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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.

ENVIRONMENT

From Venice to Mont Blanc, how is the climate crisis affecting Italy?

The impact of global heating that scientists have been warning about for years is here, according to a United Nations report. From more heatwaves to rising sea levels that threaten coastal cities like Venice, here's how it will affect Italy.

From Venice to Mont Blanc, how is the climate crisis affecting Italy?
Photo: FEDERICO SCOPPA/AFP

“Widespread, rapid and intensifying” is the headline of a study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Scientists have observed changes in the climate across the entire Earth, across every region – a phenomenon that is being felt strongly in Italy as wildfires and blistering heatwaves sweep the country, with 17 cities on red warning weather alerts this weekend.

The Italian side of the Mont Blanc massif is also currently at melting point and could collapse, threatening the village below, while the heat in Sicily is set to break European records with a scorching 48.8 degrees C reported near Syracuse on Wednesday.

Many of the changes observed in the climate are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, revealed the report by the United Nations body for assessing climate change.

Some of the developments already happening, such as rising sea levels, are said to be irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years.

Scientists have said that it is already too late to do anything about some of the climate change witnessed in parts of the world and that global temperatures could rise by 1.5 degrees this century.

The report, which three Italian academics contributed to, projects that in the coming decades climate changes will increase in all regions.

If 1.5 degrees C of global warming is reached, there will be increased heatwaves, longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons.

At 2 degrees C of global warming, heat extremes would reach critical levels for agriculture and health more often, the report showed.

READ ALSO:

“An alarming picture emerges from the latest UN report on climate. It is an issue that concerns all of us and every aspect of our lives,” wrote Italy’s foreign minister Luigi Di Maio on Facebook.

Rising temperatures aren’t the only major concern. Climate change is creating shifts in wetness and dryness, winds, snow and ice, coastal areas and oceans, according to the findings.

In Europe, regardless of future levels of global warming, temperatures will rise in all European areas “at a rate exceeding global mean temperature changes,” the report found.

In the Mediterranean region, scientists have observed an increase in droughts and project an increase in aridity and fire weather conditions at global warming of 2 degrees C and above.

By the middle of the century, more extreme weather temperatures are expected, along with more droughts and less snow and wind.

Coastal areas are expected to witness continued sea-level rises throughout the 21st century, which could lead to more frequent and severe flooding and coastal erosion. Extreme sea-level events that used to occur once every 100 years could happen every year by the end of this century, scientists warned.

READ ALSO: World Ocean Day: What is Italy doing to protect its seas?

Environmental protesters from the “No Grandi Navi” group demonstrate against the presence of cruise ships in Venice’s lagoon. Photo: MARCO SABADIN/AFP

Based on the IPCC’s report, NASA has created a sea level change tool to see how rising ocean levels would affect different parts of the world.

If no additional climate policies are adopted, Venice could experience an increase in sea levels by as much as 0.87 metres by the end of the century.

Even if global warming levels don’t exceed 1.5 degrees C by 2100 (compared to temperatures in the 1850-1900 period) – and if net zero emissions are achieved by the middle of the century, sea levels around Venice are expected to rise by 3.2mm per year.

That makes an increase of 0.41 metres by the end of the century, as the minimum.

These are devastating statistics for a city already under environmental threat – with the city narrowly avoiding being put on the Unesco endangered list after Italy recently moved to ban large cruise ships from sailing into the city centre

ANALYSIS: Is Venice really banning cruise ships from the lagoon at last?

Other parts of Italy are also under similar levels of danger from rising sea levels, with Cagliari in Sardinia forecast to experience an increase of 0.88 metres by 2100 if no climate change measures are made.

“This report is a reality check,” said IPCC co-chair Valérie Masson-Delmotte.

Rising temperatures have led to more wildfires in Italy this summer. Photo: MASSIMO LOCCI/AFP

“It has been clear for decades that the Earth’s climate is changing, and the role of human influence on the climate system is undisputed,” she added.

Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are responsible for about 1.1 degrees of warming compared to the period 1850-1900, the report revealed.

“The evidence is clear that carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main driver of climate change, even as other greenhouse gases and air pollutants also affect the climate,” stated the report.

The report also shows that human actions can still determine the Earth’s climate in the future for the better.

“We now have a much clearer picture of the past, present and future climate, which is essential for understanding where we are headed, what can be done, and how we can prepare,” she added.

READ ALSO: Climate campaigners sue Italian government for failing to tackle climate crisis

Scientists on Italy’s side of the Mont Blanc massif are constantly monitoring a melting glacier, where the risk of collapse due to rising temperatures threatens the valley below. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

What is Italy doing to fight climate change?

Italy is already facing extreme climate change events – it ranked first in the European Union for the number of major fires in 2021, according to the EU Commission.

It is also lagging behind in the objectives of the Recovery and Resilience Plan and much more needs to be done, according to Italian environmental group Legambiente.

Campaigners criticised the 750-billion-euro pandemic Recovery Fund, which included the aim of Italy becoming “carbon free” by 2050, for not being ambitious enough.

However, the government is preparing to appoint a representative by September to tackle the problems posed by climate change.

“We need to give an effective response, without wasting time. This is why we have decided to provide our country with a strategic figure in this field, namely the special envoy for climate change, as has already been done by the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany,” stated Di Maio.

This person will be in charge “following the negotiations and representing Italy at all international tables,” he added.

READ ALSO: Italy postpones plastic tax again due to Covid-19 pandemic

Experts have called for immediate action with faster timelines: the goal of climate neutrality, set for 2050, should be brought forward, stated former environment minister Edo Ronchi, who has called on Italy to adopt “a law to protect the climate”.

“Climate change is already affecting every region on Earth, in multiple ways. The changes we experience will increase with additional warming,” said IPCC co-chair Panmao Zhai.

“Stabilising the climate will require strong, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and reaching net zero CO2 emissions. Limiting other greenhouse gases and air pollutants, especially methane, could have benefits both for health and the climate,” he added.

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