Many travelers today are mindful of the environmental cost of flying, and perhaps nowhere more so than in Sweden. In the homeland of Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist who has inspired a worldwide no-fly campaign and a generation of youth protesters, the buzzword is flygskam, or flight shame, a term that was added to the Swedish lexicon last year. The peer pressure there can be palpable.
Worldwide, commercial aviation accounts for 2.4% of global carbon emissions, a relatively small percentage, but one that is expected to grow significantly. "There is a continuous development of aircraft technology that cannot keep pace with the increase in travel," said Jonas Akerman, a head researcher in sustainable transportation systems at Stockholm's Royal Institute of Technology. In the next 20 years, the number of passengers is expected to double, and by 2050, aviation could account for up to a quarter of the global carbon budget.
In highly industrialized countries like the United States and Sweden, air travel typically accounts for a larger portion of an individual's annual climate impact, Akerman said. Swedes, for example, fly about five times the global average. All those winter escapes to Thailand, summer holidays in Marbella, Spain, and weekend trips to London and Paris add up. Flying accounts for 10% of the average Swede's annual climate impact, the same as a year's worth of car travel in Sweden.
The famous rumination in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel "Il Gattopardo," about upheaval in 19th-century Sicily during the Italian unification, feels particularly relevant: "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."
A possible solution
So what's an environmentally conscious traveler to do? In Sweden, one answer is to simply fly less. And indeed, after years of increased travel, there's been a cultural shift. In July, Sweden's air passenger numbers were down 4% compared to 2018.
"It's more than a trend, it's a change in society," said Stephan Ray, a press officer at SJ, the national railway, which reported a 17% increase in passengers this summer compared to 2018.
Some are quick to label this the "Greta Thunberg effect," though other factors have contributed to this development, including a weak Swedish krona and a new flight tax that took effect last year.
"Among my friends, no one has stopped flying totally," said Josefine Tornqvist, a 30-year-old Stockholmer who flooded my Instagram feed with inspiring photos from a two-week Europe-by-rail trip this spring. (This phenomenon has earned its own term, tagskryt, or train boasting.) But, Tornqvist said of her friends, "maybe they are thinking about flying less and less."
Over the past two years, I've witnessed this same shift within my social circle in Stockholm, where I live half the year. Although everyone still flies, many now choose the train when possible. After my friend Malin insisted she enjoyed taking the train when returning to her hometown, Umea — the six- to seven-hour trip spent binge-watching episodes of "RuPaul's Drag Race" on her laptop — I reconsidered my own rail skepticism. Rather than always seeking the most efficient route, could I instead embrace the journey?
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Fact: It makes no measurable difference to the climate if one person skips a few flights while thousands of power plants continue to burn coal. Still. Societal change cannot come solely from policymakers, and grassroots efforts depend on many individual actors. So, if doing my part means reducing my own climate impact — small as it may be — I, too, could fly less. (Carbon offsets, which the New York Times' Travel department buys for staff, but not freelance contributors like me, cannot replace actual reductions in emissions, Akerman said. But when there's no alternative to flying, he said, "it's better than nothing.")
As a travel writer who splits her time between Sweden and Italy, far from family on the other side of the Atlantic, I can't envision a future in which I completely abstain from flying. But every big change begins with one small step, so in September, I started by giving up one flight.
Choosing the train
I had long been trying to arrange a rendezvous in Paris with my friend Deb — a perfect opportunity to trade the plane for the train. In addition to seeing parts of Europe I'd only flown over, I'd also shrink my personal carbon footprint, saving around 300 kilograms, or about 660 pounds of carbon emissions — more or less the same as I would recycling for an entire year.
While the pros of European rail travel are many — space to roam and work, usually with free Wi-Fi and ample leg room — I figured budget airlines always won on duration and price. But was flying really cheaper?
"The budget airlines are very good at promoting their cheapest possible price," said Mark Smith, founder of Seat61.com, an online guide to train travel. "In reality, you have to add the fare to the airport, baggage fees, check-in fees and goodness knows what else."
Calculating door-to-door costs, you'll often find prices comparable on short- and medium-haul routes, Smith said, though long-haul trips are typically cheaper by plane.
Had I nabbed the cheapest train tickets for each leg of my trip from Stockholm to Paris, it would've cost 79.80 euros, or about $87. (Most rail operators use dynamic pricing, like airlines, so prices vary depending on how far in advance you book.) By comparison, Ryanair touts a fare from Stockholm Skavsta to Paris Beauvais airport of only 139 Swedish kronor, or about $14. But add to that the cost of the airport bus in Sweden, the shuttle in France and the carry-on charge (oh yes, it'll cost an additional 99 kronor to board with anything larger than a laptop bag). In the end, the budget flight would have taken eight hours city-center-to-city-center with no delays and cost $93 with one checked bag (or $65 without) — faster than the 18 hours by train, sure, but not necessarily cheaper.
