Published 2020-02-19

This post is also available in Swedish

Flying just in Europe a good environmental step

The trend for us to dip our toes in seas that are ever farther away has long been a strong one. If, instead, we were content with holidaying in Europe, the environmental benefits would be great. This is shown by a new Mistra Sustainable Consumption study.

Corfu instead of Koh Samui? Croatia instead of Krabi? If Swedes abandon favourite long-haul destinations, such as Thailand, and stay within Europe instead, they can continue to take holiday flights and yet reduce their climate-change emissions considerably.

‘In the public debate, there’s much focus on refraining from flying altogether and travelling by train instead. But in our study, we see great potential in short-haul flying for cutting climate-change emissions,’ says Jörgen Larsson, Assistant Professor at Chalmers University of Technology and researcher in the Mistra Sustainable Consumption programme.

The emissions causing climate change from Swedes’ air travel are substantial. These flights cause climate-change emissions in the same order of magnitude as emissions from all passenger-car traffic. International flights account for 90 per cent of the total climate impact of aviation. Flying shorter distances — or not at all — also reduces emissions, of course. Researchers have now looked more closely at how large these reductions will be.

In their report ‘Air Travel and Climate: Emissions reductions and Acceptance of Climate-Smart Alternatives’ (in Swedish), Larsson and his colleagues at the University of Gothenburg jointly analysed Swedes’ flights. The aim was, first, to survey climate emissions from air travel, and second, to analyse the potential for more sustainable consumer choices.

‘We wanted to investigate the potential scope for cuts from choosing both different modes of transport and other destinations.’

According to the report, holiday trips account for almost 40 per cent of the climate-impacting emissions from aviation. Calculations show that destinations outside Europe account for 23 per cent of flights, but as much as 60 per cent of all climate-change emissions.

If all Swedish holidaymakers who currently take intercontinental flights (to destinations including the Canary Islands) to experience sunshine and warmth chose European destinations instead, emissions from aviation would fall by as much as 21 per cent. This is perhaps the report’s most important conclusion, Larsson asserts.

‘The choice of flight destination affects climate-related emissions enormously. It’s almost as important as the choice of transport mode.’

Giving an impetus to shorter flights thus offers a good opportunity of reducing the climate impact of aviation. Destination choice is a realistic means of reduction, Larsson states.

‘This is an important result of our work. And this knowledge needs to reach the public, but also decision makers. We need official decisions to adopt new policy instruments for aviation.’

Are Swedes prepared to change their holiday habits for the sake of the climate, then? As part of the study, the researchers asked some 1,000 people, representative of the Swedish population, how far they were prepared to change their travel habits. It turned out that a large majority (80 per cent) of respondents who took an intercontinental flight for sunshine and warmth would consider flying within Europe instead.

‘It surprised me that so many people would consider that,’ Larsson says.

‘The premise was that the trip would meet the purpose of the respondent’s journey — be an equivalent experience. There’s always the option of refraining from holiday travel entirely, but we haven’t studied that here.’

The ‘Air Travel and Climate’ report was funded by the Swedish Energy Agency in collaboration with Mistra Sustainable Consumption. The conclusions will form the basis of further studies in this research programme on what policy instruments are needed to achieve more sustainable consumption patterns.’

Larsson and his colleagues have already embarked on a second phase. In new questionnaire surveys, acceptance of various policy instruments will be investigated. One example is a study on Swedes’ attitudes towards mandatory climate disclosures for long-haul aviation — a possible policy instrument currently being investigated by Transport Analysis, the Swedish government agency. Another is what Swedes would think of, for example, raised flight and passenger taxes, biofuel quotas and introduction of personal emission budgets. A report is expected later this year.

‘We’ll keep on studying acceptance of various policy instruments capable of affecting the climate impact of aviation. Before these instruments are introduced it is, of course, essential to study other effects as well, such as emissions reductions, cost-effectiveness and legal aspects,’ Larsson says.

‘Air Travel and Climate’ report (in Swedish)

Text: Henrik Lundström