STOCKHOLM, Sweden ― Greta Thunberg grabbed the world’s attention when she cruised into New York City on a zero-emissions yacht in August, after sailing two weeks across the Atlantic Ocean rather than spend one day flying.
The 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, who has inspired hundreds of thousands around the world to strike for the climate, gave up flying when she was 12 because of her concern for the environment. And now she’s inspiring others in her home country to follow her lead and opt for more climate-friendly travel.
“I choose to take the train as a way to minimise the emissions that I cause with my behaviours,” says 23-year-old Rebecka Hoppe who lives in Lund in southern Sweden. Alongside her parents and two younger siblings, she took on a challenge to avoid all plane travel in 2019, a mission she is close to completing.
The student’s travels have so far included an 850-mile trip to Budapest with a friend, which included three train journeys and a ferry, and two weeks traveling by train around the Netherlands and Germany with her boyfriend.
“In my opinion, trains are perfect for visiting multiple places during one holiday. … I will absolutely do it again,” she said.
“It’s about making a statement,” argues Klara Lövgren, 34, who has quit taking planes for all personal journeys in 2019, as well as most business trips.
The project manager, who lives in Uppsala, north of Stockholm, took a 1,500-mile train trip to Croatia with her partner during the summer and traveled to Italy by train during the spring.
“In Sweden, we consume much more than people living in poorer countries,” she said. “If I can make a small impact by consuming less energy by choosing a way of traveling that has a smaller impact on the environment, I think I should do it.”
While Sweden has long had a global reputation for flying the flag for sustainability ― whether that be for its heavy investment in renewable energy or the fact that less than 1% of its household waste ends up in landfills ― it is still facing a huge battle when it comes to its consumption levels. A 2016 report from the World Wildlife Fund suggested that if the whole world consumed in the same way as Swedes, we’d need 4.2 planets instead of one.
But here, activists’ efforts to inform people about the effects of their habits do seem to be catching on. In a country of 10 million, 14,500 people joined a nationwide campaign to commit to a flight-free 2019, and the nonprofit organization behind it, Vi håller oss på jorden (We Stay on the Ground) is hoping that next year 100,000 Swedes ― 1% of the population ― will sign up to skip air travel.
So far, there has been an 8% drop in passenger numbers on domestic flights since January and a 3% dip for international journeys, according to official figures from Swedavia, which runs the country’s major airports.
The number of Interrail tickets (single rail passes that allow train travel across Europe) purchased in Sweden has tripled over the past two years. The largest national rail company, SJ, recently reported a 15% increase in travel on its trains between July and September, compared with the same months last year, thanks to many business travelers as well as vacationers opting to skip short-haul domestic flights.
“For quite a long time, if you told people you were taking the train because of climate or nature issues, people would be uncomfortable and think that you are a bore,” says Lövgren.
But then, in 2018, devastating forest fires reaching as far north as the Arctic Circle burned some 100 square miles that summer ― the worst fires in Sweden’s modern history ― demonstrating the kind of damage that could be caused by global warming. That September, Thunberg began her climate strikes.
“Now I think that it’s on everyone’s lips,” Lövgren says of not flying. “Even among those who don’t care about nature and don’t really grasp how serious climate change can be for humans and species ... there is an awakening.”
A Facebook group called Tågsemester (which translates to “traincation” in English) that launched five years ago has mushroomed from 4,000 members at the start of 2018 to well over 100,000. Members use the forum to swap tips on where to go and how to book the best deals.
Swedes have even created new words to shape their discussions. These include tagskryt (train-bragging), smygflyga (flying in secret), and the most well-known, flygskam (flight-shame).
The country’s small size and its strong existing rail infrastructure are among the key factors that have enabled the train travel trend to spread faster than in other parts of the world, including the U.S., according to New York-based transport analyst Seth Kaplan.
Services between Swedish cities are frequent, fast and comfortable and typically have Wi-Fi on board, a major asset for business travelers. The Öresund Bridge road and rail link connects southern Sweden to the Danish capital Copenhagen, and from there passengers can board trains to other parts of northern Europe.
How quickly the flight-cutting phenomenon might catch on in other Western countries remains up for debate. A recent study by global bank UBS found that 24% percent of Americans and 16% percent of British travelers claimed to be reducing the number of flights they took, as a result of climate change.
However, Kaplan says he found the figures “a bit difficult to believe,” arguing that passenger behaviors don’t always mirror their intentions.
In the U.S., for instance, a different approach to urban planning means that “cities are spread further apart and you don’t have that density of people living close to a railway station,” Kaplan says. He suggests this would present an “ongoing challenge” even if public policy in the U.S. became more environmentally friendly.
While “there is no question that many Americans are concerned about climate change,” Kaplan says, low gas taxes and the limited rail infrastructure in the U.S. will continue to make driving and domestic flights a more appealing option for many travelers. “It’s hard to separate out all the variables and see what Americans would do given the same opportunities as Swedes.”
