Solar Tribune

Climate Change Action: Transportation Actions

The transportation sector has long been one of the sectors most tightly entrenched with fossil fuels and, as a result, tied into the damages of climate change. As organizations, regions, and nations seek to make a push to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, the transportation industry has thus been one of the areas most aggressively targeted. But for the climate-conscious individual who is seeking to reduce their personal carbon footprint, it’s not necessary to wait for wider change from larger entities like other climate actions may be. Rather, individuals, families, and businesses all have ready-made options where they can reduce the transportation and tailpipe emissions on their carbon accounting sheets.

Generally speaking, there’s a lot of value in addressing personal transportation actions, says Justin Mog, Ph.D. Assistant to the Provost on Sustianability Initiatives:

“The actions I focus on are because they are impactful in changing our mindset and our perspective on the world and they help to snowball and lead to other positive changes, and it starts what you eat and how you get around. Transportation and food are the most important choices, especially in Louisville where we’re so car dependent and have public health issues. Transition away from car dependency has such a huge impact on health, connection with the community, and on urban infrastructure trends and development. Building activity into your day, such as walking to a bus stop or biking to where you need to go, can help public health and create that positive change. And diet of course benefits the public health as well and can have a huge impact because of the effect industrial agriculture has on climate change, while eating more local also has the additional benefit of supporting the local economy. “- Justin Mog, Ph.D.Assistant to the Provost for Sustainability Initiatives @ University of Louisville —


A few of the key changes individuals can make to their transportation actions in an attempt towards reducing their carbon footprint as the following:


Purchase an Electric Vehicle

electric vehicle climate change

What the action looks like: Every decade or so on average, Americans buy a new car. In recent years, purchasing an electric vehicle has become a more attainable decision for common citizens as prices come down and battery ranges go up. While gasoline-powered cars have continued to make marginal increases in efficiency, expressed in terms of CO2 emissions per mile, electric vehicles greatly surpass the equivalent emissions of those cars and even hybrid cars. By being powered by the grid, which is more carbon-efficient than gasoline-powered engines (and getting less carbon-intensive by the year as the grid decarbonizes), driving an EV becomes a cleaner decision with each year that passes.

What the impact is: According to an explainer by Carbon Brief:

In the UK in 2019, the lifetime emissions per kilometre of driving a Nissan Leaf EV were about three times lower than for the average conventional car, even before accounting for the falling carbon intensity of electricity generation during the car’s lifetime.

Level of difficulty: Medium—new EV models with customer-friendly prices are becoming available every day, as is the availability of public EV chargers. The ease will only become greater with time.

Relevant quotes, stakeholders, and resources:

Are Electric Vehicles Really Better for the Climate? Yes. Here’s Why by Union of Concerned Scientists

Emissions from Hybrid and Plug-In Electric Vehicles by U.S. Department of Energy


 Take Public Transportation

public transportation climate change

What the action looks like: People naturally need to get to and from work, school, and elsewhere, and buying an electric vehicle or even a fuel-efficient vehicle might not be practical for them from a cost or logistics standpoint. However, they can still make a significant impact on their carbon footprints by opting to take public transportation rather than driving their car (or taking a Taxi or calling an Uber) whenever possible. The name of the game for public transportation is efficiency; buses and trains are running regularly and the more people who can be taken to their end destination with them, the greater ‘value’ is taken from the emissions that propelled those vehicles. More people on public transportation reduces the amount of GHG-emitting cars on the road, reducing traffic which helps bring down transportation-sector emissions even further.

What the impact is: According to the Federal Transit Administration:

Heavy rail transit such as subways and metros produce on average 76% lower greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile than an average single-occupancy vehicle (SOV). Light rail systems produce 62% less and bus transit produces 33%. Transit can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions by facilitating compact development, which conserves land and decreases the distances people need to travel to reach destinations. Moreover, by reducing congestion, transit reduces emissions from cars stuck in traffic. Finally, transit can minimize its own greenhouse gas emissions by using efficient vehicles, alternative fuels, and decreasing the impact of project construction and service operations.

Level of difficulty: Medium—depending on where someone lives, public transit can be either incredibly easy or completely not available.

