Snowboarding by train: how does it compare to flying?

For the second time in a year, I travelled to France by train last week. This time we didn’t stop at Paris, but crossed town to the Gare du Lyon (a pretty well-joined-up journey, requiring only 2 stops on the RER) to go down to Bourg St Maurice for some snowboarding.

On the way back, I found myself wondering how the costs — in carbon, time, and money — stack up in comparison to making the same journey by air. I compared London St Pancras – Bourg St-Maurice by train (the journey we did); London City – Chambery by plane (then bus transfer to Bourg St-Maurice); and London Gatwick – Geneva by plane (then bus again to Bourg St-Maurice). I included the journey from my house at the London end, but excluded the journey from Bourg St-Maurice up the mountain since it’s the same with all three routes (the funicular then a shuttle-bus service).


Helpfully, Eurostar have conducted some specific research to accurately measure CO2 generated by their trains. The ski train as of 2010 measurements was 9.4kg per passenger single trip (18.8kg return).

London to Chambery or Geneva by air is about 1,000 km (620mi). At 0.2897 kg/mile for a short-haul flight, that’s 180kg of carbon per passenger return. The Eurostar research quoted above gives 102.8kg per passenger each way (205.6kg total) for London City-Geneva (the discrepancy is due to the specific load factor which is low for that route, so the per-passenger output is higher). Even using the lower value, rail still has a tenth of the carbon cost of air. (And that doesn’t account for the transfer bus carbon, although buses are low-carbon travel.)

The winner: train, at 90% less carbon.


Train: 30min Tube, 45 min check-in, total time London – Bourg St Maurice, 7h15. Total 8h30.

Plane, London City-Chambery: 30 min Tube, 2 hr checkin, 1h35 flight, 1 hr transfer to coach, 2 hrs on coach (estimated from this page which gives 1h45 for a minibus; coaches can be assumed to be a little slower). Total 7hr.

Plane, London Gatwick-Geneva: 20 min Tube, 40 min train, 2 hr checkin, 1h35 flight, 1 hr transfer to coach, 3.5 hrs on coach. Total 9 hrs.

The winner: plane, at 20% quicker (but only if you take the right route).


Our tickets on the Eurostar from London St Pancras to Bourg St Maurice cost £119 each (return); plus £3.80 each in Tube fares. £123 per person, return.

The cheapest airfare I could find to Chambery, the nearest airport, is £60 each way. That’s from London City, so same Tube fare; but then you need to take a transfer coach at 70 EUR (£60) return. £183 per person, return.

The next closest airport is Geneva, for which I found a £46 return fare with Easyjet; plus £18 each way baggage fare to take any hold baggage. That’s from Gatwick, so £4 Tube fare to London Bridge, then £16 (ish) return to Gatwick. Then there’s the transfer at the other end: 126 EUR (£107) return. £191 per person, return.

The winner: the train, at 50% cheaper.


The overall winner: train, cheaper, lower-carbon, and only slightly slower.

The train comes out better not only on environmental impact (by a long way, and unsurprisingly), but also on cost (by a significant margin, and more surprisingly). It even beats the ‘super-cheap’ flights (actually the most expensive option all-in) in time taken. The plane is slightly quicker for the London City-Chambery route, but 7 hours compared to 8.5 hours isn’t that big of a deal; especially when you think about what you’re saving in cost and carbon.

Plus there’s the fact that it’s simply more pleasant to sit in a train and watch the countryside go past than it is to sit in an airplane and look at clouds (pretty though clouds are). The food available is better; the booze is better (French trains do quite well on this front!); there’s more space per seat; and you’re much freer to move around when you want to. Even without the cost savings!

The details are of course affected by where you’re going. Snowboarding holidays mean mountains, which means airports some distance away. The calculation if going to, say, Geneva or Lyon would be different for time and money. (Although not very different for carbon, of course.) Nor does this address the environmental cost of the holiday itself. What’s the effect of thousands of skiiers and snowboarders on the mountains they’re careering down? But that’s a subject for another post.


Corporate Watch on 10:10 as corporate greenwash

I’ve just read this report on 10:10 from Corporate Watch. They take a look at the usefulness of the project, and whether it is/is being used as corporate greenwash.

The big issue that I have with 10:10 is its focus on the individual. The big changes that we need to make aren’t at an individual level; they’re at a corporate and governmental level, and they’re about making significant changes to the way that the world operates. In particular, to the way that capitalism operates*. 10:10 encourages the idea that climate change is an individual responsibility. And, sure, we do all need to change our habits, and that’s not a bad thing. But it’s not going to be enough; and a campaign like this risks encouraging people to think that they’ve done their bit now.

The Corporate Watch report points out that corporations are being encouraged to sign up as well (good), but that the level for them is 3%. Looking at the 10:10 website, what they’re actually saying is that 10% is the target but 3% is enough (2nd para). Note that this isn’t applied to individuals (although it is to organisations). I find this pretty dodgy; not only that, but that page talks first about “urging your staff, suppliers and customers to sign up to cut their own emissions by 10%” and only then about “doing everything you can to reduce your own operational emissions”. This is a straightforward and massive cop-out, especially since (as above), it’s businesses and corporations that are the ones that really need to make changes. E.On say they’ve signed up to 10:10, for fuck’s sake, and I don’t see on that page anything about them changing their processes. Or, I don’t know, doing something about their coal-fired power stations.