Greger Henriksson, a sustainability researcher at Stockholm’s Royal Institute for Technology, argues that social conditioning has also played a role in Swedes’ shifting travel habits.
The train travel boom in Sweden also aligns with the country’s ingrained obsession with work-life balance. Whereas many workers in the U.S. might be hesitant about spending three precious paid vacation days on the move, Swedes are typically entitled to at least five weeks off a year. Many couples also save some of the 480 days paid parental leave they are entitled to split between them, to lengthen their summer breaks.
“We can devote time to longer train travel … the way we treat the long summer holidays, parental leave, gives us some more freedom than other countries,” says Henriksson.
Travelers embracing the flight-free trend in Sweden, however, have reported mixed experiences of the logistics and prices involved, especially when it comes to traveling beyond the country’s borders.
Hoppe’s trip to Budapest cost her around $160, about the same as a direct budget flight from her closest airport.
“It’s much less of a hassle compared to flying, in my opinion. You can bring anything you want in your backpack, you can arrive at the station 10 minutes before the train leaves without having to go through check-in and security,” she says.
But Lövgren believes “flying would have been cheaper, easier and faster” for her trip to Italy. She and her partner spent approximately $600 per person including two rail journeys on overnight sleeper trains, and says this was “double the cost” of direct flights she spotted online.
For Leah Irby, an American based in Stockholm whose Swedish parents-in-law helped fund a three-week family rail trip around Poland, Italy, Austria and the Czech Republic, traveling by train was too challenging. Both she and her 3-year-old son have food allergies, which limited the range of meals they could buy on board, and she also experienced motion sickness.
“I care about the environment and I want to reduce my carbon footprint … but it was a bit much with a small child,” she argues. “If I planned this trip again I think I would prefer to fly to one location and then take the train within that area or just go somewhere closer.”
But the train travel trend shows no sign of slowing down in Sweden. In December, the rail company SJ will change its timetables to make it possible for overnight passengers traveling from Stockholm to reach Copenhagen in time to connect to early morning German Deutsche Bahn services, meaning they can get to Hamburg by lunchtime. The Swedish government, which has an ambitious plan to become carbon neutral by 2045, wants to bring back direct night services to continental Europe, and has set up a task force to work alongside the major train operators to brainstorm the most effective solution.
Meanwhile, many activists argue that cutting down on plane travel remains only part of the puzzle. The aviation industry is currently responsible for 2% of all human-caused global greenhouse gas emissions. One recent study, however, found that cutting out consumption of meat, eggs and dairy was the most impactful individual action when it comes to saving the planet.
“We don’t really have time to focus on just one solution,” says Stefan Lindbohm, co-founder of GoClimateNeutral, a Stockholm-based online platform that helps users in 32 countries, including the U.S., calculate their total emissions. Subscribers pay a personalized monthly fee to support United Nations-certified projects to offset their impact and are also given tips on how to reduce it.
Rejecting the idea that projects like his are an easy way for cash-rich consumers to ease their consciences, he says it’s simply “more realistic to encourage people to make changes step by step,” rather than supporting the “unrealistic ideal” of many environmentalists that everyone can manage to incorporate drastic changes to their lifestyles, such as immediately quitting flying.
Lövgren says it’s also important that climate discussions reflect the fact that short-haul vacationers aren’t the main culprits when it comes to emissions, with regular business travelers “taking a larger piece of the cake than they actually should take.”
“Money should not buy you the right to behave in a way that is not in accordance with what the Earth can actually handle.”
Indeed, a recent study by the International Council on Clean Transportation found that in the U.S., 12% of flyers — those who make six round trips a year or more — are responsible for two-thirds of all U.S. air travel emissions.
“It would be good if it cost more, the more trips you make, that would be the best solution. The first trip you make is at a reasonable cost, the second costs more, that would make the system more equal,” argues Lövgren.
But what about those who can simply bypass traditional airlines by taking their own private jets, such as Bill Gates, Jennifer Lopez and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who have all made headlines for their carbon footprints in recent months? The global business jet industry shows no sign of slowing, with sales expected to rise by 7% in 2020, according to analysts.
Lövgren says she hopes that the general public will become increasingly critical of this group and that more leading names in business will seek to become role models by changing their behaviors “because that could actually have a really great impact on others.”
In the meantime, she argues that there is a balance to be struck when it comes to those with lower incomes changing their habits.
“Even in Sweden there are many families that can’t really afford to fly abroad, and if they want to do one trip in 10 years, they should be able to do that with a clean conscience,” she says.
“But we have to start somewhere and if there are enough of us [cutting down on flights], there will be a change,” she argues. “I hope in the future people will be more and more annoyed by the differences between people ... money should not buy you the right to behave in a way that is not in accordance with what the Earth can actually handle.”
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