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Sweden's green agenda

By Darryl D'Monte

Ninety-five per cent of all Swedes believe it is important to do something about climate change; two out of every three think it is very important. Sixty Stockholm families have embarked on a novel experiment related to 'smart consumption'

We could be forgiven for thinking we had intruded into a garden party, one balmy summer evening in suburban Stockholm recently. The table, under a tree groaning with apples, was laden with home-baked pies, pastries, fruit, beer and juice. The hosts were more than cordial: Andi and Marianne Loor very warmly welcomed us international environmental journalists, apologising for the absence of their two-year-old daughter, Alina, who was playing at a neighbour's. It was with some difficulty that we had to remind ourselves that this was no social visit. We helped ourselves and then got down to business: to interview what is by no means an ordinary Swedish family.

The Loors are one of 60 Stockholm families specially chosen for a novel experiment on "smart consumption," as their mentor and project leader, a well-known economist called Martin Saar who was also present, explained. The 60 families are a cross-section of Stockholmers. The Loors, who emphasised "we are no freaks," live in a suburb called Garden City. This was created in the 1930s, emulating famous but ill-conceived garden cities in the UK (like Wellwyn Garden and Harlow) which were ring towns meant to ease the pressure off the metropolis, whilst simulating a "green" ambience. However, the green was too formal, as was the design of each town itself, which alienated most of the residents who complained that the cities had lost their soul. As city planners all over the world recognise now, such social engineering may be all very well in theory, but it doesn't work in practice. It also meant that residents had to travel some distance to work, even though the areas were supposed to be self-contained.

Saar explains: "It was meant to be an alternative for workers living in narrow and dark residential buildings in the city centre. Garden City is a residential area with 500 rather small houses, comprising two rooms and a kitchen, or slightly larger homes." The Loors were chosen because they opted for the initiative. Out of the 60 families, only one in eight live in a house of their own, as distinct from an apartment. As many as 90% of Stockholm's residents live in flats, and two-thirds of residents are single occupants (which is socially problematic as well as environment-unfriendly because it wastes more energy on all fronts). The families are located in 14 out of the 18 city districts and are thus in every demographic way a representative sample of Stockholmers.

Both Andi and Marianne work with the media in one way or another. They are different from the other families in that they both once worked for Greenpeace and are therefore more environment-conscious. As they observe: "Having a child and looking back to what has happened, or rather what has not happened since we were actively involved with environmental issues, we decided it was time to do more. Our first task was to look back at our consumption and provide information on our normal (household) running costs. Then we collected receipts for all our everyday purchases... The idea during this phase was not to change consumer behaviour, rather to get an idea of what it looked like."

While Sweden figures among the greenest countries in the world, it is significant that Swedes have by no means been able to rid themselves of their passion for the motorcar, which is surely one of the worst offenders in this respect. Even the Loors have two cars, despite Stockholm in particular and Sweden in general being very well endowed with public transport. "We have two cars," Andi reported, somewhat apologetically, "an ordinary Volvo and a hybrid Honda Insight (the engine of which combines petrol with electricity). I travel about 40 km a day, but the Honda gives me 100 km with just 4 litres of petrol." To compensate, Marianne works from home. The Loors are enthusiastic supporters of the proposed congestion tax, a referendum on which will be held in Sweden on September 17, along with national elections. If it is voted through, they -- as suburbanites -- will have to pay around $ 10 each time they leave the city centre. They also car-pool whenever possible.

Surprisingly, apart from transport, the Loors and other families have found that a major item of energy consumption is food. Once you start auditing the total amount of energy spent on food -- on agriculture itself (irrigation, mechanisation, plus on fertiliser and pesticides), transport, packaging and marketing -- it adds up to a hefty amount of calories. Of course, thanks to heavy subsidies in European agriculture many of these costs are hidden. Some experts assert that the amount of calories totally spent on inputs in European and North American farming in this manner actually exceeds the calories in crop output, thanks to the market distortions!

That's why the Loors are trying to free themselves of this trap by buying fresh organic produce from the surrounding farmers. Marianne says: "Organic food, vegetables and fruit are brought to the door once a week. Many families are now shopping less as a result, which cuts down the time and energy spent. We buy less meat and eat less red meat." Throughout the world, alternative economists like the British-born Hazel Henderson are pointing to the environmental costs imposed by profligate lifestyles, where produce is being sourced from increasingly distant locations. Apart from the emissions involved in transporting such food, there is the use of water and other inputs, often in developing countries that grow these crops. Instead, they call for accessing local produce wherever possible. In India, this could mean avoiding buying those red-cheeked apples from New Zealand or China and going in for the lowly guava or ber instead, which may be just as nutritious.

