Article image

The hidden carbon footprint of long-distance travel

The carbon footprint of human activity has never been more evident, particularly when it comes to travel.

New research led by scientists at the University of Leeds has shed light on the often-overlooked emissions from long-distance travel. The research offers a new perspective on the scale at which traveling contributes to the ongoing climate crisis.

“The transport sector accounts for 30% of global energy use and 37% of global carbon dioxide emissions. Despite its large share in national emissions, transport has been one of the most difficult sectors to decarbonize,” wrote the study authors.

“For example, between 1990 and 2019, emissions from other end-use sectors in the United Kingdom were reduced by 44% while those from transport were reduced by less than 5%, leaving transport with an increasingly larger share of emissions over time.”

The carbon consequences of long-distance travel

The Leeds study has revealed new insights into the environmental impact of various travel patterns, particularly in the United Kingdom. According to the researchers, even minor long-distance travel contributes significantly to the global carbon footprint.

For UK residents, journeys spanning more than 50 miles one way – while making up less than 3% of all trips – are responsible for a staggering 70% of all travel-related carbon emissions.

The impact is even more pronounced when it comes to international travel. Although accounting for a mere 0.4% of total trips, international journeys are responsible for 55% of emissions.

Increase in long-distance travel

Over the past 25 years, travel patterns have shifted. There has been a slight decline in domestic car journeys. However, this reduction has been overshadowed by a substantial increase in international air travel, driven largely by leisure and family visits.

“Flying internationally for leisure and social purposes has emerged as a crucial segment because of both its large share in mileage and emissions footprint and its continued growth over the past two decades compared with other travel purposes and modes,” wrote the researchers.

“Post-COVID-19 international travel statistics also show that these two segments are still thriving.”

The findings highlight the disproportionate environmental impact of long-distance and international travel, emphasizing the need for more sustainable travel options and practices to mitigate the growing carbon footprint of global mobility.

A new perspective on long-distance travel

The study has reiterated the need for a change in strategy to combat the climate impacts of travel.

Dr. Zia Wadud is the study’s lead researcher from the Institute for Transport Studies and School of Chemical and Process Engineering.

“The scale of the impact of long-distance travel is very large indeed. That just less than 3% of our trips are responsible for around 60% of miles and 70% of emissions shows how important long-distance travel is in the fight to combat climate change,” noted Dr. Wadud.

Potential changes to reduce carbon emissions

According to the research, if all car journeys under eight miles were transferred to walking or cycling, there would be a 9.3% reduction in carbon emissions.

This shift, though, would require altering approximately 55% of all journeys, as most travel is local and relies on cars.

The researchers created a new metric, emission reduction sensitivity, which was applied to evaluate the types of travel that could be modified to maximize a reduction in carbon emissions from passenger travel.

Path to a sustainable future

Dr. Muhammad Adeel, a co-author from the University of the West of England, voiced his concern that this issue needs urgent attention.

“Whilst efforts to move local journeys to more sustainable modes of transport are really positive, by omitting aviation emissions from national statistics – as is the case at the moment in nearly all countries – we are not getting a holistic picture and ignoring a large part of the problem,” said Dr. Adeel.

This study offers a wake-up call for everyone – from policymakers to the public – to rethink their travel’s carbon impact, prioritize long-distance trips, especially flights, and realize the largest reductions.

It underscores that the burden of combating climate change should not fall only on local and commuter journeys but also on long-distance travel, particularly international flights.

The path to a sustainable future is not clear-cut, but every step we take toward reducing our carbon footprint counts.

The study is published in the journal Nature Energy.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day