Greta Thunberg’s Train Journey CO2 Savings Aren’t All They Seem

Violet Elizabeth Bott Greta Thunberg did all her running around Europe by train, not plane, in order to reduce her carbon emissions. The thing is, such reduced emissions aren’t in fact all they seem.

When Greta Thunberg stepped on to the platform at Stockholm Central station on Thursday after completing her European tour to raise awareness of climate change, an unassuming 69-year-old who runs a tiny travel firm was there to greet her. Ivar Karlsson has found his business in the spotlight as appetite grows for alternatives to flying. It was Karlsson, whose company specialises in rail-only holidays, that Greta and her father contacted to book their trip, which took in stops in Strasbourg, Rome, London before heading back to Sweden.

Well, at least, good for walking the walk. However:

With train travel generating 15g of CO2 per kilometre compared with about 100g for flying, environmentally conscious Swedes such as Greta are stopping flying, or at least reducing the number of flights they take.

That’s not actually true that 15 grammes. Sure, it might be true, under a certain set of assumptions. But how realistic are those assumptions? Not very is the answer.

Actual emissions from a journey start at zero. If the train’s going anyway then you getting on it has an entirely trivial effect on emissions. The same is also true of a plane of course. Easyjet’s going to fly London Edinburgh whether you get on the ‘plane or not. The emissions of your trip are zero.

The calculation leading to the 15 grammes starts with using the French railway as the baseline. That’s the one that’s near entirely ‘leccie run. Getting on a diesel train is about as emitive as using a car (certain circumstances for engine size and no. of people in car etc). Further, French ‘leccie largely comes from nuclear plants which, for the marginal production, we can say are non-emitive.

Your electric train across Germany, where they use large amounts of lignite to generate the ‘leccie, will not meet this number, nowhere near.

Then there’s the load factor. The train estimates are based upon the train being full. Of course they are, that’s what makes the numbers look best. Long distance trains always full across Europe? No, really, they’re not.

The actual truth here being that we don’t know what the emissions from a train ride around Europe are. We’ve too many different factors and no one has actually pieced it all together. No one will either. All we do really know is that Greta Thunberg’s emissions were higher than that claimed 15 grammes per km. Or, of course, they were zero.