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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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.

"We're talking enormous travel distances, so even if the flight is full, the total emission per passenger will be fairly high," says Kjell Andersson, head of energy and transport at the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. "One Sweden-Thailand round trip is equivalent to putting 15,000 kilometers [9,300 miles] on your car for several years."

Such facts jolt Katarina Eriksson. The hardware store employee just returned from a three-week trip to northeastern Brazil and says she knows "we're destroying the world." She and her husband travel abroad every fall and spring – usually to Greece – and plan eventually to retire away from the cold climate of Mora, their home town in the middle of Sweden.

After trying a winter trip to the tropics this year, they're contemplating adding India to their 2009 itinerary. "You think of your kids and grandchildren – what will life be like for them?" Ms. Eriksson says. "But I live for these trips. I used to get depressed every fall and winter, and I think our trips really helped me overcome that."

The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency recently asked the government to curb airport construction and to impose stricter emissions caps on existing airports to make flying more difficult and expensive. Mr. Andersson also hopes that a future European aviation emissions trading scheme, which uses economic incentives to curb pollution, will slow the travel frenzy – especially in a weakening economy. "We don't tell people to stay home, but we can apply financial pressures," he says.

Like many people in the industrialized world being asked to sacrifice to cool the planet, Swedes hope technology will preserve their tan lines. Eric Persson is a young Swedish-Brazilian entrepreneur who built the hotel where Eriksson and her husband stayed in South America. He's proud of Sweden's environmental reputation. He's considering installing solar panels on his hotel property, and uses a green ionization technology to clean his pool instead of chlorine.

"Of course, no matter how you twist and turn this thing – tourism flights hurt the environment," Mr. Persson agrees. "But I don't think you can stop it. You can't expect Swedes to stop traveling to the sun. We just have to trust that the aviation technology will develop and get cleaner."

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One in 10 Swedes surveyed recently by Stockholm-based Nordea Bank said they planned to buy a second home abroad within the next two years. With Spain's sun coast now out of economic reach for many middle-class families, they're turning their search to countries such as Thailand, Gambia, and Brazil.

Other sunbirds simply take advantage of low-cost destinations such as India, where they can stay for months in cheap guesthouses without defaulting on bills back home.

Sussi Oskarson and her partner, Jonnie Cronquist, were spending the winter in Goa – she after taking a leave from her job at a credit company and he thanks to a government disability pension. At their country home south of Stockholm, they're sticklers for recycling and composting their waste.

"What you take from the earth you should return," Mr. Cronquist explains over a drink in a beach bar where laid-back Indian waiters like to greet customers in Swedish or Russian. "That's how we renew our world."

"And at the same time we travel so much," Oskarson adds with a grimace. "It's a paradox, isn't it?"

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