Thursday, November 26, 2015

Växjö Sweden—Europe's greenest city?

Växjö Sweden decided in 1991 to become a fossil-fuel-free city.  I shouldn't even speculate why a small city of 100,000 in one of the historically poorer parts of Sweden decided to do what few other municipalities would even try because I wasn't there.  But since my maternal grandmother grew up near there, I am going to guess it had something to do with the desire to stay warm without going broke doing it.

Växjö is located in the rocky state of Småland in SE Sweden.  The farmland is so miserable that most of the Smålanders who left for North America were just hoping for a better diet.  But because the farmland is poor, the folks who stayed behind survived and prospered by becoming unusually inventive in a country where inventors are treated with respect.  The Swedish crystal business was in Småland as is the headquarters of IKEA.  These are people who can organize clever building projects.

Even so, they decided to chase the fossil-free goal 25 years ago and they are not done.  They have had to cope with the headaches of prototype-level technology.  There are probably already decisions they would have made differently with 25 years of hindsight.

This is HARD to do.  Anyone who seriously believes that merely signing some glorious statement of good intentions is all that is necessary for good outcomes should go look at those who have actually tried to pull it off.  Notice that these difficulties surfaced in a political environment that is essentially corruption-free.  And this target was agreed to by all the political parties (8).  And it was STILL hard!

What can the world learn from Växjö, Europe's self-styled greenest city?

In 1991, the southern Swedish city became the first in the world to declare its intention to become fossil-fuel free. So how much progress has been made, and does Växjö offer a blueprint for bigger cities too?

Terry Slavin in Växjö, 25 November 2015

Within minutes of meeting the mayor of Europe’s self-proclaimed greenest city, it is clear where he draws much of his inspiration from.

It’s not just the fact that 61-year-old Bo Frank is wearing a black Beatles T-shirt and has a Beatles badge pinned to the lapel of his jacket. When he shows me into his office on the ground floor of Växjö city hall, Fab Four memorabilia is everywhere you look – along with photos of Sweden’s king and queen, Barack Obama, and a black-and-white sketch of himself with long hair and a flowered shirt from when he was first elected to Växjö (pronounced Veck-Ruh) city council 41 years ago.

The flowing locks are long gone, but Frank has lost none of his Beatles-era idealism as he steers this small southern Swedish city (population 89,000) to becoming fossil-fuel free by 2030 – a target the council, led by Frank, agreed as long ago as 1991, becoming the first city in the world to do so.

Frank signs off his emails with the final lyric from The End on 1969’s Abbey Road: “The love you take is equal to the love you make” – and the line also appears on some of the council’s green bumpf. “Each citizen must contribute,” he says by way of explanation. “You can’t just blame others and expect them to do something. You have to start with yourself: the way you purchase, the way you live, the way you drive, the way you use transport, heat and electricity. Demand is very important to making change.”

And the change so far has been impressive. CO2 emissions per resident were 2.4 tonnes last year, among the lowest in Europe – a 48% drop from when city started measuring its emissions in 1993. And it has done so without sacrificing growth: between 1993 and 2012, GDP per capita increased by 90%. A BBC documentary in 2007 labelled Växjö the “greenest city in Europe”, and the city has clearly worked hard to live up to the accolade – although there is no official way to compare cities’ “greenness”.

The Danish capital, Copenhagen, with CO2 emissions of 2.8 tonnes per resident, is now aiming to steal a march on Växjö and become fossil-fuel free by 2025 – but for the moment is further behind in its energy transition. Frank puts his city’s success down to the fact that in Sweden, income tax revenues go directly to municipal councils which have huge discretion over how they are spent – and the eight political parties, which span the political spectrum, have over the years been united about the green agenda. “We don’t even debate it at a local level. You could say there are eight green parties.”

When it comes to heat and electricity, Växjö is close to being fossil-fuel free already. The city lies in the middle of pine forests and lakes in southern Sweden, and waste wood from the forests provides 90% of its heat and a quarter of its electricity via a giant combined cooling, heat and power plant. The rest of Växjö’s electricity comes from locally produced small hydro, wind, biogas and solar plus imports from Sweden’s grid, which is mostly powered by hydro and nuclear.

Touring the city-owned power plant, Veab, with Åsa Karlsson Björkmarker, Växjö’s youthful deputy mayor, a local variation on another Beatles lyric comes to mind as we watch giant articulated lorries tip out their dual payloads of woodchip: “Isn’t it good, Swedish wood?”

It’s been a mild autumn in Sweden, but in winter, when temperatures plumb -10C (14F), three of these lorries will be needed an hour to keep Växjö warm, explains Marianne Mattila, Veab’s customer service manager. But unlike biomass power units in the UK, such as at Drax, which get wood from as far off as Canada, in Växjö, lorries come from within a 80-100 km radius of the city.

