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Swedes weigh global warming versus a better tan

Eco-minded Scandinavians crave winter vacations. Yet the long flights add to greenhouse gases. Should they hit the beach or save the planet?

By Karin RivesCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 23, 2008

Winter break: Bettina Brandt and her son, Joel, are among hundreds of thousands of Swedes who seek a reprieve in the sun each winter.

BOB RIVES

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GOA, India

Like many other Swedish sun worshipers crowding a white-sand beach here on this morning, Elisabet Brandt considers herself to be a good environmentalist. At home in the south Swedish town of Helsingborg, Ms. Brandt waits in the sleet and snow for the bus to take her to work, rather than drive. "I don't even own a car," she says with pride.

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Brandt, a nurse, also sorts and recycles her garbage through a program that has made Sweden a leader for converting household waste into bioenergy. And she will, of course, never leave her house without first turning off all lamps. Though half of Sweden's power supply comes from hydroelectric plants, a renewable energy source, many consumers still take care not to waste power to keep bills down.

All this has helped Brandt and 9 million other Swedes transform their nation into one of the greenest on earth. Indeed, the country recently placed second among 149 nations in a prestigious environmental index developed by Yale and Columbia universities. The United States was 39th.

Yet for all their geothermally heated homes and pricey hybrid cars, Swedes have one dirty habit they refuse to give up: long-distance air travel to warmer and sunnier locales. Like the beaches here in India.

The dichotomy is raising moral questions for Swedes and practical problems for the rest of the world. Curbing air travel represents one of the next big frontiers in the crusade against global warming.

If green-minded Swedes can't be convinced to curb their wanderlust in pursuit of a tan, what hope is there for the rest of us to change deeply ingrained habits?

"Yes, I've heard about airplanes and their emissions," Brandt concedes from underneath the sun umbrella where she enjoys a novel and a perfect view of the frothy surf. "It's a tough issue. But I can't say I feel bad about being here. I do so much for the environment at home.

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Swedish travel reached an all-time high in 2007, when more than 1 million people boarded a plane headed for a non-European destination – nearly twice as many as in 2002. Significantly, aviation now accounts for 10 percent of the country's greenhouse-gas emissions – and is growing, one recent study showed.

The travel fever comes as the European Union looks for ways to curb emissions from the airline industry, the region's fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases. The European Commission is in a desperate race to meet its Kyoto Protocol obligations, and officials believe it can only happen with an overhaul in aviation.

But even the most environmentally conscious will find excuses for behavior that aggravates the climate crisis. Try convincing Americans to give up their SUVs, or Indians their cows. They will present compelling arguments for keeping up habits that generate greenhouse gases. The Swedes are no different. It shows just how difficult it can be to act locally – even when the Earth's future is at stake.

"Living in Sweden, suffering through those long, dark falls and long winters, we need to have a few weeks of hot weather to look forward to – to pull us through," says Bettina Brandt, seated in a chair next to her mother. Bettina, a retail manager, gets up to wade into the lukewarm waves with her 6-year-old son, Joel. "Especially after the rainy summer we had last year."

For light-deprived Scandinavians, escaping for a few weeks during the winter is considered a matter of mental survival – an entitlement fueled by rising incomes and a strong economy. The flights Swedes and other Europeans take to developing countries currently generate half of all aviation-based greenhouse-gas emissions in such nations, according to the European Federation for Transport and Environment. This winter, 300,000 Swedes booked flights to Thailand alone.