Sustainable development requires sectors and industries to reduce and ultimately eliminate carbon dioxide emissions. Globally, the transportation sector accounts for a quarter of all direct carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions across the world. Road vehicles are responsible for 75 percent of these emissions with most of the remainder from aviation and shipping. To reduce transportation emissions, the best journey to net zero is the journey left untaken, whenever possible. The next best option, at least for short trips, is active travel, such as walking and cycling, not just to minimize CO2 emissions but also to support health. In general, however, a mixture of transportation modes is necessary to support sustainable travel for people and freight movement.
An opportunity exists to leverage the efficiency of rail, increasing its share; rail already performs well during operation in terms of energy efficiency and emissions generation per passenger and per ton of goods. During operation, railways contribute just a fraction of the total greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, the quantity of embodied carbon built into a rail system during construction can be significant.
This understanding raises a fundamental question: How can the rail industry take responsibility to reduce its total carbon footprint—especially as other modes of transportation shift to fossil-free operation over the next decades?