Encouraging individual reductions is great. Letting companies off the hook before they even start is crap. Letting them sign up when all they’re doing is talking to their customers is greenwash. Which is a shame, because 10:10 could be doing something stronger than that. Expecting — and auditing — an actual 10% cut in business emissions would be more like a real achievement.

* It’s possible that what’s needed is changes big enough that it might not really be ‘capitalism’ any more, but let’s leave that aside for now.


It’s the little things

Minor changes or things I have done to reduce my environmental footprint recently:

  • Stopped using rubber gloves to do the washing up. Instead I made up some hand-cream (aqueous cream, a little almond oil, some aloe vera sap, and a few drops of lavender and frankincense essential oils) and put that in an old moisturiser jar by the sink.
  • Started using handkerchiefs rather than tissues.
  • Switched to (fair-trade) tealeaves rather than tea-bags. I have a per-cup teaball that makes this easier. Not particularly impressed with the quality of the Co-op’s tealeaves, though.
  • Did not buy a dog-bed when we got Finlay; instead he sleeps on a pile of old blankets (and an old coat and jumper) that were too knackered to be of use for their intended purpose. Actually overnight he sleeps on the landing with no blanket at all; and half the time during the day he eschews both blanket piles in favour of sprawling all over the floor; but hey, that’s his decision.
  • Patched my slightly-split rear bike tyre (from the inside, using a piece of another old tyre) rather than replacing what is otherwise a perfectly decent tyre. (Safety note: it’s not a big split, nor is it on the sidewall, so it’s not dangerous to ride on; it’s just a place where punctures are more likely.)
  • Darned two holes in one of my nice thick black stockings. (This also affected by the fact that these are no longer available at all, so I need to keep them going for as long as possible!).
  • Bought a book I wanted (on woodworking by hand, which I want to try out) second-hand instead of new.

Do I think any of these have a major impact on my carbon footprint? No. But I do think that making small daily-life changes is part of making larger changes; that it helps to remind you to think about sustainability. One of the main things I’m working on at the moment is simply not buying things; reducing my footprint by reducing my consumption. (Hence the second-hand book; and on realising that I really do need some specific warm clothing for cycle-instructing purposes over the winter, I went hunting & found the organic fair-trade version of that.) That’s a daily decision, but it’s not really one you can point at.


Cheese, lentils, and carbon

I’ve been vegan for about 8 years now.  Primarily this was an animal welfare decision, but as I’ve become more climate-change conscious, I’ve also become aware of the fact that vegan foods are lower-carbon than meat or dairy.

More recently, I’ve been considering the issue of local eating and sustainability.  You can’t (sadly) easily grow in the UK the pulses I use for most of my protein (lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, soya beans (tofu)1).  So that’s all being shipped in from — I don’t even know where, to be honest.  Somewhere Else.  On the other hand, I can get ‘local’ (within 100 miles) cheese or milk down the road at Borough Market.  Would that be better in terms of carbon footprint?

Probably not, it turns out.  The study described there was conducted in the US, but the figures won’t be far off for the UK.  Food miles turned out to be only a small part (around 11%, with only 4% being the producer-retailer leg) of the carbon footprint of any given food.  Most of it was in the production stage, and both red meat and dairy are high-carbon-producers.

The graph they have at that link is irritatingly uninformative, as it doesn’t (seem to) allow for quantities of consumption.  (Broadly speaking, what is interesting isn’t what percentage of food-related greenhouse gas emissions are related to red meat, but how that compares with the percentage of red meat that is eaten with food.  If the Average Diet is 30% red meat and red meat produces 30% of the carbon output, that’s probably fine.)  However, the fact that a 21-23% shift away from red meat towards chicken and fish would cut as much carbon as buying all-local would indicates that the carbon footprint difference between red meat/dairy, and pulses, is genuinely significant.

I then managed to locate a chart showing the carbon cost of various foods.  It doesn’t include pulses but they’ll be somewhere down there with the carrots: very obvious that the carbon footprint is tiny compared to cheese.  

Of course, there’s another factor: if you’re eating for protein, how much protein do you get for your carbon?  Turns out that the protein content of cheese and pulses is close-enough to the same.  Around 100g protein per pound of cheese (exact rate depends on what cheese); 115g/lb lentils, 102g/lb (raw) kidney beans; an impressive 166g/lb for (raw) soya beans2.  So the high carbon cost of cheese isn’t compensated for by higher protein content (although it is higher-calorie).  Milk is low-carbon; but it’s also low-protein (15g/lb or so). 

So I don’t have a good climate-related excuse to start eating cheese again, which is a shame!  The figures might be a bit different if I had my own goat/cow, on otherwise not agriculturally useful land, and was making my own cheese, but unfortunately I don’t think I can fit a ruminant of any sort on the balcony.

