How aviation can reduce its climate impact

Air travel accounts for an increasing share of the climate impact of Swedes. Flights are currently responsible for just over 10 percent of the carbon footprint attributable to Swedish consumers. That is around about the same as private car use in Sweden.

To reduce the climate impact of aviation, several different types of measures are required:
• More fuel efficient aircraft.
• Fuel with a lower climate impact, such as biofuel or hydrogen. However, these fuels will not totally eliminate climate change effects as they still give rise to so-called high-altitude effects and emissions during the production of these fuels.
• Higher occupancy rates in aircraft.
• Better organisation of air traffic (e.g. greener landings, shorter flightpaths and flightpaths that reduce the high-altitude effects)
• Reduced air travel.

Actions within all these areas are needed to reduce the climate impact of aviation. The first four points show the effects on emissions per passenger kilometre. There has been substantial development over the past few decades that has helped to significantly reduce emissions per passenger kilometre. It is important that development work continues, and these areas are likely to offer big potential. However, the number of flights is increasing at the same time, which means total emissions have increased. If we are to be able to reduce total emissions, the number of flights must therefore also be reduced.

This week I took part in a seminar arranged by the Expert Group on Public Economics (ESO), on climate policy that inter alia, addressed the climate impact of aviation. Politicians from the Swedish Social Democrat, Conservative and Center parties took part in the panel discussion and they were all agreed that the price of air travel will increase moving forward, via requirements for a mix of biofuel and/or taxation. It is therefore of interest that the final point, reduced air travel, will also be affected. However, the question is whether the above will have a significant enough impact on emissions, or if additional instruments will be required.

Tip of the week: Go to a lecture on batteries or TEDxWomen Conference a lecture Where will Future Paths lead us? All at KTH on 6 December.

How can we deal with unknown risks?

We cannot always foresee the consequences of new technology. What kind of rational and intelligent decision-making do we need in such situations?

I was reminded of this question during the KTH Sustainability Research Day last week, when we learnt about a number of case studies of what kind of penetration and impact research at KTH has had or can possibly have on social development. The first example was the fridge. That was a product that has had an enormous impact on our everyday lives and on the world’s food supply.

Fridges were developed in part by KTH students in the early 20th Century. In the 1920s and 30s, freons started being used as coolant media. They were considered to be a fantastic product for many years. They were stable, non-flammable, and moderately toxic. However, the first suspicions began to arise in the 1970s as to whether they were so stable that they could spread to the stratosphere, that is to say the layer tens of kilometres up in the atmosphere. When freons reach that level, they can break down ozone which, in turn, is needed to protect the earth against harmful ultraviolet radiation. Some ten years later, these suspicions were confirmed by the discovery of the so-called ozone hole above the Antarctic.

A reduced level of ozone in the stratosphere can result in serious health effects, such as skin cancer, and also affect the eco system. Demands for a ban on freons came pretty quickly and this time, within a few years, decision-makers around the world managed to agree on the so-called Montreal Protocol in 1987 to phase out freons. That was a wise decision. Large parts of industry protested, but alternatives were able to be quickly developed and most of us can go into the kitchen today and see a fridge that performs well even though we do not know which refrigerant it contains.

Many aspects of the history of freons and the ozone hole provide lessons we can learn from. One thing we can ponder about is whether we could have foreseen that freons could have the effect they have on the ozone layer. Could we have understood what would happen to the freons when we scrap a fridge, and did we know enough about atmospheric chemistry and the special conditions that apply above the Antarctic at certain times of the year? Many people would say no, we could not have foreseen that. And the same also applies to many other classic environment problems such as DDT and PCB for example. It was very difficult to predict the very specific spreading pathways and effect mechanisms these substances have.

But if we cannot foresee the consequences of a new technology, how should we then deal with its risks when the decision is made? One lesson is perhaps to watch out for warning signs.

When research signals that there can be a problem, these signals need to be picked up and investigated properly. In such situations, there are special interests that want to tone down the risks, which makes it even more important to investigate them in a neutral way. Another lesson is the need to find opportunities to make decisions quickly enough. In the case of freon, it did not take that many years between discovering the ozone hole and phasing out fridges with freons. These decisions faced opposition but were implemented anyway and that was important. A third lesson is to be especially vigilant about substances that are persistent, that is to say, difficult to break down. Freons, DDT, PCB, plastics in the ocean and carbon dioxide are all examples of substances that are persistent. Which means they can spread far and wide and appear in places that are unexpected and continue to have an effect long after they were used. It then also becomes difficult to deal with the problem as it takes a long time for these substances to disappear.

These lessons come from the environment area above all. However, I believe we have reason to think long and hard about how we can deal with unknown risks in other areas, too.

Tip of the week: The CrosscutsFilm festivalin Stockholm 23-25 November organised by the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory (EHL) in Stockholm

How Swedish consumption impacts the international environment

Consumption in Sweden affects the environment both here and in numerous other countries around the world. However, it is now possible to estimate this environment impact and take steps towards more sustainable consumption and production.

