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Traveling in the right direction -- lessening our impact on the environment

As concern about climate change increasingly focuses on the environmental damage caused by travel, new research shows that there are huge variations in the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that individuals' travel patterns are responsible for.

Researchers funded by the Economic and Social Science Research Council and based at Oxford University found that the climate change impact of individuals' annual travel was, on average, equivalent to 5.25 tonnes of carbon dioxide. And although a large proportion of the population are responsible for roughly the same amount of emissions, a few people are responsible for a disproportionately large share of the total. The Oxford researchers found that 61 per cent of all travel emissions came from individuals in the top 20 per cent of 'emitters', while only 1 per cent of emissions came from those in the bottom 20 per cent.

This high emitters group is mostly made up of employed men in high income groups (earning over £40,000 per year). And across the board, people in high income groups have an average climate change impact of 11.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide - twice the national average. This means they earn around four times as much as low earners and produce on average almost four times as much carbon dioxide emissions.

The research, based on a survey of almost 500 people in Oxfordshire, found that air travel accounted for 70 per cent of personal travel carbon emissions. Individuals classified as being in the top tenth of emitters, were responsible for producing 19.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, from their flying alone. This is especially high given that the suggested safe level of personal carbon emissions, the figure that any future carbon allowance scheme would probably be based upon, could be as low as two tonnes per person.

Car driving was the second largest cause of personal travel carbon emissions and the results of the survey suggest that enforcing motorway speed limits could save up to four per cent of all car travel carbon emissions.

Commenting on the research, project leader Professor John Preston, said:

"The UK is facing tough choices on how to lower greenhouse gas emissions in response to climate change. The transport sector contributes 26 per cent of UK carbon emissions and is the only major sector in which emissions are predicted to rise in the period till 2020. Transport is thus a priority area for government policy. This research helps us understand the extent to which individuals' travel patterns, their location and their social class make an impact on climate change through the carbon dioxide emissions created by their transport use."

Annika Howard | EurekAlert!
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