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Earth Power The Almighty Buck Transportation

Analysis Says Planes Might Be Greener Than Trains 345

Posted by timothy
from the for-some-values-of-greener dept.
New Scientist has an interesting piece up about the calculable energy costs per mile for various forms of transportation. Despite the headline ("Train can be worse for climate than plane"), the study it describes deals with highway-based vehicles, too: the authors attempted to integrate not just the cost at the tailpipe (or equivalent) for each mode of transport, but also the costs of developing and supporting the associated infrastructure, such as rails, highways and airports. Such comparisons are tricky, though; a few years back, a widely circulated report claimed that the Toyota Prius had a higher per-mile lifetime cost than the Hummer (see that earlier Slashdot post for good reason to be skeptical of the methodology and conclusions). I wonder how the present comparison would be affected by a calculation of (for instance) how much it would cost to move by plane the freight currently carried by trains.
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Analysis Says Planes Might Be Greener Than Trains

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  • by MrClever (70766) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @10:29PM (#28246769) Homepage
    Not to mention many forms of freight cannot be carried by air at all, and others have extreme restrictions on the amounts that can be carried in a single air consignment. As IATA [iata.org] say, "some things just aren't meant to fly" - like pyrotechnic security attache cases [freepatentsonline.com] for example (sorry Mr. Bond, you'll have to send that by road/rail/boat).
  • by physicsphairy (720718) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @10:40PM (#28246829) Homepage

    While this study seems a much better reflection of the total (environmental) cost of each type of transportation, it's important to remember that the marginal cost of you buying a plain ticket or driving your car is not necessarily proportional to the total cost.

    For example, to drive one car across the continent may require a massive investment of infrastructure to create a suitable road, but if that road is already there, the infrastructure cost of driving a second car on the same road is essentially zero: you aren't buying any additional infrastructure because of the second car.

    I honestly can't imagine ever doing away with our network of highways, regardless of any increase in the popularity of air travel, so a large portion of that infrastructure cost may have nothing to do with whether you personally choose to drive instead of fly. The innercity roads are also a permanent feature: it's not like the plane is going to drop you off at your apartment complex.

  • by KeithIrwin (243301) on Sunday June 07, 2009 @10:45PM (#28246859)

    As someone who has read the report (instead of just read articles which summarized it) I can definitively say that that report was, is, and always will be a load of crap.

    First off, that report came from a marketing firm, not a serious research organization. Since when are marketing firms experts on lifetime costs.

    Secondly, their estimates were that the bulk of the energy costs for each of these cars was in the cost of recycling and/or disposing of the cars. Specifically, for the Prius, a $20,000 car, they estimated that it would take over $100,000 worth of energy to recycle or dispose of it.

    Right off, that doesn't pass the simple common-sense test. If it costs $100,000 to recycle or dispose of a Prius, then who is going to be paying that? For all of the cars on the road, they estimated that disposal and/or recycling would cost at least tens of thousands of dollars. Which is to say, if the report is to be believed, scrap yards are all operating at gargantuan loses, since, generally most of them will pay you for your car rather than charge you to haul it away.

    My best guess as to the justification of their lunacy is that they're assuming that all of the plastics in a vehicle will be somehow incinerated at some huge temperature or something (rather than simply put in a landfill, which costs way less energy) and they've slipped a digit or two somewhere. But in the end, it's impossible to judge because although they claim to have some very specific break-downs which justify their numbers for each category of the life-cycle, those break-downs are only available if you spend several thousand dollars to purchase the complete version of the report from them.

  • Re:Blimps maybe? (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 07, 2009 @10:50PM (#28246881)

    Prices for aircraft are insanely high. Helicopters even more so. A $300,000 4 passenger cessna 172 will have a useful load of around 800lbs. This includes fuel, passengers and luggage/cargo.

    For around $2 million you can get a cessna 208, with a 4000lb useful load.

  • by e9th (652576) <e9th@NOSpaM.tupodex.com> on Sunday June 07, 2009 @11:02PM (#28246953)
    Is ERL for real? Is it customary nowadays for journals to charge [iop.org] $1900 to to publish an article?
  • Re:Easy to tell too (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 08, 2009 @12:40AM (#28247411)

    You're using the term "hybrid" for locomitives as if it were something new. Even the early diesel locomotive prototypes of the 1910s had this design. Hence the proper term: Diesel Electric. These have been in use for 70 years.

