. At a certain point there will be too much carbon and off-setting no longer works. In fact, some people claim it is already impossible to compensate all of our emissions (see for example the answers on this Earth Science SE question).

I'm assuming this trip to Toulouse is too important for you to not go, so then the train is the better option here simply because the emissions are lower. And if you are really dedicated to be environmentally friendly you should offset the emissions for the train.

Note that not all off-setting schemes are equally effective, so you may want to do some research before you select one. Check if it is Gold Standard or Verified Carbon Standard certified. Also select projects that focus on renewable energy or energy efficiency as these are usually most effective. You can find more information on this in this Short Guide to Carbon Offsets from Ethical Consumers.org

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  • Regarding "too important": if everybody else goes and I attend remotely I have good reason to believe that I will be marginalised in a number of important discussions and decisions. If everybody attended remotely (which is starting to look like a possibility) then it may be possible to conduct the business with less travel -- but it would be challenging. In this community we have dozens of online meetings for every "face-to-face" meeting .. but those annual "face-to-face" meetings are still considered essential. – M Juckes Mar 2 at 22:36

Yes. Account for as many externalities as possible.

Ticket price

  • Flight £100
  • Train £170

Environmental Impact Cost

Calculate the offset costs for both options, so that they would both be equally Carbon Neutral.

  • The flight, as you've calculated is £100 + £10 = £110
  • The train is about 40Kg CO2 so £170 + £1 = £171

Perhaps we can assume that CO2 footprint of getting to the airport is the same as the CO2 footprint of getting to the railway station so they cancel each other out.

Opportunity cost of travel time

The flight time is 01:45, the train duration is about 07:49. You have to put a price on your leisure time, personally my price is £15 per hour, its about the same as my labour rate. Other people may value their leisure time more or less.

So for the flight I'm using up £26.25 of my leisure time. For the train, it would be £117.25.

Adding these onto the CO2 and ticket costs

  • Flight £136.25
  • Train £288.25

Now both options are Carbon Neutral and we've accounted for the time taken. Now think about your job, where the money comes from, when you commute to work, you might generate CO2 if you travel by car, or by train, or electric car. Your job might generate CO2 just from running computers or heavy machinery.

Which ever travel option you chose for the trip to Toulouse has to be paid for by your labours, which generate some degree of CO2. Even if you offset the CO2 for your labour, it still means more labour to pay for it. To minimise the amount of labour you can chose the cheapest travel option, that is flying.

You would have to do twice as much work to pay for the train journey.

On the other hand. If you can somehow persuade your employer that you can do work on the train journey and get paid for it, then that throws the equations the other way.

Although the basic principle remains, to account for as many externalities as possible, convert them into some financial sum, and apply it.

Other externalities

Some people might argue that the CO2 cost (£20 per tonne) is a bit low. That's fine we can adjust our sums accordingly. The train is twice as expensive as the plane, so even if the Carbon Tax / Offset Cost of CO2 doubled, the plane might still be the better option. If the CO2 price increased sixfold (to £120 per tonne) then it might tip the balance, but society would be very different already in such a scenario.

Some people might argue that the plane pollutes the atmosphere and so has a greater cost. That's fine too, we can look up what that cost is and apply it. But also establish the precise CO2 footprint of the energy source for the train, is it diesel or electric, nuclear electricity or coal.

You can go on for ages, adding more and more marginal costs to either side, but it probably won't affect the outcome that the fast cheap flight is better than the slow expensive train, and the environmental impact is cheap to pay for.

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  • 1
    Better concerning what? Definitely not environmentally. – Erik Oct 11 '19 at 12:07
  • We've priced in the carbon offset for both options which makes them environmentally equal. Is there an environmental impact that hasn't been accounted for? – Christopher Gilmour Oct 11 '19 at 12:12
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    No, it makes them economically equal. Still the environmental effect of the flight is way larger. – Erik Oct 11 '19 at 12:18

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