Monday, January 27, 2014

A green city organized by grown-ups

After spending the last 10 days being thoroughly depressed thinking about how my fellow countrymen can manage to ignore such an obvious existential threat to their existence as climate change, it was delightful to read about how the small city of Växjö Sweden has gone about solving their own environmental dilemmas.

It is also a reminder that climate change is but a small fraction of the environmental problems we must solve.  It may easily be the biggest but there are other important things to remember—water quality being the most obvious.

The Swedish city touted as 'Europe's greenest'

24 Jan 2014

Växjö in southern Sweden calls itself Europe's greenest city, with buses running on potato peels and residents mad for recycling. But some people's attachment to their cars may put the brakes on the city's carbon neutral ambition.

Nestled among glittering lakes and thick pine forests in southern Sweden, Växjö has gone further than most in renewable energy, clean transport and energy conservation, promoting itself as "Europe's Greenest City".

"We started very early," Henrik Johansson at Växjö local council told AFP.

"Our politicians realized in the '60s that if the city was to develop the lakes had to be cleaned up -- they'd been polluted by the linen industry in the 18th century and by the city's expansion."

The restoration of the most polluted waterway, Lake Trummen -- infamous for its noxious smell as far back as the 18th century -- acted as a catalyst for more ambitious environmental projects, he added.

"When I was a kid you wouldn't have dreamt of taking a swim in it, but today you can," said the 39-year-old environmental officer.

"That very obvious change has stayed in people's minds -- it showed that if you really want to do something and set your mind to it, you will succeed."

In the 1990s, before global warming was grabbing headlines, the city council announced plans to abandon fossil fuels by 2030 and to halve carbon emissions in less than two decades -- among a host of "green goals" that also encourage local farmers to go organic and everyone to reduce paper consumption and to use bicycles or public transport.

Today, Växjö's CO2 emissions are indeed almost half what they were in 1993 -- one of the lowest levels in Europe at 2.7 tonnes per person -- and almost half of Sweden's already low average.

Energy from moss and twigs

In the 1970s Växjö developed a district heating and power system -- pumping heat and hot water from a central boiler around the city.

That was not unique for Sweden, but the city-owned energy company went on to pioneer a changeover from oil to biomass -- incinerating leftovers from the forestry industry.

At the plant just outside the city, Björn Wolgast, the director, picks up a handful of tangled twigs, moss and bark, and breathes in the pungent pine fragrance as an excavator delivers a pile of the dusty material to a nearby conveyer belt.

"It's totally renewable energy -- Swedish forests still produce more than we take out," he said, adding: "And we send ash back to fertilize the forest."

Today almost 90 percent of the city's 60,000 inhabitants get their heat and hot water from the plant, which also supplies about 40 percent of electricity needs.

Thanks to a series of filters, the plant's emissions are almost negligible -- one-twentieth of the national limit.

But whether Växjö really is "Europe's Greenest City" is open for debate and the slogan irritates some locals, including ecological restaurant owner Göran Lindblad.

"Why were we years behind other parts of the country in recycling food waste?" asked Lindblad, one of the first in Växjö to start recycling food two years ago.

Buses fuelled by potato peels

Nonetheless, when the local council did start collecting organic waste things happened quickly.

Two-thirds of households signed up voluntarily -- in return for lower charges -- and today the city's fleet of green biogas buses runs almost entirely on locally produced gas made from rotten food and sewage.

"It's difficult to compare cities of different sizes but I'd say it's one of Europe's greenest -- they're very advanced and ambitious," said Cristina Garzillo, a sustainability expert at the local government network ICLEI in Freiburg, Germany.

Ryan Provencher, a 39-year-old engineer, moved to Sweden from Texas just over a decade ago and could be described as a fervent convert to the green revolution.

"We recycle just about everything. I only use my car about twice a week and tend to run or cycle to work," he said.

Provencher lives with his wife and three children in Växjö's most environmentally friendly "positive house", which sends more energy back to the local grid than it uses thanks to a roof covered in solar panels and an array of other energy-saving gadgets.

He says the contrast with life in Waco, where his parents live, is like "night and day".

"Gas is so cheap there that nobody thinks twice about driving."

Växjö may be a world away from Waco, but many of its residents have a similar love affair with the car -- about 60 percent drive -- and it has proved hard to change that, making the city's fossil-free goal harder to achieve.

"We're dependent on national changes and on car and fuel companies to make alternatives available. We can't force people out of their cars," Johansson said.

"But we're making it more and more attractive to use bikes or buses and harder to drive shorter distances. And it's pretty easy to make quick improvements: gas stations are already blending biofuels into ordinary fuel so everyone can start lowering their CO2 emissions."

"By 2030 I think we'll be at least 80 percent there," Johansson said.

"And that would not be so bad!" more


  1. Jonathan,
    Had you stayed for the rest of the day you would have witnessed the real purpose of the day and real conversations about how to bring about these kinds of changes in Northfield. So you do believe in small steps.
    - David

    1. Nothing is more amusing perhaps than a couple of Nordic men debating the meaning of large. But here goes anyway.

      In Paragraph 10, we learned that Växjö installed a central heating and co-generation system in the 1970s. It is key to most of the other things they accomplished. Admittedly, such systems are virtually universal in a Swedish (Nordic) city of that size (60,000) so theirs was probably a small thing. However, the last central heating system to be installed in Minnesota was in St. Paul and they didn't even get the cogeneration part. So getting one installed in Northfield over 35 years later would big a VERY big thing indeed.

      Now compared to my normal definition of a large idea / project, central heating-cogeneration for Northfield is damn small potatoes. Even so, it would be big enough to rouse my enthusiastic support.

      So seriously, which of those "real" afternoon conversations covered district heating? Did you perhaps sneak it into the discussion of how to manage your portfolio? Maybe it was hidden in the seminar of faith and religion?

      if Northfield were to bring its environmental standards up to Växjö's, it would be a greater accomplishment than all the accomplishments of all the environmental groups in Minnesota for the last 35 years COMBINED. Even getting a cogeneration / district heating system built would qualify as a big deal.

      But no, it wouldn't do all that much for climate change and compared to something utterly necessary like a global infrastructure bank with the monetary powers of the Fed or ECB with the political clout of the BIS, it would be a small idea indeed. So yes, I am willing to entertain small (medium-sized) ideas. It is just that they had better be very, VERY good.