The second phase of the "smart consumption" initiative is to review the emissions that each family makes to the global environment. This includes such sectors as gardens, renovation of housing, travel and transport, and energy consumption. One of the surprising findings is the huge toll on the environment the annual European summer holiday is. A Swedish family of four that goes to Phuket, the Thai beach resort, for example, consumes 9 tonnes of carbon dioxide on air and surface travel. This compares unfavourably with the average carbon dioxide emissions per Swede, which amounts to only 10 tonnes for the full year. What "smart consumption" may well point to, just as it has done for food, is that people should travel closer to their homes and avoid the exotic locales that are so much in demand these days.

This will have interesting repercussions, if adopted widely, for international tourism, which is the fastest growing industry in the world these days. Apart from helping to green the planet, such a move may reduce the social distortions that mass tourism brings in its wake.

All this fits in well with the profile of Sweden as a whole -- as one of the most environmentally conscious countries in the world. A poll conducted by the Swedish Environmental Administration four years ago found that 95% of all Swedes believed it was important to do something about climate change; two out of every three thought it was very important. Importantly, Swedes are "becoming the change they want to see" by acting on their concerns, not just being well informed about them.

Stockholmers believe that traffic is the most serious environmental problem. One-fifth of the cars in the country use either ethanol, a clean biofuel, or are hybrid models (and will evade the Stockholm congestion tax if it comes). Not that it is easy to drop the habit. Surveys show that only 18% of all Swedish adults do not possess a car. There is a gender dimension too: as many as 55% of single women without children, between 25 and 44 years old, are car-less, as against 34% of males in the similar category.

Stockholm has experimented with a congestion tax -- payable on exiting the central business district, not on entering, as one does in London. Many observers feel that it may not receive the green signal in the forthcoming referendum. It was opposed by political conservatives but championed by the social democrats, along with the left and greens. Once it came into effect for a trial period, during the first half of this year, Stockholmers found that the city centre was clear of congestion, enabling everyone to reach their places of work easily and speedily. Still, to question a long-felt "right" of motorists to drive where and when they please is something of a political challenge, which may come unstuck on September 17. In Edinburgh, three-quarters of the residents voted against such a tax, fanned by a sceptical media.

Stockholm is proud to display its 400-strong fleet of pollution-reducing ethanol buses, which has given other cities -- Madrid, Rotterdam and even Nanyang in China -- ideas. These will be funded by the European Union under a project called Bio Ethanol for Sustainable Transport, or BEST -- coincidentally the same as Mumbai's much-vaunted bus service. Tests show that the emissions from these buses are well below Euro 5 and other standards. The bus undertaking showed journalists around its fuel depot, where gleaming red single-decker buses filled up from ethanol tanks, just like petrol vehicles. With such clean and efficient buses and a well-networked metro service, Stockholmers can count on public transport to get them everywhere in next to no time.

Everyone is beginning to revert to bicycles too, though not as much as in Holland.

Sweden realised over two decades ago that its early experiments with social engineering -- of the Garden Cities variety -- was wrong, created urban sprawl and made commuting mandatory. It is now very much in favour of "densification," though not high-rise development, with what planners call a "poly-nucleated" pattern, meaning mixed-use neighbourhoods. This means that workplaces and homes are much closer to each other, as are shopping areas. All the Swedes we met in the course of a week-long stay in Stockholm complained about the earlier trend towards the 'Americanisation' of cities, where huge shopping malls were located on the periphery, forcing people to drive since it was not feasible to carry huge loads on public transport.

We were taken to a new township called Hammarby Sjostad, around a lake, which has been inspired -- as indeed much of Stockholm has -- by the surrounding water. This is Stockholm's biggest urban development project in years and is projected to be the answer to inner city problems. Here, housing, far from being standardised "little boxes" (a la Pete Seeger), is highly variegated and an architect's delight, since each complex is differently designed. This is an ecological city in the making, with a closed loop for much of the energy and all the waste. Its sewage is purified, heat recycled and nutrients recovered, after which it is returned to farmland. The surface water is locally cleaned and thus does not burden the sewage treatment plant. Energy is produced at the local district heating plant that uses renewable fuel. Combustible waste from the town is recycled as heat, and food waste converts to biogas.

The Hammarby Model provides 10,000 apartments for some 25,000 residents with a heavy emphasis on good public transport, recreation and open spaces. Several of the buildings employ solar panels to heat water for bathing and the kitchen, but, unlike in India, these panels are built into the design, they do not protrude to mar the cityscape. As the planners put it: "Restricted building heights, set-back penthouses, multi-level apartments, generous balconies and terraces, large windows, flat roofs and pale plastered facades facing the water exemplify the application of a modernistic architectural agenda." Many contrasting parks, quays and pedestrian paths are being planned around the model city, and the central expanse of water will "form a visual vocal point, the blue eye of the district".

InfoChange News & Features, September 2006