    The first part of regenerative braking, running the electric motors backwards to generate electricity, is already done too. If you look at a locomotive from above you'll see a series of exhaust fans. That electricity is turned into heat and pumped out the top. Trains are heavy ass things and you'd need immense batteries for them to be any use in getting a train back up to speed. Even then a train doesn't stop very often so your small gain for starting up would have to cover the loss of hauling many more tons of dead weight once up to speed. Not to mention the extra cost of maintenance and up front cost. It just isn't beneficial.

    A better use of regenerative braking is for all electric trains which can use the entire grid as a battery. But the US is too big and too sparse to use electrified lines except in urban areas.

  • by mellon (7048) on Monday June 08, 2009 @02:12AM (#28247845) Homepage

    That truism is widely disputed at this point, of course - just because a weather pattern is unusual doesn't mean that it has a causal relationship to an event that precedes it.

  • by petes_PoV (912422) on Monday June 08, 2009 @04:22AM (#28248579)

    The market will tell you what is the correct cost ...

    Presuming an efficient market. With all the components that go into a cost as being correctly priced, with no market distortions, such as subsidies.

    As it is, we don't have a flat and fair market. Farmers get subsidies, energy users don't pay the full price for their CO2 emissions and road / rail users don't pay the going rate for infrastructure access (incl. maintenance costs).

  • by Dasher42 (514179) on Monday June 08, 2009 @04:41AM (#28248701)

    All interesting points, but there's always the example of Havana, Cuba, where 70% of the food eaten in that city was actually grown in that city. That's got to be an attainable goal here as well. As for heating and air conditioning, we've got a lot to learn from the buildings built before the industrial craze, and plenty of new ideas as well. Check it out [inhabitat.com]. I have the privilege of spending my days in a LEED Platinum building, and let me tell you, this green building thing is going to take off when people realize how comfortable they can be.

  • Re:City planning (Score:3, Informative)

    by xaxa (988988) on Monday June 08, 2009 @05:00AM (#28248781)

    I picked one at random (Montrose, population 10,000) and looked up the options. Here they are: http://www.angus.gov.uk/transport/maps/ [angus.gov.uk]

    It seems a pretty normal service for a town that big; NJ must be worse than I thought.

  • Re:Blimps maybe? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Suzuran (163234) on Monday June 08, 2009 @05:16AM (#28248863)

    That's jet fuel. Us small guys don't burn jet fuel, we burn 100LL, which carries hefty taxes.

    The airline and corporate jets don't pay taxes, they're too important.

  • Re:Blimps maybe? (Score:4, Informative)

    by smoker2 (750216) on Monday June 08, 2009 @05:17AM (#28248865) Homepage Journal
    I don't know if that's true. Here's [reuters.com] a link from 2007.

    Also, from May this year ...

    Do U.S. airlines also pay fuel taxes ? [airlines.org]
    At the federal level, airlines pay 4.4 cents for every gallon consumed on a domestic flight. Of that amount, 4.3 cents goes to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund while 0.1 cents supports the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Fund. In addition, in most states airlines pay a flat rate per gallon or an ad valorem sales tax on the purchase of fuel. In California, for example, airlines pay a fuel tax in excess of 8.0 percent of the price of jet fuel. So if the price of jet fuel purchased in California were to double, our tax would double as well, generating substantial revenue for the state's treasury.

    Also, in the UK at least, we do pay a tax on air travel to the airline, whether that is to cover govt. imposed taxes or not I don't know.

  • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Monday June 08, 2009 @08:16AM (#28250017) Journal
    As someone who used to glide, I know a little bit about this kind of cloud formation. When you see a single cloud in a relatively cloudless sky, it typically means that the cloud is perched on top of a thermal (when you are gliding, you keep a close eye on these clouds, because you ride the thermals for lift). The airport is almost certainly producing more heat than the ground around it, which will create a thermal directly above it. Water droplets in the air are pulled into this and collect at the top, causing a cloud. This doesn't necessarily have any connection to emissions; heat any other large patch of ground and you will see the same phenomenon. Often, just a large patch of black ground (e.g. an unused car park) will have the same effect if the sun is bright enough.

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