Reducing Fossil Fuels in California

High-speed rail is a superstar of energy efficiency
Passenger vehicles are responsible for 28% of California's emissions.

California has been a problem-solving powerhouse when it comes to climate change, slashing its overall greenhouse gas emissions by 14 percent between 2004 (the peak) and 2017. Now it needs to do even better. The state is on track to miss its 2030 target of reducing emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels.

Transportation creates roughly 30 percent of the U.S. economy’s total greenhouse gas emissions—more than any other sector. And in California, passenger vehicles alone create 28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

 Which means we can’t solve climate change until we fundamentally transform the way we move around. That’s why the Alliance to Save Energy recently challenged the U.S. to “reinvent our transportation system to be more efficient, productive, cleaner, and accessible.”

High-speed rail is the solution.
Energy intensity of passenger transport, in tonnes of oil equivalent (toe) per million passenger km traveled. Source IEA

Shifting drivers to trains creates fewer greenhouse gas emissions, since trains are far more energy efficient than cars (or planes). Rail networks carry between 7 and 8 percent of freight and motorized passenger traffic, globally, yet they account for just 2 percent of energy use in the transportation sector.

And California’s high-speed line will be far above average, even compared with the most rail lines, in cutting greenhouse gasses. That’s because it will run on 100 percent renewable energy and use electrified trains—the superstars of energy efficiency. In electrified trains, about 95 percent of the energy created by combustion transfers to the wheels from overhead powerlines, versus a 30 to 35 percent transfer rate in diesel-powered trains.

And more trains mean we’ll need to build fewer roads and runways. For example, to match the capacity of the high-speed line from the Bay Area to L.A., California would have to build 4,300 miles of new highway lanes, 115 new airport gates, and 4 new airport runways—at a cost of about $158 billion—according to the California High Speed Rail Authority.

And running more trains mean we’ll need to build fewer roads and runways. To match the capacity of the high-speed line from the Bay Area to L.A., California would have to build 4,300 miles of new highway lanes, 115 new airport gates, and 4 new airport runways—at a cost of about $158 billion—according to the California High Speed Rail Authority.

So the new line will take a lot of cars off the road, reduce the number of flights, and replace those options with the most energy-efficient mass-transportation mode there is.

Here’s what the environmental benefits look like for a trip from Paris to Marseille (France), which is roughly the distance from the Bay Area to L.A. This chart from EcoPassenger compares the efficiency and emissions of rail (the left bar) to other modes, and it offers a glimpse of the big win for the environment that comes from replacing cars and planes with a high-speed rail line.

These charts compare the environmental impacts of a Paris - Marseille trip, roughly the same distance as San Francisco - Los Angeles via high-speed rail route.

In short: high-speed rail is crucial to meeting California’s climate change goals in the near term. And it will enhance California’s role as a problem-solving, paradigm-shifting pioneer in the global fight against climate change.