Achieving sustainable consumption and production patterns is one of the global sustainability goals. We also now have new methods to estimate the environment impact of Swedish consumption. These have been developed in cooperation between researchers at SCB, KTH, Stockholm Environment Institute, Chalmers University of Technology and the universities of Trondheim and Leiden. Previous analyses have primarily focused on climate impact, but methods are now also available for other air pollutants, the use of hazardous chemical products, water, land and materials.

In the majority of these aspects, the environment impact of Swedish consumption is greater beyond Sweden’s borders than within the country. For example, 65 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from Swedish consumption occur in other countries.

Around 80 percent of hazardous chemical products usage linked to Swedish consumption occurs abroad. This also covers pesticides and antibiotics used in veterinary medicine that are far more prevalent outside Sweden. Emissions of a number of hazardous substances also arise to a greater extent in other countries. Important countries with regard to the use of pesticides include The Netherlands and Brazil, Germany and Spain for veterinary medicines and China and Russia for emissions.

There is a long list of possible measures available to reduce Swedish consumption related emissions. One such area that is also relevant to KTH as a public body is to use procurement as a tool to specify stricter requirements. Another is to reduce the use of fossil fuels as this will not only lead to lower emissions of greenhouse gases but also of a long list of other substances. The choice of building materials and food products also plays a role.

Tip of the week: Take the boat. I was in Helsinki the other week and went there and back by boat. It worked really well.


Something that is socio-economically profitable can be unsustainable

Sometimes, socio-economic profitability and sustainable development are at odds with each other. One interesting question then is what should take priority?

To be able to compare costs and benefits that arise in the future with those arising today, some form of discounting is often used, interest, in other words. This enables you to calculate future costs and benefits at today’s value.

Naturally, one important question then is what discounting rate should you choose. Do effects in the future have a greater or lesser value than those happening today? If you consider that future effects are less important, you choose a high positive interest rate, if you feel they are more important, you choose a negative interest rate.

In current socio-economic calculations, a rate of 3.5 – 4 percent is often chosen. This means that the value of future effects falls rapidly over time. In 2118, 100 kronor would be worth the equivalent of 1.60 kronor today. In a report from the Swedish Scientific Council for Sustainable Development to the Swedish government, we write that a high discounting rate is incompatible with long-term sustainability if it leads to measures that are necessary for sustainable development being rejected because they do not compute as being profitable from a socio-economic perspective.

That socio-economic profitability and sustainable development can conflict with each other is an important insight. The question can then be what should take priority. As a public organisation (such as a university) you can fall back on the form of government (one of Sweden’s constitutional laws) that states that the public sector should promote sustainable development. We also write in the report from the Scientific Council that a rate that is low enough to be compatible with long-term sustainability ought to be chosen.

Tip of the week: DN debate about the role of universities in a climate change reset.

When you remove carbon dioxide you should get paid

If you give off carbon dioxide emissions, you may need to pay a carbon tax. In which case, it is reasonable to be paid to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The latest report from the IPCC was clear. We need to drastically reduce emissions of greenhouse gases already today if global climate targets are to be achievable. One way to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air and raised in the report is to use so called negative emissions, that is to say, in one way or other, to be able to suck the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it.

One way of doing this is to cultivate vegetation that uses carbon dioxide from the air to grow. If you then burn this vegetation, you can produce district heating and electricity, but you can also get carbon dioxide emissions, the same amount as the vegetation has locked in. But if instead of releasing the carbon dioxide, it can be captured and stored, you will then have created a carbon sink. You can also convert vegetation into biochar, that can be used as a soil improvement agent. Biochar can also act as a carbon sink.

These technologies for negative emissions cannot replace other measures to reduce emissions. On the contrary, we need every method we can possibly find to help reach climate targets. Some of these technologies are already available. They are not science fiction, they could start being used right now. This could be done at Stockholm Exergi facilities for example, which is being investigated in a project in partnership with KTH (in Swedish). All it needs is a decision to start building.

So, why isn’t this happening?
One reason is that it costs money. It costs a bit more to produce heat and power if this is done in a climate positive way. But, the costs are far from unreasonable. The estimated cost of removing carbon dioxide is roughly half the carbon tax that can be payable if you burn fossil fuels and release carbon dioxide. If we could create rules that mean you are paid to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it could be profitable.

In other words, our new parliament and incoming government ought to be clearly tasked with putting forward proposals on a reverse carbon tax. Pending such initiatives, there is nothing to stop property owners (such as Akademiska Hus and other socially responsible companies) from saying “we want to contribute to lowering carbon dioxide emissions, however. We are prepared to pay a bit more for heating to contribute to new technology being implemented and to get climate positive heat.” Stockholm Exergi and its owners (City of Stockholm and Fortum) can also say that “we think it is worth the cost. We want to lead the way and contribute – we are therefore making these investments.”

Our individual responsibility to slow climate change is sometimes discussed. There are wise individuals at all these companies and public authorities that can contribute with good decisions.

Tip of the week: Watch Cecilia Sundberg, Associate Professor at KTH talk about negative emissions here (in Swedish).