How does transport affect the natural environment?

Let’s imagine a world without cars, trains, ships or planes. This was the reality of the people living on the eve of the nineteenth century. The invention of mechanical drives and the internal combustion engine has revolutionised global logistics. Increased water, land and air traffic also has a significant impact on the condition of the air, soil and water and the functioning of ecosystems. One might want to know how transport influences the environment. Here is a presentation of the most important facts.

Published: 14-03-2023

Transport and the environment: main threats

The first creators of motor vehicles were not bothered about how road, sea and air transport might impact the environment. Presently, we human beings use different means of transport millions of times per day, every day. Most of these means of transport generate exhaust gases and noise, which places a burden on the environment and as much on people. Poisonous compounds coming from exhaust gases contaminate living organisms, and the greenhouse effect, that is, the growth of temperature on our planet, are accelerated exponentially by the carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrogen oxides produced by modern means of transport. This causes, for example:

  • the melting of glaciers and an ever-faster rise of sea levels (which is the immediate cause of floods and even a complete disappearance of entire towns or islands situated on oceans!);
  • climate changes and frequent weather anomalies and weather-related phenomenon such as monster hurricanes, rainfall-driven floods, avalanches, mudslides, colossal wildfires, and hailstorms;
  • declining resources of fresh water (caused by the melting of glaciers, which are a natural source of drinking water).

Without a doubt, the impact of road transport on the environment is huge! The always-expanding road infrastructure adversely affects plants and animals. It reduces the areas of natural habitat of various species of mammals, birds, amphibians, etc. Animals die crushed by wheels – ‘road kill’ – or migrate to different locations, where their chances of survival are usually low. As a result of road works, trees and bushes are continuously cut down or pulled out. These plants produce oxygen and are a shelter for birds, insects, etc. The more roadside greenery we destroy by clearing and through salination, the higher the risk that more species of plants and animals will become extinct. Excessive clearing of vegetation and saturation with chemicals support the erosion of soils and the contamination of groundwater.

Ecology and road, sea and air transport: statistics

Government and EU websites include many interesting facts and statistics regarding CO2 emissions related to transport. According to, for example, the listing featured in ‘Classification of CO2 emissions by modes of transport for 2019’ notes the following:

  • over 70% of CO2 air pollution is generated by land transport (passenger cars, lorries, light trucks, and motorcycles),
  • waterborne transport is responsible for 14% of CO2 emissions,
  • around 14% of all air pollution is generated by civil aviation and rail transportation.

The remaining, minor part of the emissions are caused by other means of transport. A simple calculation suggests an obvious conclusions: the impact of road transport on the environment is enormous. We should then take all measures possible to reduce its negative effect.

Sea transport and the ecology

In contemporary logistics, a great role is played by sea transport; however, ecology is an issue which is still evolving when it comes to that mode of transport. Container ships or passenger ferries can exert a negative impact on water and waterside environments and on the quality of life of the people who live near seaports. How can water vessels disturb the functioning of ecosystems? Their impact range covers:

  • increased noise (both above and under water),
  • the leakage of petroleum and wastewater,
  • the emission of exhausts (CO2, carbon monoxide, sulphur oxides, nitrogen, particulate matter).

Issues such as ecology in the context of the means of sea transport, or the risks related to the intensifying waterborne traffic, are increasingly raised by global leaders. In 2021, the first European Maritime Transport Environmental Report (EMTER’21) was issued. The document is closely related to the concept of the Green New Deal (which covers solutions aimed at achieving zero CO2 emissions by 2050).

Rail transport and the environment

Railways are amongst the most ecological means of transport. They generate only small amounts of greenhouse gases and do not continuously burden the environment with noise. Trains can safely carry large quantities of goods or groups of people. Railroad fills are not an obstacle for animals, so they help preserve the species living in a particular area.

For many years, the railway sector used wooden sleepers impregnated with toxic creosote oil. Today they are often replaced by ecological concrete sleepers, which do not have any harmful effect on the quality of soil or water, or on the living conditions of plants and animals.

What is the ecology of transport?

Logisticians and scientists the world over join hands to make transport less invasive and protect our planet against the greenhouse effect. One of the concepts in the logistics sector having the most potential for growth is the ecology of transport. What is it about? It represents continuous attempts to answer the question: what can we do to reduce pollution and other negative effects of transport. The key issues in the ecology of transport involve:

  • energy-efficient solutions,
  • the possibility to use alternative fuels,
  • the reduction of noise generated by road vehicles, ships, trains, etc.,
  • the methods of recycling waste generated during transport.

Intermodal transport and the ecology

What does the concept of ecological transport look like in practice? A great example is the intermodal transport, where loads are carried in the same container at all stages of travel. This reduces the need to undertake the additional handling of goods that would increase CO2 emissions.

Summary: road, sea and rail transport and the environment

In the twenty-first century, the possibility of fast transport of people and goods became the main driver for global markets. Cars, ships and trains destroy ecosystems, intensify the greenhouse effect and cause local contamination. In the face of looming global disaster, it has become essential to work out new, ecological solutions that are constantly being improved with the aim to minimise any negative impacts.


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