A traffic light system for UK domestic travel CO2 emissions

The impact of the looming climate disaster will potentially dwarf that of the current pandemic unless urgent steps are taken to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. While we may point the finger at countries like China and the USA, it doesn’t absolve the UK from taking actions within its control.

The current growth in air travel is not sustainable if we are to meet the stringent targets needed to cap temperature rises to a level where the damage to our ecosystems, and the knock on impact to the global population will be manageable. Time is running out and in the current absence of viable technology we need to cut air travel and promote alternatives. The pandemic has shown us that in many cases business meetings can be conducted remotely and we should urgently consider a ‘frequent flyer’ tax, both for business travel, and for personal travel in excess of one return trip per year.

However, we should also look at providing information about the impacts of different modes of travel so that people can make an informed choice based on carbon emissions per trip, rather than time saved, although I would argue that by the time you factor in check-in time etc. the time savings are fairly negligible anyway.

We will all be familiar with the traffic light system for food, and with that in mind I put wrote the motion below, asking that a similar approach is adopted by the transport industry to encourage a move away from domestic air travel. I am delighted that this was recently adopted by the ASLEF union at their Annual Assembly of Delegates (AAD) and many thanks to the delegates that supported it.

Now a train drivers union promoting rail travel might not be a huge surprise, but there is no doubt that the railways have a significant part to play in the UK’s route to net zero. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that we can succeed without significant changes to the way we go about our lives, but the consequences of not acting are dire.

The full text of the motion below:

“This 2020 AAD notes that we must take urgent action to deal with the looming climate emergency. Further, a fundamental change to how we travel must take place meet net zero carbon emission targets. Air travel is a significant contributor to our transport CO2 emissions and further to these high-altitude emissions created by air travel have a far greater effect than those at ground level, lasting longer and having a greater warming effect.

A typical domestic flight will emit 133g per passenger per km travelled compared to 41g per passenger per km for rail travel.

Using a typical domestic journey between London and Edinburgh as an example the different modes of travel produces the following level of emissions per person*:

  • Plane              144kg
  • Train              29kg

An international flight between London to Madrid produces three times the amount of CO2 per passenger than the equivalent journey by rail and this doesn’t include the additional effects of high-level emissions.

The food industry has a traffic light labelling system indicating nutritional content, particularly in relation to items such as fat and salt content. This system is used to indicate in percentage terms the relative nutritional content of the food in relation to recommended daily intake.

This AAD believes that a similar system should be used to indicate the different CO2 emissions per person in relation to different transport modes on all domestic journeys between UK cities and where there are alternatives, short haul flights to Europe.

This will enable the public to make transport choices based upon the sustainability of the mode of travel. This will encourage a behavioural change away from high CO2 emissions modes such as air travel and encourage greater use of more sustainable modes such as railways.

We instruct the EC to lobby the ASLEF parliamentary group to promote the creation of a traffic light system for UK domestic travel as set out above.”


Link to the London to Edinburgh journey emissions here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-51007504

You can find out more about emissions from the airline industry here: Aviation to consume half of UK’s 1.5C carbon budget by 2050 (carbonbrief.org)

And here: International Aviation | Climate Action Tracker

And what may happen if we don’t meet the challenge in one of my earlier blogs here: https://julianvaughan.blog/2019/07/13/fixing-the-climate-emergency-the-end-of-the-global-economy/


Julian Vaughan

26th May 2021

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