Swedish town prides itself as environmental role model

The Swedish town of Växjö will be "green" or will not be at all. That's the slogan in this town that has become a world leader in environmental protection and has even loftier goals.

While the European Union (EU) aims to raise its share of renewable energy consumption to 20 percent by 2020, Växjö, a town of 80,000 people nestled between lakes and forests in Sweden’s south, can boast of already exceeding 50 percent — and 90 percent when it comes to heating.

Carbon dioxide emissions per inhabitant dropped by 30 percent between 1993 and 2006.

“It’s a lot but we’re not satisfied, we want to reduce them further,” says Henrik Johansson, an environmental expert at city hall.

In fact, Växjö, which in 1996 set the ambitious goal of ultimately reducing its consumption of fossil fuels to zero, wants to halve its CO2 emissions by 2010 and reduce them by 70 percent by 2050.

Those goals exceed by far the EU’s objectives, which call for a reduction of 20 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.

Växjö’s efforts have been lauded by the European Commission, which in 2007 awarded it the Sustainable Energy for Europe award.

“We try to influence people’s behaviour. It’s not easy, in fact it’s actually quite hard,” says Johansson.

But their efforts are paying off, with people adapting to a new way of life thanks to bicycle lanes, tax breaks and free parking for “green” cars, and calendars that provide useful tips on how to protect the environment.

Since winning the European Commission prize, Växjö has played host to numerous foreign delegations, led by China, who have come to tour the area and seek inspiration from the local initiatives.

According to the town’s conservative mayor Bo Frank, Växjö owes its “green” success to a longstanding commitment to the environment as well as to a tradition of political consensus on the issue.

It all began in the early 1970s, when the town agreed to clean up its heavily polluted lakes.

“Today we can swim, fish and eat the fish” from the local waters, Johansson triumphs.

Then, in 1980, following the second international oil crisis, the local heating plant which had been running on oil introduced a new fuel based on wood — an abundant raw material in Växjö’s surroundings and able to provide the town with an independent source of energy.

Today, the wood fuel accounts for 98.7 percent of the fuel used at the plant, which heats the homes of 50,000 habitants in Växjö and whose network continues to grow, explains Lars Ehrlen of the plant’s energy unit.

In order to convince residents to change their living habits in the fight against climate change Mayor Frank believes in using both “the carrot and the stick.”

He recalls that some of the measures that have been introduced have been unwelcome, but adds: “Nothing is ever popular in the beginning but people get used to everything.”

For example, when the town announced some six months ago that it would only hold its conferences in cafes or restaurants that had obtained a special environmental certificate, Mats Pettersson, the co-owner of a small chain of restaurants, was disgruntled.

“I found that pretty bothersome at the beginning … but now I think it’s a good idea. The problem … was that it was hard to find organic products,” he says.

“But suppliers increasingly have what we need,” he adds.

Despite the criticism, Mayor Frank remains philosophical and confident of the path he has chosen for the town.

“No one is a prophet in his own country,” he says.

“It’s up to Växjö to lead by example,” he insists, noting that he walks to work, owns a “green” car and uses low energy consumption lightbulbs in his own home.