by Lola
Wooden toy cars on a green grass field

Finding a sustainable transport method is not easy.

I sold my car last year, after driving it for over 10 years. I had purchased my Mazda second hand, and when I first got my hands on it, I decided I would drive it until I simply couldn’t anymore. After sixteen years, it could no longer pass the vehicle inspection, and it became time to retire it. 

Once I had turned in my car, I thought long and hard about whether or not I was ready to invest in a new vehicle. At the time I was starting some online studies which did not require physical presence and I was working only part time in Innsbruck. I found several good connections with the train, and I could reach the station by foot in just 15 min, so the idea of getting a little walk to the train, plus having an environmentally friendly and stress free commute, convinced me that getting a car did not make sense at all.

So I bought a yearly train + bus ticket and that has worked great for me, even considering that this part of the world is a bit challenging when it comes to infrastructure.

Unfortunately, the happy solution I have been enjoying, may no longer work for me in the near future. I am currently working from home, but once my startup gets launched and starts growing, I will likely need a proper office space to work from. Also in the next few years, we would like to build a house in the plot of land we bought 2 years ago, which I am afraid, is not at walking distance to the train station. 

So, I know that at some point, I am going to make a decision about how to move around, and whatever I end up deciding, I would like it to be sustainable. I am sure that many of you are facing a similar dilemma, so let’s look together at some data.

The hard reality of transportation

Busy traffic and pollution in a city

The environmental impact of unsustainable transport methods is not to be taken lightly. Cars and other transportation models that are dependent on oil and gas are incredibly unsafe and increasingly unsustainable for the environment and clean driving. 

Cars and trucks collectively account for nearly one fifth of all global emissions!!

Each vehicle produces about 2,6 kilograms of carbon dioxide and other dangerous greenhouse gases per every liter of petrol used, with 10% being derived from the extraction, production, and delivery of the gas and the remaining 90% coming right out of vehicle’s tailpipe and going straight into the atmosphere. 

The international transportation sector accounts for over a third of global emissions every year, and oil-related emissions continue to be on the rise. Your average passenger vehicle releases 4600 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year; the equivalent of 74 full barrels of poisonous and fatal gas being released right into the very air you breathe. 

These statistics are a sobering look at the reality of the dangers of unsustainable transport. For me, this was enough to make me want to never drive a regular car again.

What about public transport?

I personally enjoy using public transportation as a greener alternative to any car. But there’s also the added concern that many modes of public transportation are not environmentally sustainable, relying on heavy petrol or diesel fuel in addition to oil and similar fuels that continue to pollute the planet. 

Public transportation it’s not perfect: an inner-city bus emits approximately 125 grams of carbon dioxide gas per passenger and kilometer. Heavy rail transit like trains or subways emit 6 grams of carbon per passenger and kilometer, while commuter rail lines emit closer to 63. 

These small figures are drastically better than the individual private vehicle rate of 250 grams per passenger and kilometer. However, when you factor in the amount of individuals who use public transportation every day and consider that the carbon dioxide emissions are calculated per individual and per km traveled, the carbon footprint of public transportation becomes formidable as well. 
On the bright side, public transport helps reduce traffic congestion, and don’t rely on lithium-ion batteries – the potentially dangerous reusable batteries that power many alternative cars, and if fully utilised can be a fantastic alternative to private transportation.

Do we really have sustainable transport alternatives?

Without discussion, the greener way to move around is to walk or to cycle, but unfortunately that is not always an option, especially if like me, you live in the mountains. I tell you more about that in this other article. 

As I was researching, I found different choices for so-called sustainable vehicles on the market, and within them, surely you have noticed the incredible hype around eVehicles. Every car manufacturer is offering their own version and promoting their benefits for our personal and professional lives, but beyond the publicity, it’s important to consider if they are as sustainable as they promise and whether or not they might make a good option for us.

Some arguments in favour of electric cars

eVehicles, or electric vehicles, are cars or trucks that charge and power only through electricity. They continue to break into the transportation sector as a popular sustainable alternative for private transportation and are being marketed as the next generation of sustainable and reliable travel because they offer some clear benefits:

Your electric vehicle just needs access to an electric grid and can charge overnight or for just a few hours, almost similar to how you would charge your phone when not in use. 

Efficient, affordable, and environmentally friendly, they are an innovative new way to commute to work, school, and everything in between. 

Electric vehicles are designed to reduce a number of dangerous environmental impacts in comparison to traditional cars. They don’t need petrol or diesel, they don’t emit carbon-heavy and dangerous smoke, and they only need electricity to be fully active. 

They reduce pressure on fossil fuel public transport systems by giving people more options to travel and commute, which in turn improves air quality and benefits the atmosphere. 

Electric vehicles also last a long time. Their design is resistant to water and climate damage so you can invest now and cut your travel expenses and environmental impact in half.

Electric cars are not the ultimate solution for green transport

The batteries that power electric vehicles are made from lithium-ion, and they make up almost the entire lithium-ion market. Against what we may think, the usage of these batteries produce a large amount of carbon emissions, meaning that every time you drive your electric vehicle you’re increasing your carbon output even as you decrease your oil input. 

Producing the battery for an electric car uses twice the amount of energy it takes to make a traditional or combustible car engine and also has twice the global warming potential. 

Another shocking fact is that battery production creates more environmental pollution than just carbon emissions; for example the pollution involved in mining the materials for the batteries has already damaged thousands of kilometers of land and water and polluted many cities and nearby areas in Latin America.

Batteries are also expensive and challenging to recycle, so at the end of your electric car’s lifespan you’re really producing a lot more waste which is hard to dispose of.

On the bright side…

While it’s true that some electric vehicles are responsible for considerably lower emissions than other traditional vehicles across Europe and across the world, some have been found to produce up to three times less emissions than other traditional methods of transportation, including public transportation. 

Also, it seems that in many smaller countries electric vehicles don’t make that much of a difference in immediate energy consumption or emissions reduction. Not only that, but the production of electric vehicles also has a tangible impact on related local and global ecosystems.

The emission rate of electric vehicles is not consistent and depends highly on the local atmosphere and air quality. For example, in China, an electric vehicle might actually produce more greenhouse gases than traditional methods of transportation based on the level of existing air pollution around them.

How is the outlook for the future?

There are still many questions around the sustainability of electrical vehicles. We have seen that some benefits of electric vehicles are tangible, and manufacturing and driving emissions continue to fall as manufacturers further innovate and refine their sustainable energy practices. 

On the other hand, the cost of this sustainable progress could also mean even more pollution in our atmosphere

Another critical point to consider is that if countries don’t decarbonize electricity, no matter how great e-vehicles are, if they run on dirty electricity they will not be really sustainable, and not much better than traditional fuel cars. 

A promising outlook comes from the intense research around hydrogen as a fuel but whether we will be driving clean Hydrogen vehicles any time soon it is to be seen.

At the moment, I find myself undecided, so I hope I can hold up my decision to buy a new vehicle for a while and see how this whole thing develops.

What are your thoughts on electric cars? How are you solving your transport challenges?

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