Swedes are switching from planes to trains — here’s why

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STOCKHOLM — Pär Holmgren can be forgiven for looking haggard as he steps off the train in central Stockholm. After all, he’s withstood a 24-hour commute from his job in Strasbourg, France — some 850 miles away from his home.

Since getting elected into the European Parliament in May, Holmgren, 54, has made the grueling round-trip journey to either Strasbourg or Brussels, the two cities where the Parliament sits, every week.

“The alternative of going by plane doesn’t really exist in my mind,” he said. “To me, there aren’t any airplanes going between Stockholm and Strasbourg.”

The newly elected Swedish member of the European Parliament Pär Holmgren arrives in Stockholm for the weekend.Mikael Sjoeberg / for NBC News

The TV personality-turned-politician is part of a growing wave of Swedes who’ve given up flying because of carbon emissions produced by air travel.

In fact, almost 1 in 4 Swedes chose not to fly over the past year, a recent survey commissioned by the WWF Sweden conservation group has found.

Climate experts say aviation accounts for 4 to 5 percent of human-produced greenhouse gas emissions coming from energy, but air travel is often the biggest source of personal carbon emissions for high-income individuals and frequent flyers.

“Flying is an extremely carbon-intensive activity, and every flight avoided is a substantial emissions savings,” said Kimberly Nicholas, a climate change researcher and lecturer at Lund University in Sweden.

Annual emissions produced by every person on the planet must stay below 2.1 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) by the year 2050 if the warming of the planet is to be kept below 2°C (3.6°F) — the maximum limit laid out in the 2015 Paris climate accord, she said.

And it is very easy to hit the individual limit under the pact: Nicholas said just one round-trip transatlantic flight (between London and New York, for example) is estimated to emit about 1.6 tons of CO2 on average — more than three-quarters of that annual carbon budget.

On average, Nicholas said one would have to avoid eating meat for two years or recycle all household waste for eight years to save the equivalent climate pollution of taking one such flight.

But while the science behind the damaging effects of flying on the global climate has been available for a while, it appears a number of factors have coalesced to create a greater awareness in Sweden over the past year.

Devastating wildfires and an unusually hot summer ramped up public discussion about climate change in 2018.

A general election last fall also helped to keep climate issues top of the agenda.

But many of those who are quitting flying say Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old schoolgirl from Stockholm, has had the biggest impact on them.

Greta became famous last year for her solitary sit-in protests outside the Swedish Parliament to demand immediate action on climate change.

She refuses to fly, taking trains to climate conferences and speaking engagements around Europe instead.

She plans to take a ship to attend a United Nations summit meeting on global warming in New York later this month.

Her mother, Malena Ernman, a well-known Swedish opera singer, also took a public pledge to give up flying, effectively ending her international career.

Fellow professional musician Stina Hellberg Agback said Ernman’s decision inspired her to quit flying too.

“As a musician, I knew exactly how much she was giving up,” the harpist told NBC News over a cup of tea just steps away from the Parliament building where Greta has been holding her protests.

In 2018, the harpist turned down an opportunity to tour the United States because it would mean flying.

Harp player Stina Hellberg Agback takes the train back to Uppsala from Stockholm.Mikael Sjoeberg / for NBC News

“It’s something that you don’t just say no to,” she admits, explaining that musicians have to travel to get international recognition.

Her concern about climate took precedence, she said.

“I don’t feel that it’s important to have the biggest career possible anymore,” she said. “It’s important to make a difference in more important matters than music. I want to be on the right side of history.”

Nicholas, the climate academic, said Sweden is at the forefront of a growing global movement recognizing the extremely high climate damage from flying.

“In Swedish media and society, we are seeing a change in attitudes and behavior,” she said.

Swedes are finding low-carbon adventures closer to home, Nicholas added, and creative ways to travel.

The country’s national railway service, SJ, said a record number of passengers — 31.8 million people — traveled with them last year.



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