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07.06.2011 - 03:07PM

Category: Sustainability

Zero Net Emissions With Economic Growth? Europe's Greenest City Shows the Way

Francesca

By Francesca Rheannon

Växjö, Sweden has been able to slash its carbon footprint by a third while nearly doubling its GDP.

Summer is houseguest time out here in the Hamptons. So it was that I recently found myself hosting a young friend from Sweden - in the U.S. as a Visiting Artist with a New York dance organization - and her parents, who were here to visit her on their very first trip to the States. Not only did I have the pleasure of hanging out with some terrific houseguests, but I also ended up learning a lot about how one small Swedish city is showing the world how to go carbon free - without sacrificing robust economic growth.

My friend's mother, Sohie Kim Hagdahl, is the environmental coordinator for Växjö (pronounced VEK-shuh), a city of some 82,000 inhabitants in southern Sweden that was awarded the Sustainable Energy Europe award by the EU in 2007.

Sohie told me that Växjö was an early pioneer in sustainability, starting in 1980 with a renewable energy district heating plant. The city began its green adventure in earnest in 1996, when town councilors decided - on a unanimous vote - to free their town of dependency on fossil fuels. By 2007, 54% of the city's energy consumption was based on renewable energy sources. By 2010, per capita carbon emissions had been cut 34% from 1993 levels.

This means that a citizen of Växjö contributes only 3 tons of CO2 to the atmosphere per year - way below the global average. (In the U.S., it's 22 tons; in Germany, 12.) The city believes it can get carbon emissions down by 55% by 2015 and is making good headway toward its goal of becoming totally free of fossil fuels by 2030.

(And Växjö sees sustainability and CSR going hand-in-hand: it has also been certified as a "Fair Trade City" since 2008, with more than half of products bought by government, residents and businesses sourced from ethical companies.)

The city is staying on target by deploying a range of strategies. These include public projects, private/public partnerships, and encouraging behavior change on the part of city residents, all focused on three areas: boosting the use of renewables in housing and transportation, improving energy efficiency of buildings and residences, and making the transportation system itself "fossil fuel free."

Renewables: Ninety one percent of Växjö's building heat is sourced from a district biomass plant that uses waste wood from forestry operations. District heating is cheap and convenient, making it wildly popular. To boost adoption, the city gave subsidies to convert home heating systems to district heating, as well as to install solar panels. And the city's suburbs are now being added to the system.

Efficiency: Plucking the low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency started in 1994 with the municipal government installing more efficient street lighting, followed by increasing energy efficiency in local public hospitals and clinics. In 2003 the city instituted guidelines for building contractors that mandated energy efficient construction in buildings on public lands. Then new public housing was built, with energy efficiency designs and smart energy meters so residents could monitor their energy use and also get suggestions on how to use less. In 2008, the city partnered with local developers to start building superefficient passive houses without heating systems, warmed only by body energy and appliances.

Transportation: Biodiesel and biogas powers city buses - and in 2007, Växjö opened its first filling station (open to the public) using biogas made at the municipal sewage treatment plant. Citizen buy-in for a carbon free transport system is supported by abundant bicycle paths (the goal is to increase bike traffic by at least 20% by 2015 compared to 2004,) free parking for environmentally friendly cars - and city subsidies to buy them. Taxi routes were re-designed to be more fuel efficient. The city hopes to increase the use of mass transit by 20% by 2015 - and decrease CO2 omissions from transportation by at least 30% and 100% by 2030.

None of this would be possible without the enthusiastic participation of the city's residents and businesses (which include such big companies as Volvo and Staples.) Companies participate in the municipality's climate commission, along with Linneaus University. 81% of city inhabitants consider themselves to be environmentally aware. Behavioral change is promoted by the city's energy-saving campaign (headed up by Sohie Kim Hagdahl) that includes contests for school students, Växjö's "Little Green book" guide for sustainable consumption, and a series of annual events to highlight sustainability. Energy counseling is available free of charge to residents.

Despite all its accolades and recognition, Växjö isn't resting on its laurels. Plans for the future include making 45% of food purchased in the city organic and/or locally produced by 2015; bringing small-scale wind power to multi-story buildings; increasing supplies of biogas from food waste; expanding green areas in the city; providing district AC/cooling sourced from renewables; creating business ventures to export environmental technology; and exporting its climate-friendly model to other cities (like sister city, Duluth, Minnesota.) Växjö also coordinates the EU's SESAC project, established in 2005 to build sustainable energy systems in a number of European cities.

Växjö's model of economic growth goes to show, that with international, national and municipal support and collaboration by city residents and businesses, getting to zero net emissions is not only possible but can be done right now. All it takes is the political will to do it.

About Francesca Rheannon

Francesca is CSRwire's Talkback Managing Editor. An award-winning journalist, Francesca is co-founder of Sea Change Media. She produces the Sea Change Radio's series, Back to The Future, and co-produces the Interfaith Center of Corporate Responsibility's podcast, The Arc of Change. Francesca's work has appeared at SocialFunds.com, The CRO and E Magazine, and she is a contributing writer for CSRwire. Francesca hosts the nationally syndicated radio show, Writers Voice with Francesca Rheannon.

This commentary is written by a valued member of the CSRwire contributing writers' community and expresses this author's views alone.

Readers: What can other cities learn from Växjö's success? Tell us on Talkback!

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