Could you spend 59 hours on a train without WIFI or the ability to shower? Or cycle over 1,000 km from the Pyrenees to Málaga? We spoke to five travellers who are embracing eco-friendly travel to go against the flow and avoid taking planes and cars when they go abroad.
Back in April, Greta Thunberg toured around Europe solely by train to speak at climate change awareness events and, true to her dedication to not flying, her upcoming trans-Atlantic trip won’t be by plane either. Next month Thunberg will be travelling across the Atlantic Ocean on a high speed racing boat to attend the UN Climate Action Summit in New York and COP25 in Chile as part of a sabbatical year in the US.
She is hitching a ride with the Malizia II, an 18-metre yacht operated by a professional team that compete in high speed racing events all around the world. As part of a Facebook post about the journey, Team Malizia claim that it will be ‘emission free’ saving the 1770 kg of CO2e that a flight to New York would create.
Clearly not all of us can call upon the Yacht Club of Monaco to ferry us across continents, but alternatives to flying and driving are gaining popularity thanks to movements like Swedish ‘flygskam’, or flight-shaming. The movement, inspired by Thunberg, has environmentally concerned tourists looking to trains and boats for their travel needs instead of carbon heavy planes and its been a surprising success. The number of air passengers at Sweden's international airports fell by 8% from January to April this year.
Flying emits 285 grams of CO2e per kilometre of travel which is almost twice that of road transportation and over twenty times that of rail travel according to European Environment Agency figures. Its not hard to see why those of us concerned about our individual environmental impact might seek to avoid this incredible addition to our carbon footprint.
Its not easy by a long stretch but it certainly isn't impossible to consider how you can change the way you travel to include consideration for the environment. You definitely don't need to be a hardcore activist to make these changes either. We saw just how achievable it can be when we spoke to five people who have made a success of following in Greta’s footsteps.
Journey: London to Hong Kong
CO2e Saved: An incredible 1400 kg CO2e; you would have to plant 23 tree seedlings to sequester this amount over 10 years!
"I took the train from London to Hong Kong, where I grew up, as I was relocating back to Asia after spending eight years in the UK.
The longest train ride on this trip was 59 hours long (just over two and a half days) on a second-class Russian train from Yekateringburg to Irkutst. Even without showers or wifi, it wasn’t at all unbearable. I spent some time reading, chatting with other travellers, playing old school card games and before I knew it, I was at my destination."
"My favourite train ride of the entire trip was from Ulan Bataar to Beijing. It was the snowy mountains that came first, with pine trees dotted in between that first gripped me. Then the landscape became more barren as we travelled into Chinese territories. Small rural villages started to emerge not long after that alongside rivers running through rice fields. As the train got closer to big cities, factories and workers' living quarters started to pop up. I could see the landscape change to neon lights and skyscrapers; the air felt heavier and muggier."
"While second-class Russian trains had four beds in their cabins, Chinese ones had six and two more seated options on the corridor - a proof of the massive and still growing population.
I also spent 6 hours on a cross province train in Shaanxi province in China which I wouldn't recommend. With my 70L rucksack and another small backpack on the side, I showed up on this early afternoon train alone. Surrounded by six Chinese men, I held tight onto my belongings, thinking 6 hours on a train would be nothing compare to the 59 hours train in Russia.
I was wrong."
"The train was so crowded that I couldn’t even get my book out to read. Even though I spoke Mandarin, no one wanted to have a conversation. With another stroke of luck, there was a toddler next to me that did not stop crying for half of the train journey.
But after enduring that train ride, a few more Chinese cities later, my family picked me up from the station in Hong Kong.
After 57 days on the road, 20 cities and more than 100 hours of train ride later, I was home from London."
Director of Oxford Liveable Streets, sustainable lifestyle blogger, and zero waste champion
Journey: London, UK to Lyon, France to Munich, Germany and back via Brussels, Belgium
CO2e Saved: 130 kg of CO2e or a 13-watt CF light bulb staying lit for 417 days
"In June 2019, I took a two-week round trip from London to Lyon to Munich and back via Brussels, which I had originally planned to take by plane but instead decided to go by train to make my journey less carbon intensive. As someone who's flown throughout my life from a very young age, I initially saw train travel as a personal setback made in sacrifice for the planet. The plane journeys averaged around 1-2 hrs whereas train connections were 5-8 hrs, so I prepared myself for discomfort; this couldn't have been further from what I found."
"On top of reducing my carbon footprint, I found one plus of train travel is its seamlessness. For each leg of my journey, I boarded the train in a city centre, floated along the line in comfort, then got off in another central station right where I wanted to be. No fussy back-and-forth from an airport, no waiting around in departure lounges, no uncomfortably cramped seats. Plus, the hours I spent on the train weren't lost because I was still immersed in the countries I came to visit, able to admire rural views and talk to locals rather than just hover above in the isolated, culture-less space that is an aeroplane cabin."
"The only current barrier of entry is cost. For this to be a choice for everyone, prices need to compete with budget airlines, and that factor is out of consumer control. It's up to governments to work together to make this an affordable, everyday option and fast, to out-price planes of the past with trains for the future."
