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Impact of high-speed rail on road traffic and greenhouse gas emissions

An Author Correction to this article was published on 08 December 2021

This article has been updated


Carbon emission reduction in the transportation sector is essential in the global mitigation effort, and a large-scale public transport system has the potential to be an effective instrument. High-speed rail (HSR) is one such example, yet it is unclear how much reduction in road traffic results from new rail routes. Using the difference-in-differences method, we show that new HSR routes in China lead to a 20.5 log-point reduction in the number of passenger vehicles and a 15.7 log-point reduction in freight vehicles running on parallel highways. These reductions were not seen on ordinary national roads. These effects translate into an annual reduction of 11.183 million tons of CO2 equivalent of GHG emissions or 1.33% of GHG emissions in China’s transport sector. This mitigation effect mainly comes from the substitution of highway goods transport with the conventional railway instead of the direct replacement of highway passenger transport with HSRs. The environmental benefit of HSR in China has not been fully realized because of the thermal-dominated electricity supply. Our further projections suggest that in greener electricity conditions, the HSR in China can substantially contribute more to the reduction in GHG emissions from the transport sector.

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Fig. 1: Evolution of the HSR network in China from 2008 to 2016.
Fig. 2: Event study.
Fig. 3: Net change in GHG emissions.

Data availability

The datasets analysed during the current study are not publicly available due to the confidentiality of the road monitoring data subject to a non-disclosure agreement but are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Code availability

The Stata code used for the analysis of HSR’s effect in this Article is available from

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We highly appreciate L. Zhu and L. Shao for their work cleaning raw data. We are also grateful for the funding by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (projects 71874093 and 91546113) received by J.W.

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Authors and Affiliations



All authors equally contributed to the Article. Y.L., Y.Q. and J.W. conceptualized the study and carried out initial planning. M.X. constructed the dataset and carried out the statistical analysis under the guidance of Y.L., Y.Q. and J.W. All four authors contributed to the writing of the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Yu Qin.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks the anonymous reviewers for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Note, Figs. 1–3, Tables 1–22 and Refs. 1–24.

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Lin, Y., Qin, Y., Wu, J. et al. Impact of high-speed rail on road traffic and greenhouse gas emissions. Nat. Clim. Chang. 11, 952–957 (2021).

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