Traveling by car increases global temperatures more than by plane, but only in long term

Aug 04, 2010
Traveling by car contributes to global warming much more than traveling by bus, motorcycle, or train. Credit: iStock

Driving a car increases global temperatures in the long run more than making the same long-distance journey by air according to a new study. However, in the short run travelling by air has a larger adverse climate impact because airplanes strongly affect short-lived warming processes at high altitudes. The study appears in ACS' Environmental Science & Technology.

In the study, Jens Borken-Kleefeld and colleagues compare the impacts on global warming of different means of transport. The researchers use, for the first time, a suite of climate chemistry models to consider the climate effects of all long- and short-lived gases, aerosols and cloud effects, not just , resulting from transport worldwide.

They concluded that in the long run the global temperature increase from a car trip will be on average higher than from a plane of the same distance. However, in the first years after the journey, air travel increases four times more than car travel. Passenger trains and buses cause four to five times less impact than automobile travel for every mile a passenger travels. The findings prove robust despite the scientific uncertainties in understanding the earth's climate system.

"As planes fly at high altitudes, their impact on ozone and clouds is disproportionately high, though short lived. Although the exact magnitude is uncertain, the net effect is a strong, short-term, temperature increase," explains Dr. Jens Borken-Kleefeld, lead author of the study. "Car travel emits more carbon dioxide than air per passenger mile. As carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere longer than the other gases, cars have a more harmful impact on change in the long term."

Explore further: Climate change: meteorologists preparing for the worst

More information: "Specific Climate Impact of Passenger and Freight Transport", Environmental Science & Technology.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Faster Climate Change Predicted as Air Quality Improves

Jun 29, 2005

Global warming may proceed faster and be more severe than previously predicted according to research about to be published in the scientific journal Nature. Reductions in airborne particle pollution, or aerosols, as air qu ...

Explained: Climate sensitivity

Mar 19, 2010

Climate sensitivity is the term used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to express the relationship between the human-caused emissions that add to the Earth's greenhouse effect -- carbon ...

Sensitive side

May 05, 2010

( -- A little extra carbon dioxide in the air may, unfortunately, go further towards warming Earth than previously thought. A team of British and U.S. researchers have uncovered evidence [1] that ...

Pollution dims skies as well as befouling the air

Mar 12, 2009

A University of Maryland-led team has compiled the first decades-long database of aerosol measurements over land, making possible new research into how air pollution changes affect climate change.

Recommended for you

Climate change: meteorologists preparing for the worst

1 minute ago

Intense aerial turbulence, ice storms and scorching heatwaves, huge ocean waves—the world's climate experts forecast apocalyptic weather over the coming decades at a conference in Montreal that ended Thursday.

Sunlight, not microbes, key to CO2 in Arctic

21 minutes ago

The vast reservoir of carbon stored in Arctic permafrost is gradually being converted to carbon dioxide (CO2) after entering the freshwater system in a process thought to be controlled largely by microbial ...

Drying Sierra meadows could worsen California drought

1 hour ago

Carpeting the high valleys of Yosemite and other parts of the Sierra Nevada, mountain meadows are more than an iconic part of the California landscape. The roughly 17,000 high altitude meadows help regulate ...

Is Hawaii prepared for the impacts of climate change?

2 hours ago

The Hawaiian Islands represent a wide diversity of ecosystems and environments, including areas of breathtaking natural beauty as well as densely populated coastal cities. These unique environments are already ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3 / 5 (2) Aug 04, 2010
First it needs to be established that CO2 causes global warming.

Despite all the fudging of data and the awarding of Nobel Prizes to Al Gore, the UN's IPCC, and an army of climateologists receiving federal research grant funds, . . .

That fact has not been established!

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo
3 / 5 (1) Aug 04, 2010
The usual flaw in these studies is the comparison not of air verses road but of private verses commercial public transport eg it is safer to travel by commercial airliner than a private car but safety is comparable when travelling by private plane and less safe in an ultra-light private plane than a car. At least they acknowledge the train and bus but go on to compare cars with commercial jets anyway.

Likewise it is much safer to travel by bus and even safer by train, but nobody seems to compare trains with jet liners and cars with private planes.

When apples are compared with apples, things become far clearer and the bulk of the difference between road and air travel disappears.