Here’s another couple of links for further reading, if you’re interested:

  • The carbon footprint of cheese (theory only, no numbers).  This is less accurate if you’re buying organic artisan cheese from a proper dairy, but there’s still a lot of CO2-emitting there which doesn’t apply to pulses (and it’s accepted that it’s more efficient to put the pulses straight into the humans rather than detouring them via a cow). 
  • An assessment of the carbon cost of a cheeseburger (headline conclusion: the US cheeseburger consumption is responsible for the same sort of quantity of carbon as is the US SUV habit).

1. If you want to try soya beans in the UK, try Elena — the yield isn’t great though for any pulses of this sort
2. 1lb of soya beans would make about 2 medium-sized blocks of tofu.  Not sure exactly the weight of that, but there’s not enough difference to seriously screw up the figures.  Soya beans before being made into tofu are not particularly tasty.


Carbon tracking: travel

Continuing on my thoughts about my carbon footprint: travel. 

A significant chunk of the UK average 5.4 tonnes of carbon is car and plane travel. I don’t own a car, and I don’t intend to fly again, so that’s good for my footprint. Almost all of my practical daily travel is by bike, which has next-to-zero carbon; but I do take trains.

Rather to my horror, CRAG don’t include train (or tube) travel in their conversion factors table. Train data is surprisingly hard to find online (or I’m not looking right), but the splendid Seat61 site has a useful page which gives London to Edinburgh (return) as 24kg of CO2 (= 0.024 tonnes). (The Eurostar to Paris is 22kg return.) Resurgence give 0.1kg/mile for train travel. London-Edinburgh is around 700mi return, so that would be 70kg (0.07 tonnes) which… is rather out of whack with the Seat61 value. Hm.

For now, I’m going to work with the Resurgence value, because I’d rather overestimate than underestimate the cost.

So I’m going to start actually tracking my train travel (distances will be based on Google Maps and thus a little approximate). In September:

  • London to Southampton rtn: 160 mi.
  • London to Aberdeen rtn: 1060 mi.
  • Bermondsey to Battersea Park rtn: 8 mi.

Total 1228 mi = 122.8kg (0.123 tonnes).

No tube or bus travel this month. 

(In the interests of honesty, I should add that I also spent some time in a car on both of the long trips: in Aberdeen in particular there was a fair amount of mileage, although largely as extra passenger rather than cause-of-journey. However, for now I’m going to ignore social trips in other people’s cars, as these were.)


Carbon tracking: goals

I have been considering the matter of personal carbon footprint: what mine is, and what I should be aiming for. The many and varied online carbon calculators are a useful starting point, but they’re really a little vague. I want to make the effort to track and calculate my carbon emissions more accurately.

First question: what should I be aiming for? The Institute for Public Policy Research have been talking about personal carbon trading/rationing, but unfortunately their review is pay-to-read so I don’t know if they’ve talked about specific levels, and if they have, what those levels are.  The Carbon Rationing Action Groups network have a bit more information. Their figures give 5.4 tonnes of carbon per person as the UK emissions average, and 0.5 tonnes as a globally sustainable level.

Looking at their footprinting basic info, I’m a bit unclear on whether those figures are purely personal, or whether they include the societal per-capita output. But let’s assume that it’s the personal, and treat that 0.5 tonnes as what I should be aiming for.

0.5 tonnes is very, very low. I’m very aware that, living the developed-world lifestyle that I do, cutting down that far would be incredibly tough, and I don’t expect, being honest, to get anywhere close. However.   It is good to quantify, and to have that figure in mind.

Second question: where, approximately, am I at at the moment? The government calculator is again fairly vague, but estimates my current usage* as follows:

  • 1.85 tonnes for heating and lighting.
  • 0.33 tonnes for electrical appliances.
  • 0.3 tonnes for travel (I put in an estimate of 2 x 600mi return trips and 6 x 160 mi return trips by train per year; all other travel by bike).

Total: 2.48 tonnes.

The two major omissions from this are food consumption, and general consumption; and indeed, that site gives the UK national average as 4.46 tonnes, so they’re obviously missing that bit out. (I also think the travel is probably an under-estimate on my part.) The heating/lighting may be per-house rather than per-person.  It’ll do as a rough starting point.

So my aim now is to track things a bit more accurately than those estimates do, and to make reductions. I’ll be posting more shortly about the various sections of footprint and my thoughts on accuracy, problems, tracking, and potential cuts. You will note that although on that basis I’m well below the UK average, I’m still way above that sustainable 0.5 tonne level.

In the “change is possible” spirit of this blog: it’s important to remember that the difficulty of cutting down to 0.5 tonnes doesn’t mean that it is in any way pointless to make reductions. However, it’s also important to bear in mind that personal reductions are only part of this: we need to be looking at and campaigning for societal and structural change as well.

* I didn’t put in figures for my actual activities over the last year, because I am already fully aware that travelling as much as I have done this year, even low-carbon travelling, is outrageously carbon-costly. I’m interested in an estimate for what I’m consuming whilst back in the UK, so that I can move on from here.