I have always had niggling doubts about the sustainability of biomass – shouldn’t trees be left to absorb CO2, rather than releasing it when chopped down and burned for energy? Mattila explains that Veab uses only the branches and tops of the trees that are sent to local paper mills or to Ikea to be turned into furniture (nearby Älmhult – the A in Ikea – is the birthplace and headquarters of the retail giant). Otherwise that biomass might be left to rot, generating methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, says Mattila. Instead, ash from burnt wood is returned to the forest to fertilise the soil.

Jan Johansson, Växjö’s energy manager, who has joined us on the tour, says the economics also stack up: “One of the advantages is biomass is a much cheaper fuel than fossil fuels.” Wood is also clean-burning, with no sulfur dioxide emissions and minimal particulate matter, he says. And Veab, which this year commissioned a new boiler, expects to see its nitrous oxide emissions drop to zero as well.

As in most Scandinavian cities, the system of centrally generated heating is highly energy-efficient, delivered to Växjö’s homes and businesses through 400 km of underground pipes. When selling land to developers, the city stipulates that they hook up to the district heating system – only last week, it won a crucial victory when the courts turned down a challenge by the Swedish Competition Authority, which had argued that it was uncompetitive to lock 500 house buyers of a new development into one energy supplier.

Later, over dinner at a cosy organic food restaurant, Björkmarker explains the importance of the city winning this battle. Växjö is growing fast, adding 1,100 people a year and providing temporary accommodation for hundreds of asylum-seekers from the likes of Syria and Afghanistan. Expanding the district heating network to meet any new demand is critical to meeting its climate targets: “There is no other heating alternative that can ever, ever compete [for low CO2 emissions].”

The expanding population is also impeding the city’s struggle to rein in transport emissions, the biggest challenge by far to its fossil-fuel free ambition. Of the 2.4 tonnes of CO2 Växjö’s residents emitted in 2014, more than two tonnes was on transport.

Björkmarker explains that the city is spread over a 30km area, and attracts workers who live as far as an hour’s drive away. All municipal buses run on biogas from its food waste, but the city’s focus is on increasing the uptake of cycling by expanding its already extensive cycle routes, pedestrianising streets, cutting down on vehicle use, and promoting electric bicycles and electric cars.

Driving me around in one of the city’s green-fuel fleet the next day, Frank returns to Veab to show me the electric car refuelling station, powered by the biomass plant, where taxi driver Lars Göranson is filling up his newly delivered Tesla. “I am so proud of this because it is locally produced, environmental energy,” Frank says.

Next stop is a city-run nursery school in a new suburb called Vikaholm, where most buildings are made entirely of wood and many to passive house standards – so energy-efficient that their occupants’ body heat is enough to keep them warm, even in the depths of a Swedish winter.

The nursery school is where Växjö begins grooming its green citizens of the future. From the age of one, they learn how to sort their waste, teacher Lena Rydell says, and how to value nature during frequent outings in the nearby forest.

It is lunchtime, and as Frank shows me the weekly menu, he explains that 40% of all food in city-run institutions such as nurseries and the hospital is organic, and vegetarian at least once a week. “I’m hoping to introduce meat-free Mondays,” he adds. “Paul McCartney said if all slaughterhouses had glass walls then everyone would be vegetarian.”

I’m not sure that the pint-sized patrons of Vikaholm nursery are with him on this point. Every Wednesday the children get to vote for their own meals and they are tucking into pasta and meat sauce, their favourite. Chef Nathalie Johansson says vegetarian options are mainly Quorn-based, masquerading as chicken.

There are other hints of resistance to Växjö’s centrally planned green revolution during my 24 hours in the city. One young resident of a passive house apartment grumbles about having to open windows to cool it down at times: “We have a thermostat but it doesn’t seem to matter what I put it on.”

But in general, Frank believes Växjö’s residents are proud of their city’s green reputation, and is planning to promote it further at next month’s UN climate conference in Paris with the launch of the “Växjö Declaration”, which will call on all European local authorities to become fossil-fuel free. Växjö was a founding member of the Covenant of Mayors, a group of 6,612 European cities that have pledged to go further than the EU on climate protection.

Frank has fond memories of the Beatles era and the radicalism of the 1970s – but he is even more excited about the coming environmental battle, which he believes cities must lead.

“During the 70s I was so pessimistic. I didn’t even feel there was life after 1984 [George Orwell’s dystopic book],” he says. “But I am quite optimistic today. We have the knowledge of what to do and we have the techniques to do it. It’s all about politicians being brave enough to take decisions – and mayors are doing a better job than national governments on climate protection, because they are closer to the people.” more

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