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.


Green Party leader: ‘Right-wing parties want to push us out of parliament’

Per Bolund, joint leader of Sweden's Green party, spoke for thirteen and a half minutes at Almedalen before he mentioned the environment, climate, or fossil fuels, in a speech that began by dwelling on healthcare, women's rights, and welfare, before returning to the party's core issue.

Green Party leader: 'Right-wing parties want to push us out of parliament'

After an introduction by his joint leader Märta Stenevi, Bolund declared that his party was going into the election campaign on a promise “to further strengthen welfare, with more staff and better working conditions in healthcare, and school without profit-making, where the money goes to the pupils and not to dividends for shareholders”. 

Only then did he mention the party’s efforts when in government to “build the world’s first fossil-free welfare state”. 

“We know that if we want welfare to work in the future, we must have an answer to our time’s biggest crisis: the threat to the environment and the climate,” he said.

“We know that there is no welfare on a dead planet. We need to take our society into a new time, where we end our dependency on oil, meet the threat to the climate, and build a better welfare state within nature’s boundaries, what we call a new, green folkhem [people’s home].” 

He presented green policies as something that makes cities more liveable, with the new sommargågator — streets pedestrianised in the summer — showing how much more pleasant a life less dependent on cars might be.  

He then said his party wanted Sweden to invest 100 billion kronor a year on speeding up the green transition, to make Sweden fossil fuel-free by 2030. 

“We talk about the climate threat because it’s humanity’s biggest challenge, our biggest crisis,” he said. “And because we don’t have much time.” 

In the second half of his speech, however, Bolund used more traditional green party rhetoric, accusing the other political parties in Sweden of always putting off necessary green measures, because they do not seem urgent now, like a middle-aged person forgetting to exercise. 

“We know that we need to cut emissions radically if we are even going to have a chance of meeting our climate goal, but for all the other parties there’s always a reason to delay,” he said. 

“We are now seeing the curtain go up on the backlash in climate politics in Sweden. All the parties have now chosen to slash the biofuels blending mandate which means that we reduce emissions from petrol and diesel step for step, so you automatically fill your tank in a greener way. Just the government’s decision to pause the  reduction mandate will increase emissions by a million tonnes next year.” 

The right-wing parties, he warned, were also in this election running a relentless campaign against the green party. 

“The rightwing parties seem to have given up trying to win the election on their own policies,” he said. “Trying to systematically push out of parliament seems to be their way of trying to take power. And they don’t seem above any means. Slander campaigns, lies, and false information have become every day in Swedish right-wing politics.” 

He ended the speech with an upbeat note. 

“A better, more sustainable world is possible. There is a future to long for. If you give us a chance then that future is much closer than you think!”

Read the speech here in Swedish and here in (Google Translated) English.