There is No Planet B: 2: What about Travel and Transport?

There is No Planet B: 2: What about Travel and Transport?

May 16, 2019

To continue his exploration of Mike Berners-Lee’s 'There is No Planet B', Joe Human once again delves into the key aspects of this key stone publication. This time he is looking at how travel and transport impact upon our planet.

In my last article I looked at the section in Mike Berners-Lee’s book, There Is No Planet B, asking the question What does it mean for Food Production?  In this article I briefly cover his sections on Travel and Transport.  Since all of us move about all the time, doing our longest journeys by car, bus, rail or air, we need to consider what impact on the climate each one of these has, and what we can do to lessen our carbon footprint from each.

What proportion of energy is consumed by transport?

First a little background. If we take all the energy consumed in the UK by everyone and everything, the least is consumed by food production at 5% and the most by transport at 38%.  Domestic is at 28%, industry at 16% and the service sector at 13%.  So we can see that overall transport is the big one by far.    

Which kind of transport has the least impact?

Of the four types of passenger transport, travel by plane is by far the most polluting in terms of CO2 emissions/km/passenger and by train the least. To get an actual comparison you have to put numbers of passengers into your calculation.  So a train carrying 156 passengers, for example, emits 14g CO2/km/passenger, whereas for a plane carrying 88 passengers it is a massive 285g.  By comparison a small car carrying four people comes out at 42g, a large car carrying the same 55g and a bus carrying 30 people 22g. 

How dependent upon fossil fuels are we?

Finally on background, of all the sources of energy exploited to drive the global economy, including transport, fossil fuels make up nearly 84% of our needs (with oil 32.5%, coal 27.2% and natural gas 23.3%).  It goes without saying, therefore, that we are massively dependent on fossil fuels to move us around, and it is these which are so damaging as far as global warming, climate change and other environmentally harmful effects are concerned.

It is at this point that Mike poses us some personal questions, of which I will highlight just three:

 I.     How urgently should I ditch my diesel?

‘Urgently if you do a lot of urban miles,’ he says.  Why? ‘A mile of congested urban diesel driving takes about 12 minutes of life away from the rest of the population.  In the UK 40,000 people a year die prematurely from air pollution, and vehicles cause 8,900 of those deaths…five time more than traffic accidents. The two main killer pollutants are small particles and nitrogen oxide (NO2).  Diesels belch out far more of both of these than either petrol or electric cars.’


II.     Should I buy an electric car?

To which Mike says, ‘First ask whether you still need to have a car of your own at all.  If you don’t, don’t buy a new one until you need to.  Then make it electric if you can and as economical as you can.’ 

Why? ‘Electric cars cause fewer emissions…than their oil powered equivalents even if the electricity has all come from a coal power station, because their engines are more efficient than internal combustion engines.’

He goes on: ‘If long journeys or lack of charging points makes the fully electric car impractical for you, you might get away with the kind of hybrid that can go 50 miles on its battery and only uses fuel to power a generator if needed.’

III.     Should I fly?

Whether for business, love, fun or gap year, it all depends…,’ writes Mike. He then goes on to say, ‘London to Hong Kong and back economy class is about a quarter of the average UK person’s annual carbon footprint…Whether [you go] depends on why you go and what you make of your trip.  It’s a trade-off.’

 He goes on to say that if it’s for business it might, for example, ‘depend on whether or not your work is helping to build a sustainable future for the world … If you just want a holiday, then it is between you and your conscience.’ 


It is at this point that I would like to turn back to Greta Thunberg, about whom I wrote in an earlier article, who will not fly anywhere.  Her journey from Stockholm to Rome and London last month was all by train.  As was her return journey.  She clearly squares her conscience.


In my final article on There in No Planet B I will look at values.

Joe Human

There is No Planet B: 2: What about Travel and Transport?