Sustainable travel: How to cut emissions and keep flying

In 2017 alone, air transport generated 859 million tonnes of the world’s carbon emissions. In reality, this accounted for just 2 percent of global CO2 emissions, yet it’s no surprise that people are reevaluating their travel habits. The good news is sustainable air travel is no longer a flight of fancy, it’s here and Sweden is at its helm.

Sustainable travel: How to cut emissions and keep flying
Visby airport. Photo: Swedavia

Despite significant advances in technology over the last ten years, biofuel – which is derived from renewable plant and animal materials and emits 80 percent less carbon than fossil fuels – has retained a near-mythical quality.

Find out more about the environmental impact of air transport here

It’s time for that myth to be dispelled, says Lena Wennberg, Head of Environment at Swedavia, Sweden’s largest airport operator.

Photo: Lena Wennberg, Head of Environment at Swedavia

“There are already Swedish domestic airlines offering flights using biofuel,” she told The Local. “Like BRA for example. All you have to do is tick a box, and for an extra SEK 300 ($34), you have an hour of biofuel.”

With most of Sweden’s domestic flights clocking in at around an hour, sustainable options are available for environmentally-conscious flyers.

Swedavia, which operates ten of Sweden’s airports – including two of the country’s largest, Stockholm Arlanda and Göteborg Landvetter – is at the helm of what some are calling a ‘biofuel revolution’. Leading by example, it already uses biofuel to cover around 15,000 of its own domestic business flights each year. Now that biofuel is ready for commercial production, the operator is ready to scale up. Significantly.

“Our goal is for our own activities to become fossil free at all of our airports by 2020,” says Wennberg. “By 2025, all flights are to be refueled with 5 percent biofuel. And by 2030, all our domestic flights will be fossil free. All of our airports have been carbon neutral since 2006 – we compensate by buying carbon offsets that ensure carbon emissions are being prevented at other sites.”

These are challenging targets. To put them into perspective, Norway – presently the world leader in sustainable air travel – aims that all flights will contain a minimum of 0.5 percent biofuel in 2020.

But Wennberg is keen to point out Sweden is making serious headway.

Find out more about the environmental impact of air transport here

“We’ve already reached our goal of zero carbon dioxide emissions at three airports,” she says. “Ronneby Airport, Visby Airport, and Luleå Airport. At Ronneby Airport and Luleå Airport, some of the main activities are operated by the Swedish military, but at Visby Airport all activities are fossil free.”

Swedavia’s success in reducing carbon emissions has attracted keen attention from Singapore’s Changi Airport. In 2018, the operator received a visit from representatives of the airport, airline and the Government of Singapore.

Visby airport. Photo: Swedavia

“It's very interesting to see such a strong delegation from the aviation sector, coming just to have a look and see how it works,” says Wennberg.

It seems people want to know: how is Swedavia – how is Sweden, doing it. Of course, along with intrigue, comes skepticism. For many, while Sweden has the technology, the challenge still remains: how to produce biofuel in large enough quantities at an affordable price. Biofuel may have lost its mystique, but who’s going to pay for it?

Crowd-funding biofuel

“Airports and airlines don’t have the margins to pay for biofuel,” says Maria Fiskerud, who is currently a Project Manager for the Research Institute of Sweden (RISE), adding: “It’s too expensive at the moment.”

She explains that the traditional value chain doesn’t support bringing a new product like biofuel to market.

“The producers were saying there was no uptake agreement from the airlines, and the airlines were saying the producers can’t tell us a price.”

But that was four years ago. Recently, Fiskerud says, advances in biofuel technology and the challenge of global warming is inspiring a new way of doing business within the aviation industry.

“We started a kind of crowd-funding,” says Fiskerud. She’s referring to Sweden’s Green Fly Fund – a unique, industry-wide collaboration, founded by biofuel supplier SkyNRG, Nordic Initiative Sustainable Aviation (NISA) and Karlstad Airport.  

Find out more about the environmental impact of air transport here

The Fund, set up in 2015, allows individuals and companies to purchase biofuel for all or part of their flight. Although costs vary slightly and include a 25 percent processing fee, depending on your agreement biofuel flights can cost as little as SEK 100 ($11). The average one hour flight is SEK 400 ($45). Of that money, 75 percent goes on the biofuel itself, while 25 percent goes into further research and development for biofuel production.

The Fly Green Fund website advises that the exact cost of biofuel can’t be confirmed exactly until after purchase, as the market is ‘still immature’. But for Fiskerud, that’s the whole point.

“We want the end user to help us develop and help us with the innovation. Instead of doing something that the end user might not really want.”

The Fund essentially gives customers the power to express their demand and stimulate market growth. In short, if you want to fly sustainably, you can.

Biofuel filled in an airplane. Photo: Victoria Ström

Fiskerud has since moved on to a new project, working for one of Sweden’s most innovative research institutes – RISE. But this time her focus isn’t on driving the market. She’s looking to galvanize the aviation sector from within.  

“We’re bringing together as many people from across the industry as we can,” she says. “We want to complement the work being done by the Fly Green Fund – getting everyone under one roof, and to come to the table with real solutions.”

The ‘Innovation Cluster’, which will be launched in spring together with SAS and Swedavia, aims to do away with the traditional value chain completely – in favour of something more collaborative. “We’re building an ecosystem,” Fiskerud explains, “in which we all have to rely on each other. And we have one goal: to get production up and running.”

