By the end of June, Kajsa Fernström Nåtby was homesick. The native Swede had just finished a 5-month internship with her country’s diplomatic office near the UN headquarters in Manhattan, darting between debates on migration and ocean plastic. Now, her parents were pleading for her to hop on an 8-hour flight across the Atlantic and rush home.
But Fernström Nåtby had a different idea. Putting convenience aside, she opted to glide across the Atlantic on a cargo ship—getting home in what she calls the most “klimatsmarta” or “climate-smart” way possible. She arrived in Sweden on Tuesday night, after 12 days aboard the ship La Traviata, two full days on trains, and a few overnight stays at friends’ homes.
Cargo vessels sometimes host a handful of cabins for transporting real passengers, tucked away among the sun-dried colors of hundreds of freight containers. Fernström Nåtby’s berth, along with meals, cost upwards of $ 100 a day, a steep price for a student who just completed a degree in political science and economics at Lund University. The ticket included limited internet access, which she used on a shared computer to keep in touch with friends and correspond with WIRED about her trip. “I do understand that I, as an individual, cannot make a huge difference,” Fernström Nåtby writes. “But I hope that by doing as much as I can, I hopefully inspire others to become a bit more environmentally friendly.”
Booking the ticket took perseverance—months to find an agent, stacks of paperwork, and a doctor’s stamp of good health. Just when everything was set, Fernström Nåtby’s voyage was canceled, so she hung around New York City a few more days until her passage was secured on La Traviata.
But if you’re OK with some surprises, the carbon savings are real, says Tristan Smith, an expert in low-carbon shipping at University College London, who has himself dreamed of exchanging jet streams for white-tipped waves. A round-trip trans-Atlantic flight can easily gobble up a ton of carbon dioxide per passenger—about half the annual emissions an individual should aim for if we’re to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Cargo ships do emit a lot of greenhouse gases, but it works out to a lot less per ton. (Older ships average 15 grams of CO2 for every kilometer they carry a ton of cargo, while newer ones average only 3 grams.) Carrying an extra passenger is like sticking a feather in a giant’s cap.
The calculations would be more complicated if more people joined Fernström Nåtby, says Smith. Shipping companies would hurry to launch dedicated passenger ships, crowded with fuel-hungry luxuries to entice customers. But even those ships are on track to be more carbon-responsible than aircraft. The shipping industry agreed in April to cut its total carbon dioxide emissions in half by 2050. Today, boats powered by hydrogen fuel, whose only generated “trash” is water, are already slipping in and out of inlets near coastlines; tomorrow, they may be powerful enough to cross entire oceans.
Onboard La Traviata, Fernström Nåtby investigated shipping emissions on her own. She inspected the fuel tank, interrogated the crew about the ship’s fuel consumption, and got everyone talking and reading about international climate politics. The cook even joined in by preparing vegan meals. Fernström Nåtby watched a pod of dolphins leaping and glittering in the sunset, but she spotted about as much floating plastic as she did sea life.
Those observations neatly mirrored the issues that drove her internship. At the Swedish Mission to the UN, in addition to her focus on migration and humanitarian issues, Fernström Nåtby attended negotiations on a new rulebook meant to uphold people’s rights to a sound environment through the weight of international law. She was part of a push to reduce the use of disposable plastic items in the office—a move they then encouraged amongst other UN country missions. Ulrika Ajemark Åsland, a colleague of Fernström Nåtby at the Swedish Mission who worked closely with her on these projects, was in awe of how Fernström Nåtby chose to travel home, especially given how expensive it was. But her office-mates weren’t very surprised she took a stand. Leif Pagrotsky, the consul general of Sweden’s New York Consulate, points out that in Sweden, there is a lot of emphasis on environmental consciousness.
Not everyone Fernström Nåtby encountered was as supportive. After a 14-hour train ride from New York, Fernström Nåtby arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, where her ship was waiting to depart. “People think you are really strange when you tell them you are boarding a cargo ship as a passenger and sometimes even start yelling at you,” Fernström Nåtby says. She called six different numbers for port and ship authorities, and no one could tell her where, how, or when to board the ship. The last number finally sent her on a phone chain through three people before a nice guy named Ben came on the line and listed which taxi companies were certified to pass the security and passport control at the port. “The first taxi company yelled at me as well, but the second was very helpful!”
Regardless, Fernström Nåtby is happy with her travel choice. Perhaps her trip will inspire others to take similar steps to curb their carbon emissions—who then will inspire even more. “Like rings on the water,” she writes, “you have soon reached quite a large part of the population.”
After a few days in her cobblestoned university town of Lund, Sweden, Fernström Nåtby will take the train home through forests and lakes to Stockholm. In September, she starts a master’s degree in environmental policy at the London School of Economics—and yes, she’ll be taking the train there.