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Shipping best for low carbon freight transport

12 April 2021

Shipping is the most GHG efficient way of transporting goods, while the railway is the most GHG efficient for passenger transport. This according to a new study from the European Environment Agency.

The background to the study is the European Commission's target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector by 90 percent by 2050 compared to 1990. While other economic sectors, such as energy supply and industry, have reduced their emissions significantly since 1990, transport emissions have increased. Therefore, a transfer to the most sustainable modes of transport must be facilitated. But which type of traffic is actually most efficient per unit transported?

Unsurprisingly, the study shows that rail and waterborne transport are much more GHG efficient than road transport and aviation, especially when it comes to freight. And it is shipping that emits the least greenhouse gases - per tonne-kilometer about a third of what the railway does.

Compared with aviation, which is by far the worst on the freight side, shipping is more than a hundred times more GHG efficient. However, aviation and rail are the modes of transport that increased their GHG efficiency the most between 2014 and 2018 (12% and 11%, respectively).

For passenger traffic, the differences are not as great. Aviation is still the worst, but measured in per passenger kilometer, emissions are just about three times higher than shipping. Passenger car traffic is not far from aviation emission values and for longer distances it is often more GHG efficient to fly than to drive alone.

The most efficient way to travel within the EU is by train, which is about twice as climate-efficient as by shipping.

Related content: To the report

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