Relevant quotes, stakeholders, and resources:

Can Public Transportation Save the World from Climate Change? By Metro Magazine

The Planet Can’t Survive Our Transportation Habits by CityLab


Avoid Air Travel

reduce avoid air travel climate change

What the action looks like: Flying is by far the most carbon-intensive way to travel per mile. Further, the small segment of the population that accounts for the greatest amount of flights end up amassing a significant carbon footprint and contribute more highly to climate change. As such, a common strategy is to reduce the amount of unnecessary air travel whenever possible, such as by conducting web conferences rather than cross-country flights for business purposes, by taking train or driving when possible on shorter flights and finding other creative ways to reduce flight.

What the impact is: According to a writeup on the topic in the Guardian:

According to figures from German nonprofit Atmosfair, flying from London to New York and back generates about 986kg of CO2 per passenger. There are 56 countries where the average person emits less carbon dioxide in a whole year – from Burundi in Africa to Paraguay in South America. But even a relatively short return trip from London to Rome carries a carbon footprint of 234kg of CO2 per passenger – more than the average produced by citizens of 17 countries annually.

Level of difficulty: Low—while some flight instances are unavoidable, finding alternatives to flying or traveling to destinations that don’t require air travel are attainable for most people.

Relevant quotes, stakeholders, and resources:

Fly or Drive? Parsing the Evolving Climate Math by Yale Climate Connections

What’s Better For the Environment, Driving or Flying? By Sierra Club

Flying is Bad For the Planet. You Can Help Make It Better by New York Times

“The COVID-19 situation has shown us how to reduce our carbon footprint. Our network has two regional convenings per year that are in person, and we love those in-person meetings. But if the virtual meeting we’re having its place goes well this year, we very well may switch to only having one in-person conference per year and the other virtual and we lower our carbon footprint by half right there. We have an opportunity coming out of this very unfortunate pandemic to realize the potential of doing business as we were before but in a virtual fashion that helps our environment, our health, and the climate and achieves the same results.” – Alexandar Easdale, Executive Director of Southeast Climate & Energy Network

“Flying less is taken as a very radical position by some, but I started to think about flying less from a purely data perspective because it was about 80 to 85% of my personal carbon footprint. When I did that math I couldn’t unsee it, so I started to think about reducing that and reaping the rewards of doing that until I made a commitment to stay on the ground for the whole year that’s brought very tangible rewards. These rewards include more time with my family by avoiding having to travel and be on a plane so much of the time, as well as reducing wasted time generally via transit and disruption to my regular schedule that occurs from frequent flying. It’s such a boon to live a slower and more grounded existence. It’s kept me more focused on activities and research that’s local in nature, which is easier to nurture when not jet setting around the world like I was in my previous life.” – Dr. Kim Cobb, Georgia Tech’s School of Atmospheric Sciences


Purchasing Carbon Offsets for Travel

Should you buy carbon offsets?

What the action looks like: In certain cases, travel cannot be avoided and those emissions associated with traveling (whether by plane or another mode) will be added to the atmosphere. But for climate-conscious travelers who want to ensure they minimize the impact their travel is having, carbon offsets can be bought. Some airlines offer them as an optional additional charge when purchasing the ticket, or third party vendors can be used when sharing travel itinerary with them, and when purchased the additional funds go towards activities that are meant to offset the carbon emissions of the trip. This can be done through funding renewable projects, forestry or land use projects that will act as carbon sinks, or other negative emission strategies.

What the impact is: According to National Geographic:

“In a person’s daily life, flying is by far one of the most carbon-intensive activities. One flight can produce as much carbon as driving for more than 2,000 miles. When flying is unavoidable, purchasing offsets through a credible vendor can technically reduce the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere.”

Level of difficulty: Low—where funds are available, this is the rare case where money can be used to make up (at least partially) for your carbon impact.

Relevant quotes, stakeholders, and resources:

Offsetting Green Guilt by Stanford Social Innovation Review

Carbon Offsets Demystified by Green America

Carbon Offsets: An Overview of Scientific Societies by Penn State

“As much as I support efforts to reduce the amount of flying, until we decarbonize aviation then buying high quality offsets is something I recommend as well, in particular supporting good organizations that do this well, such as Cool Earth, to mention one example, which does forestry projects. Carbon offsets are only a temporary solution and a last resort, but they can help when certain activities can’t be avoided.” – Emil Dimanchev

This page is a part of the Solar Tribune Series on how individuals and policymakers can tackle climate change. Click here to see the overview of this series and see the other categories of action.

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