Across the world today, the carbon footprint from transportation is enormous. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, in 2020, the sector was responsible for 27 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from gasoline and diesel fuel. That's a significant share, but what can we do about it?

Between 1990 and 2020, GHG emissions from transportation increased more than in any other sector, largely due to rising demand for travel. Unfortunately, the trend is not encouraging — there are more cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes than ever before. Their emissions include carbon, methane, and other gases from fuel combustion, leaks, and end-of-life disposal from air conditioning units used for both people and freight.

But the consequences of our reliance on fossil fuels go beyond GHG emissions. Petrol-powered mobility carries hidden costs, including contamination of land and water from oil spills, devastating environmental impacts, and even harm to our health.

Impact on human health

Air pollution from fossil fuel combustion, particularly from transportation, poses a significant risk to human health. Smog, a mixture of liquid, solid fog, and smoke particles, is a byproduct of emissions and has adverse effects on air quality. It forms when fumes, emissions, and particles react with nitrogen and sulphur oxides and volatile organic compounds in sunlight to create ground-level ozone. In most urban areas, vehicles contribute to over 50 percent of smog formation.

The effects of smog can cause or worsen various health problems, such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, lung infections, emphysema, and cancer. While coughing, allergies, and other irritations typically only last for a few days after exposure, smog particles can continue to damage lungs even after symptoms disappear.

Thus, the consequences of our transportation choices go beyond just getting from Point A to Point B. It's time to consider the true costs of our petrol-powered mobility and take steps to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels to protect our health and our planet.

Our responsibility 

During a conversation with Christina Paxson, the President of Brown University, in 2014, Mawlana Hazar Imam said:

“In Islam, there is a notion of entrustment… essentially, the faith says God has given His creation of the world to humankind to better. And the principle is you leave life, having left the world better than it was when you were born into it. So you don’t divorce yourself from real life. You seek to improve it and to leave it to others in a better state.”

Therefore, each of us has a responsibility to improve our environment as much as possible. Read on for four actionable strategies you can begin today.

What can we do?

One effective way to safeguard the future of our planet is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and a key area of focus should be the transportation sector. As it stands, personal automobiles remain the greatest polluters, accounting for nearly half of the carbon footprint of a typical American family with two cars. However, there are several alternative modes of mobility that can help reduce demand for fossil-fueled transport and even replace it altogether.

  1. One effective way to reduce your carbon footprint is to ride public transportation. Households that are situated near a bus or rail line drive an average of 4,400 fewer miles annually compared to those without access to public transit. Car sharing and carpooling are also viable options that help reduce the number of cars on the road, save energy, and reduce the land needed for parking. In fact, car sharing could reduce driving costs by 40-50 percent.

  2. Electric vehicles offer a low-carbon alternative to gasoline-powered vehicles. Optimal driving techniques, such as reducing time spent idling and properly maintaining your vehicle, can help reduce emissions and save money. Aggressive driving, for instance, is more expensive – it can lower gas mileage by 33 percent at highway speeds and by 5 percent around town, meaning more frequent trips to the gas station. Having your vehicle well-tuned, tires inflated properly, and oil and air filters cleaned out regularly can further help the environment, and your wallet.

  3. Biking and walking are also effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, traffic congestion, and oil demand. These activities provide additional benefits of reducing the environmental impacts of motorised transportation, such as noise and the destruction of open space, wetlands, and other habitats. It’s also great for your fitness, strength, mobility, and general health.

  4. When it comes to air travel, your impact can be reduced by choosing direct flights. Take-off and landing are the most fuel-intensive parts of a flight, so the more connections you make, the higher your carbon footprint. Additionally, packing lightly can make a big difference, as the weight reduction means fewer CO2 emissions. In fact, if all passengers packed one less pair of shoes or roughly 1kg, the aircraft's fuel savings would be the same as taking 10,500 cars off the road for an entire year.

There are several online resources to measure your environmental impact, and the potential costs and benefits of switching to more sustainable options. While these listed solutions require some effort for individuals, they have the potential to save money, prevent pollution, and create more equitable mobility and livability in our cities and communities. Ultimately, it's up to us to make small changes and create a more sustainable future for ourselves and future generations.

Laila Hudda works at the US Environmental Protection Agency, and Neesha Sagani is a student at The University of Texas at Austin