A clear conscience in the ICE: How climate-friendly is the train?

Traveling by train means protecting the climate.

A clear conscience in the ICE: How climate-friendly is the train?

Traveling by train means protecting the climate. After all, the ICEs run on 100 percent green electricity, as Deutsche Bahn advertises for its long-distance transport. But what do such numbers mean? And can Deutsche Bahn do more to protect the climate, as some are demanding?

According to the Federal Environment Agency (UBA), anyone who travels by train saves many times more CO2 than by car or plane. Only long-distance buses and coaches can therefore keep up with the low emissions per passenger kilometer. In local transport, on the other hand, only cyclists and pedestrians are more environmentally friendly. In view of the climate crisis, it is therefore a correct and important goal for as many people and goods as possible to travel by rail.

Nevertheless, rail traffic also causes large amounts of greenhouse gases every year. According to the annual report, CO2 emissions were 18.5 million tons last year for the entire Deutsche Bahn group alone. After all, that is around 2.4 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions in Germany that the UBA calculated for 2021. Many diesel locomotives are still in use, thousands of kilometers of track do not have any electrical overhead lines. And even if the group advertises 100 percent green electricity in long-distance transport, gas and coal can still be found in the overall electricity mix. So there is a need to catch up.

This is also shown by figures from the London-based non-governmental organization Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP). Every year, based on comprehensive surveys, the organization creates a ranking of large industrial groups with a view to their emissions and environmental data. According to the CDP, Deutsche Bahn has committed to aligning its climate goals with the 1.5-degree path set out in the Paris Climate Agreement. But with the current goals, she is currently still on a 2-degree path. There are various reasons for this.

The railway is one of the largest consumers of electricity in Germany. According to their own statements, it is around ten terawatt hours every year. That is about as much as the city of Hamburg consumes annually. According to Bahn, around 62 percent of the total electricity now comes from renewable energies (RE). However, according to the annual report, more than 20 percent was still obtained from lignite and hard coal last year. The natural gas share was 6.3 percent. And with almost eleven percent, nuclear energy also played a role - even if this share is expected to drop to zero next year when the last nuclear power plants in Germany are shut down.

By 2038, Deutsche Bahn intends to obtain 100 percent of the total electricity mix from renewable energies. This is already the case in long-distance transport, they say. But from the point of view of experts, this is primarily marketing. The criticism: Deutsche Bahn buys green electricity that is already available on the market via so-called guarantees of origin, instead of creating additional capacity by building its own renewable energy plants.

"The fact that Deutsche Bahn assigns shares of renewable energies to its balance sheet is of course legally legitimate," said Dominik Seebach, energy and climate researcher at the Öko-Institut, a private environmental research institute. "However, our recommendation is always to further increase the share of renewables as a whole within the scope of one's own possibilities and to ask: How and where can I contribute to the construction of new renewable energy plants?" Here, the railways have so far left a lot of potential untapped.

The group sees it differently. "Deutsche Bahn does not operate its own power plants, but has supply contracts, so-called Power Purchase Agreements (PPA) and is thus committed to the expansion of this new market," said a spokeswoman on request. "The offshore wind farms Nordsee-Ost and Amrumbank-West, mainland wind farms and photovoltaic parks in Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania supply green electricity to DB." In addition, hydroelectric power plants on the Rhine, Moselle, Ruhr, Main, Danube, Lech, Isar, Inn and from the Edersee and Schluchsee have been delivering sustainable energy to the railways for more than 100 years.

Other industry experts do not only see the company as having an obligation. "To say that real green railway electricity is only true if the railways build their own wind or solar systems - that's the best," said Dirk Flege, Managing Director of the Pro-Rail Alliance. "I think it's very ambitious and too demanding to want to dump all of that on one company."

After all, competitors have gained significant market shares in recent years, especially in regional and freight transport. The expansion of renewable energies is therefore a task for the entire sector and not just for a single company, said Flege. For him, there are other adjustment screws that the federal government must also turn to make the entire industry even more climate-friendly: "Above all, we need more overhead lines."

The Pro-Rail Alliance has long been calling for more speed in the electrification of routes. According to the federal government, 61 percent of the German rail network was electrified in 2020. According to the railways, around 90 percent of passenger and freight traffic runs over it.

But especially at the borders to Eastern Europe there are hardly any overhead lines. "If you always have to hitch a diesel locomotive to a freight train when you drive across the border to a neighboring country, then you're out of the running in terms of price. That's one of the reasons why so many Eastern European trucks are on the road in Germany," said Flege . That has to change. Alternative drives such as hybrid or two-power locomotives could only serve as a bridging technology.

With regard to the rest of the infrastructure, experts also believe that there is still a lot to be done. Criticism of various construction projects of the group is repeatedly ignited. It is said that significantly more solar cells could be installed at the train stations than before. But despite all these construction sites, one thing is clear to all the experts contacted: Compared to the car and the plane, the train is the more climate-friendly recommendation. The railways are needed for a sustainable turnaround in transport.

(This article was first published on Saturday, June 25, 2022.)

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