Flygskam? Sweden's airports tackle climate change from the ground up

With the Swedish term 'flygskam' – flying shame – going global, Sweden’s biggest airport operator wants to eliminate carbon emissions from its on-the-ground operations by the end of 2020.

Published: Wed 5 Jun 2019 05:00 CEST
Flygskam? Sweden's airports tackle climate change from the ground up
A plane takes off from Stockholm Arlanda. Credit: Stina Sandsjö

Lena Wennberg wants to help alleviate Swedes’ ‘flygskam’. This relatively new entry into the Swedish language reflects Swedes’ growing awareness that their above-global-average flying habits carry a substantial climate impact.

“I think Swedes look at ourselves as very progressive on environmental issues. It’s part of our nature,” she tells The Local.

As the head of environment at Swedavia, Sweden’s largest airport operator, Wennberg is doing everything she can to reduce air travel’s carbon footprint and ease her countrymen’s conscience.

Swedavia, which operates ten of Sweden’s airports, has been carbon neutral since 2006 thanks to its practice of purchasing offsets. Its current goal is a ‘Zero Vision 2020’ strategy that calls for a complete and total elimination of fossil carbon emissions from its own operations by next year, and Wennberg says the company is well on its way.

Photo: Brendan Austin

Find out more about Swedavia's environmental work

“The climate issue is really crucial to solve for the future and the entire aviation sector has to work on it,” she says. “But we have to start by taking responsibility for our own actions. We can’t make demands on airlines without starting with ourselves.”

Air transport generated 859 million tonnes of the world's carbon emissions in 2017, which accounts for around two percent of global CO2 emissions. And although Swedavia is helping to spur a ‘biofuel revolution’ by pushing for flights to contain a certain amount of renewable biofuels, much of the company’s Zero Vision 2020 strategy actually focuses on what happens on the ground.

While Swedavia officials acknowledge that ground vehicles used by outside operators may continue to run on fossil fuels, when it comes to its own vehicles, the entire fleet will be updated to either electric models or ones that can run on biofuels like HVO100, a 100 percent renewable product made from vegetable oils and animal fats.

Swedavia’s buildings also now use biofuels and green electricity for heat and power. Three of its ten airports have already achieved the zero emissions target and two more – Åre Östersund and Bromma Stockholm – look likely to reach it by the end of this year.

Visby Airport. Photo: Brendan Austin

One of the airports to already hit the fossil-free milestone is Visby Airport in Gotland. There, every single fossil fuel-powered vehicle that was used in Swedavia’s own operations has been replaced by a greener alternative. The airport’s electricity usage also fell steadily over the course of ten years, culminating in a total switchover to renewable electricity in 2018.

“As our local management saw it, there was no winning in waiting,” says Jimmy Holpers, environmental manager at Visby Airport. “It wouldn’t be easier in 2020 than 2018. Together we decided to do it and we did. In 2018, we got rid of the last fossil fuel-powered equipment including chainsaws and lawnmowers.”

He adds that the fleet of 50 vehicles used at Visby Airport has been continuously replaced with more efficient and environmentally-friendly models. The biggest cut in the airport’s CO2 emission output was when staff at Visby Airport began to use HVO100 instead of diesel, which meant all the bigger machines like trucks and snow plows were immediately fossil-fuel free.

Photo: Jimmy Holpers

“We changed everything. Now we don’t use any fossil fuels here. The trickiest thing to find was our painting machine for painting lines on the asphalt of the runway. Our handy mechanics easily changed the petrol engine for a diesel and now it runs on HVO100.”

Sourcing sustainable alternatives

To put the scope of Swedavia’s ambitions in perspective, in equally green-conscious Denmark, Copenhagen Airport’s recently-announced climate strategy calls for it to become emissions-free a full decade after Swedavia’s airports. Similarly, Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport’s plan to be emissions free also sets a 2030 goal.

Wennberg explains that Swedavia’s emissions strategy serves as a major selling point for airlines considering new routes.

“Airlines often inquire about sustainability issues and some of them might, for example, choose Arlanda over Copenhagen if they take this into account,” she says.

Wennberg estimates that as a whole Swedavia has cut its emissions by around 90 percent since 2005 but because it “did the easy stuff first,” it has now turned its attention to areas that one might not immediately associate with air travel, like finding sustainable alternatives for the roughly 32 backup generators in use across its ten airports – something Wennberg says is “possible but very expensive.”

Charlie Ledin, the airfield and operations manager at Bromma, says that although there are still several loose ends to tie up, the goal is both simple and in sight.

Photo: Charlie Ledin

“We will stop using fossil fuels on all of our vehicles, all of our gardening equipment – everything. We have to put an end to it and be more environmentally-friendly in everything we do,” he says.

Last year, Ledin helped implement a runway weather information system at Bromma that uses 57 sensors to monitor temperatures on the runway, telling them precisely when they need to clear the tarmac and apply de-icer solutions.

“When temperatures are around the freezing point, we used to apply the de-icer just to be safe but now we can monitor the actual freezing point in real time, so you know exactly when you need to both spray and plough. This eliminates both unnecessary chemical use and the number of times you have to fire up the snowploughs,” he explains.

Ledin estimates that the system has led to Bromma cutting its de-icer use and snowplough operations by upwards of 60 percent and in a place like Sweden where winter can easily last four months or more, this adds up. “We save on both money and our environmental impact,” he says.

While the entire fleet of snow ploughs has been moved over to HVO100 biodiesel, some smaller maintenance machines like lawnmowers and string trimmers are still on gasoline – for now. Ledin says that they will all be replaced before this summer. His next goal is to find sustainable alternatives for some of Swedavia’s rarely-used heavy power tools like asphalt saws.

Bromma Airport. Photo: Peter Phillips

“The market doesn’t necessarily have a bottomless pit of alternatives so we’re dependent on market forces for some items. We’ve found most of it but it’s a bit of a detective job to track down good alternatives for some of the equipment,” he says.

Although he says he doesn’t see his job as “environmental in nature,” he has fully embraced Swedavia’s goals and is very confident they will be met.

“I can see the finish line. Here at Bromma, we will definitely hit the goal by the end of 2020,” Ledin says.

Wennberg shares her colleague’s optimism. She said the zero emissions target has become so important at Swedavia that it ranks right alongside its other main goals like customer satisfaction and economic gains. In fact, she said, it plays a role in both.

Find out more about Swedavia's environmental work

Photo: Brendan Austin

“Passengers would like to travel as environmentally-friendly as possible and our environmental work is also a unique selling point to airlines. It’s probably a bit unique that an environmental manager is placed so high within the company, but I’ve really been able to influence strategic decisions by explaining how important this is to our future business,” she says.

Wennberg plans to pop a bottle of champagne when the Zero Vision 2020 goals are met, but after the celebration she will turn her attention skyward.

“The next goal once we have reached this is aiming for less carbon dioxide emissions from aviation. We want to see five percent biofuels by 2025 for Swedish aviation. This is outside of our direct control, but we have to take our goals further,” she says.

This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio and sponsored by Swedavia.


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