Scott Fitzgerald Buchanan
Erstwhile Software Developer and current Oxford University Student
Journey: Oxford to London to Paris to La Tour de Carol by train and then Le Tour de Carol to Barcelona to Valencia to Murcia to Málaga
CO2e Saved: 270kg of CO2e saved or over 7 days of energy for the average household
"When you're entering and exiting a major city by bicycle, you get a particular sense of what makes it a major city. I passed through what felt like miles upon miles of enormous warehouses as I exited Barcelona to the west. Between Tarragona and Valencia, I went through the mountains and found an enormous power station hidden away up there. Between Murcia and Málaga, I passed an actual ocean of greenhouses which I wouldn't have seen even taking the bus as they were slightly off the main road. That wasn't exactly a pleasant experience, as they stank of fertiliser and plastic, but it really gave me a sense of scale for food production. I later found out that this is the region where Britain gets its winter-time tomatoes from."
"It sucks that flights are so massively, artificially subsidised to keep prices low because doing it this way was actually considerably more expensive than flying. I think when one goes to visit these big famous European capitals, one goes to see cathedrals and museums and carefully manicured parks. Seeing the rawness of the world's infrastructure, the stuff that keeps society spinning, is a treat for a certain kind of viewer."
"You come back with better stories as well. For instance as I was cycling back to Oxford from London (I'd run out of money) I fell in the river just after Aylesbury when I discovered that my front brakes had fallen off at some point prior. The six straight hours of downhill cycling after Le Tour Carol probably didn't help."
Fine Art Graduate and Primary School Teacher in London, UK
Journey: London to Marseille
CO2e Saved: 220 kg of CO2e or just 4% of the emissions if she flown.
"My friend, Charlotte (a medical student) and myself decided to go to Marseille last summer. We love cycling and although I’d never been long distance before, she has been on a few longer cycles and so we decided to try to get to Marseille.
We took a road bike each, with small panniers and travelled really light, staying in Airbnbs in each town. We had to wake up early to try and make around 100km per day on average.
Starting in London and took the ferry to Calais, then we got a train to Paris and cycled from there stopping every 80-100 km when we found a town."
"We travelled through Burgundy because we wanted to see the vineyards and the most enjoyable part was stopping to pinch some ripe grapes when it was really hot! Stopping off in small French villages to top up our water, and being able to eat breakfast from the boulangerie three times before lunch without feeling guilty about it was amazing!
The French towns, huge fields of sunflowers and bumping into other cyclists along the way was great to see and getting a real understanding of the geography of France made it worth while."
"In the end we made it just past Lyon. I hadn’t trained much and my knee began to hurt but it was so easy to jump on a train with our bikes. It also meant we got to spend an extra couple of days in Marseille and enjoy the beach there. We had our bags and bikes posted to our destination in Marseille and used trains and buses to get back to London. We felt great from all the exercise after."
Managing Editor at Euronews Living
Journey: Kandy, Sri Lanka to Ella, Sri Lanka
CO2e Saved: 20kg of CO2e or over 2,500 smartphones charged
"I took the famous train line in Sri Lanka that goes from Kandy in the Central Region to Ella near the south-eastern coast. Overall, it lasted for 10 hours, most of it I did standing next to the door - which remained open the entire time - to admire the landscape and breathe some fresh air. The train was super crowded when we got in and there wasn't any information whatsoever about which station you are stopping at along the way, so it did feel like a proper adventure."
"Needless to say it goes extremely slowly and sometimes stops to deal with an occasional sudden power failure. It could be hell but it's not and I'm glad we didn't do this by car like many tourists choose to (4 hours in comparison). When the train reach a high altitude, the carriage fills with mist and there is a mystical feeling as the temperature drops. All you can see is the row of blue train carriages bending in the fog ahead of you and nothing more. This is the picture that made this train journey iconic for me."
"Closer to Ella, endless fields of tea plantations emerge from the forest and you can see workers picking tea leaves right next to the tracks. Inside, you are surrounded by Sri Lankan families for whom this is a normal journey making this is probably the best place to grasp a little bit of what it must be like to be a local. Of course, you can also travel sitting down in first class for more comfort or if you're travelling with kids, which is more common than you'd think. It changed my perception of long train journeys as I was doubtful we would reach our destination before dark. Oh yeah, and if you're feeling peckish during the ride, the food options are wild so I'd definitely recommend packing some snacks if you aren't feeling very adventurous."
So, what do you think?
Until technology like electric planes becomes the norm, flying is still often the only way to travel long distances if you can't to take months off of work. Hopping on your nearest racing yacht is not a viable option for most. Some of the travellers in this article used plane travel for the first leg of their journey but avoided travelling by plane or car for their onward trip. As their CO2e saved shows, even these choices can have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emission. Its important to think about what alternative transport options are available when you travel and even perhaps whether you could choose to go somewhere in a way that doesn't use a plane at all.
All CO2e saved values are approximations calculated using Carbon Footprint's travel tool which can be found here whilst equivalencies are courtesy of USEPA Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator and YouSustain's 'How much CO2 is that?' Tool.