Currently, Sweden imports its biofuel from California, a cooking oil-based solution from SkyNRG. But, thanks to the research led by Luleå University, Sweden is now in a strong position to start producing biofuel in-house.

“We have more than a large enough feedstock potential from the forests to sustainably produce biofuel for domestic and international flights in Sweden,” says Fredrik Granberg, project manager at Luleå University. “This is not just another pre study. This is something we can do now.”

Photo: Fredrik Granberg

Granberg is clear that Sweden does not have the forest feedstock available to replace all fossil energy used today in the transportation sector. However, he says, the production potential from a feedstock combination of biomass and renewable electricity is very interesting.

“If we want to do it in a sustainable way for the future, then we need to do it in a smart way. And really try to maximize the forest's value. There’s a lot of work going on to make our processes more efficient.”

But for those who emphasise that reducing carbon emissions is a global challenge, what about flights outside of Sweden?

Other countries are indeed looking at the possibilities of their own feedstock. In the UK, for example, the focus is not on the forest, but on residues produced from waste.  

Some see biofuel as being a bridge to other forms of sustainable air travel – it isn’t the only opportunity to reduce emissions. “Electrical power for example,” says Maria Fiskerud. “People talk about it like it’s science fiction, but Norway has just bought its first electrical plane.”

Stop emissions, not travel

“People are saying that the best way to reduce emissions is to stop flying,” says Lena Wennberg. “But flying is so many good things for so many people. It brings adventure, creates connections – the world is getting smaller and that is a good thing. I don’t think stopping flying is the answer. I want to offer a hopeful message.”

Find out more about the environmental impact of air transport here

Supporting that message, is an equally hopeful trend. While 859 million tonnes sounds like a huge number, this actually constitutes just 2 percent of the world’s global fossil carbon dioxide emissions. And in the last forty years alone, air travel has become 70 per cent more fuel-efficient.

With booming economies in large developing countries like China and India, it seems unlikely (and unrealistic) that air travel will lessen; however, with climate-friendly options like biofuel becoming more widely available, people can travel with a clean conscience.

“People talk about biofuel like it’s science fiction,” repeats Fiskerud, “but sustainable flying is here now. You can fly using biofuel today.”

This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio and sponsored by Swedavia.


In Pictures: Spain’s flood-devastated towns taken on massive clean-up

Spanish authorities and communities are facing a huge clean-up mission after flash floods provoked by intense rain washed away cars, filled homes with mud and knocked out power in many areas of the country.

In Pictures: Spain's flood-devastated towns taken on massive clean-up
Residents clean a street in Cobisa, Toledo province, after a flash flood destroyed much of their homes and belongings on Wednesday. Photo: Oscar del Pozo/AFP

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said emergency services were “working tirelessly” to protect people and restore “normality” to places affected by flooding “as soon as possible”.

One of the worst-hit areas was Alcanar, a town 200 kilometres (160 miles) south of Barcelona, where huge torrents of fast-moving water surged through the streets, sweeping away everything in its path.

Cars were dragged down to the seashore in Alcanar as huge torrents of fast-moving water surged through the streets, sweeping away everything in its path. Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP

Firefighters and local residents used brooms and hoses on Thursday to clear the streets of mud, tree branches and other debris.

A bulldozer removes mud from the streets of Alcanar. Photo: Lluis Gené/AFP

“It seemed like the world was ending,” Alcanar mayor Joan Roig told radio Rac 1, adding the town was “devastated”.

Two Alcanar residents scrape up the mud that engulfed their homes during the flash flood. Photo: Lluis Gené/AFP

Regional authorities relocated 83 people into hotels or a local sports facility.

The storm knocked out power to 10,000 homes in the northeastern region of Catalonia but as of Thursday only 200 residences lacked electricity, a spokesman for power firm Endesa said.

Heavy rain also fell in Spain’s northern Navarra region and in Madrid, forcing the closure on Wednesday of several metro stations due to flooding.

The Toledo province municipalities of Cobisa, Argés and Polán also bore the brunt of the torrential rain in Spain this week, where the force of the floods knocked down the wall of one local who shouted “Help!” desperately as a wave of mud and debris approached his home. 

Emergency services rescued several people from cars that were caught in rising waters but no fatalities were reported.

Destroyed furniture belonging to Cobisa neighbours among the rubble and debris left behind by the floods. Photo: Oscar del Pozo/AFP

Much of central and northern Spain, along with the Balearic Islands, remained on alert for storms on Thursday, according to the national weather office, Aemet.

The Murcia town of Aguilas was among the most affected by the floods on Thursday, having already experienced similarly destructive weather in March 2021. 

The heavy rain that’s caused chaos throughout much of Spain over the past days is expected to mostly subside on Friday. 

Debris and mud cover a street in Cobisa. Photo: Oscar del Pozo/AFP

Torrential rains are becoming ever more frequent in Spain, with flooding causing seven deaths in the southeast in September 2019, while another storm left 13 dead in the Balearic island of Mallorca a year earlier.

Residents clean a street in Cobisa. Photo: Oscar del Pozo/AFP

Experts say global warming has increased the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere, making episodes of intense rainful more likely to happen, raising the risk of flooding.

WATCH: Devastating floods and torrential rain hit much of Spain