A creeping dread
This trip was not about negligible savings, though. It was really about anxiety.
Mine started in 2018, during one of the hottest summers on record in Sweden. Wildfires raged in parched forests, farmers battled drought conditions, and fire warnings were issued for large swaths of the country. The overnight temperature in my non-air-conditioned apartment did not dip below 85 degrees for weeks on end, and the entire Stockholm region sold out of fans. Lying awake at night with a single desk fan wedged in the window, I was consumed by creeping dread.
In August 2018, Liv Stromquist, a Swedish comics artist and cultural commentator, put words to this feeling in her biweekly podcast. The late-night palpitations and chest tightness, the feeling that the world was burning up and the heat may never end — this was climate anxiety, she said. It was also a physical reckoning with something previously understood only intellectually: global warming.
In September, I recalled that feeling as I waited bleary-eyed on a platform before dawn for the first of four trains that would carry me across Scandinavia and western Europe. The summer of 2019 had brought no relief; July was the hottest month on record for the planet, with scorching heat waves setting record-high temperatures across Europe.
Before boarding that first train, I had a romantic — and, as it turns out, misguided — vision of what it would be like onboard: the early-morning cappuccino I would sip in a dining car as the pristine Swedish countryside swished by, the cozy couchette I would crawl into somewhere in Germany, awakening to a marvelous sunrise over the Seine.
In reality, much has changed since my last long-haul train adventure in Europe, more than a decade ago, when I backpacked through France and Italy with a boyfriend who would later become my husband. Today sleeping cars are a rarity, knocked out by budget airlines and their comparatively cheap fares, though a few European rail operators are moving to revive sleeper trains because of a recent increase in demand.
Embrace the journey
Not willing to endure an overnight sitting upright, I decided to instead spend my sleeping hours on this journey in hotels. I also built in lengthy stopovers to allow myself time to experience the cities I was passing through — embrace the journey — while also avoiding the hassle of missed connections.
After a five-hour train ride from Stockholm to Copenhagen, where my imagined cappuccino manifested as slightly stale coffee in the bistro car, I had a full day to enjoy the Danish capital, one of my favorite cities. There was shopping at Hay, a waterside spritz on the La Banchina pier, a hyperlocal dinner at Manfreds, and an ice-cream-flavored pale ale at Mikkeller & Friends. Before my early-afternoon departure the following day, I lingered over breakfast at The Corner at 108, then gathered provisions for the train: bread from Hart Bageri, a soft round of Arla Unika's goat-and-cow cheese, and a half-bottle of Beaujolais from a wine seller inside the Torvehallerne food hall (kindly opened and re-corked for me). After a quick lunch — never leave Copenhagen without a couple of barbacoa tacos at Hija de Sanchez — it was onward to Hamburg.
Due to track works, the first leg of this five-hour trip was a headache, serviced by busses, which picked up a train-load of passengers at the central train station and deposited us two hours later next to a forlorn platform in southern Denmark. A lack of signage and personnel led to general confusion, but eventually a train trundled into sight, everyone boarded and the cars were shunted onto a waiting ferry that would sail from Rodby, Denmark, to Puttgarden, Germany.
The 45-minute ferry crossing was among the most comfortable parts of the journey, with my picnic of cheese, bread and wine spread out on a table by a window overlooking the calm waters of the Femernbelt strait. Once on the German side, the aging, three-car clunker rolled southward past spinning wind turbines, weather-beaten fishing hamlets and pancake-flat farmland as the sun set over the scenic countryside.
An on-time arrival in Hamburg after dark left just enough time for some spaetzle and schnitzel before falling into bed at a stuffy hotel next to the station. The next morning, the final day of the trip, the train departed Hamburg promptly at 6:01 a.m. (after a minor kerfuffle in which I accidentally spilled the contents of the hotel's to-go lunch box across the platform). Five hours passed quickly on the comfortable German Intercity-Express (or ICE) train, where the only irritation was a grumpy passenger who refused to let me lower the window shade. In Karlsruhe, in western Germany, I transferred to another high-speed ICE that, after a half-hour delay, raced through eastern France and past Champagne vineyards, before arriving in Paris two and a half hours later. Eight hours after departing Hamburg, and two and a half days after leaving Stockholm, I hitched my baby-blue Fjallraven backpack onto my shoulder and strolled out of Gare de l'Est into sunny, late-summer Paris.
The final tally: 18 hours and 56 minutes of active travel time, 41.8 kilograms of carbon emitted (300 kilograms less than that cheap, two-hour flight), one book of Alexander Chee essays read cover-to-cover, six Instagram stories of the passing views, countless naps and a piqued interest in discovering where else the rails might take me. I guess you could count me among the new generation of #trainboasters.
Ingrid K. Williams
© 2019 The New York Times Company