One of the main goals of the European Green Deal is to greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2050 compared to 1990. The first step will be to have 30 million zero-emission vehicles by 2030 and then reach carbon neutrality in 2050. On this front, many manufacturers are investing in hydrogen cell vehicles for commercial vehicles, buses, and heavy transport. These promising options are supported under the EU strategies for energy system integration and hydrogen, as well as the strategic action plan on batteries. Powering the vehicles of the future with hydrogen or electric traction will be crucial to set sustainability in motion.
Transport solutions compared: which is the less polluting?
But let’s start step by step: what are the most ecological transport solutions to date? The transport sector as a whole now accounts for 25% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union. They come mainly from road transport (72%), while 14% and 13% of emissions come from ships and aircraft respectively. According to the latest report from the European Environment Agency (EEA), “Transport and environment 2020″, the most sustainable form of mobility in terms of polluting emissions and energy consumption is the train. On the road passenger transport front, buses and coaches obviously win. Taking the plane is not necessarily the worst choice for traveling long distances but rather, traveling alone in a petrol or diesel car is! In absolute terms, therefore, cars are the main cause of air pollution while the train, if we exclude travel on foot or by bicycle, represents the best alternative.
To understand how much we pollute when we travel, just take a look at the data made available by the International Railways Union in collaboration with the European Environment Agency. According to the calculations of the Ecopassenger website, a one-way trip from Rome to Paris involves the production of 35 kilos of CO2 per passenger if you travel by train, almost 139 kilos when traveling by car, and about 104 when traveling by plane. So how do we reduce our ecological footprint when we move? Choosing the train over our own car or sharing our journeys by car with other passengers.
Train vs. airplane: what if the future was hydrogen?
Undoubtedly, rail transport is increasingly heading towards an important turning point for the decarbonization of the sector. Some countries have already been electrifying trains for some time, but this process can be costly. Hydrogen, on the other hand, does not require the construction of an expensive electrical infrastructure as it allows trains to run on the existing railway infrastructure. While it’s as sustainable and quiet as electricity, it’s not nearly as expensive. For this reason, any location that does not have an electric train infrastructure could more easily introduce hydrogen trains. An example? Since 2019, the UK has been testing hydrogen-powered trains, called Hydroflex, as part of the national plan to eliminate diesel trains by 2040. Moreover, as part of the Zero Emission Train project, the University of St. Andrews in Scotland has a project to convert a three-wagon train to hydrogen started last year.
On the air transport front, the matter becomes more complex but not impossible to resolve. While there are efforts to electrify small air craft for short flights, when it comes to commercial aircraft, which can carry hundreds of passengers, far more energy is required than modern batteries can provide. In the future, however, hydrogen fuel cells and synthetic jet fuel could help decarbonize this industry as well. In this regard, there are already pilot projects, mainly in Europe, where Airbus intends to build a zero-emission aircraft (called ZEROe) by 2035 with the aim of reducing the carbon footprint of the sector by more than 50%. However, the future for the sustainability of this sector could also be linked to “sustainable aviation fuels”, or SAF. Boeing, for example, has placed an emphasis on developing more fuel-efficient aircraft and is committed to ensuring that all of its commercial aircraft can fly exclusively on “sustainable” fuel made from waste, plants and other organic materials. Indeed, in September 2020, the Air Transport Action Group, a Geneva-based body speaking on behalf of the global aviation industry, released a series of scenarios suggesting that even if the volume of air traffic increases, it will be possible. for global aviation to achieve zero carbon dioxide emissions, but only ten years after 2050 and the turning point will be achieved thanks to these fuels.