Testing the lim­its of sus­tain­able liv­ing

The city of Vaexjoe re­ceives ac­co­lades for its green goals.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ECO WATCH - By toM sul­li­van

PINE cones, moss and rot­ten food are fu­elling a Swedish city’s quest to be sus­tain­able, but peo­ple’s at­tach­ment to their cars may put the brakes on its car­bon-neu­tral am­bi­tion.

Nes­tled among glit­ter­ing lakes and thick pine forests in south­ern Swe­den, Vaexjoe has gone fur­ther than most in re­new­able en­ergy, clean trans­port and en­ergy con­ser­va­tion, pro­mot­ing it­self as “Europe’s Green­est City”.

“We started very early,” said Hen­rik Jo­hans­son of the Vaexjoe lo­cal coun­cil. “our politi­cians re­alised in the 1960s that if the city was to de­velop the lakes had to be cleaned up. They’d been pol­luted by the linen in­dus­try in the 18th cen­tury and by the city’s ex­pan­sion.”

The restora­tion of the most pol­luted wa­ter­way, Lake Trum­men – in­fa­mous for its nox­ious smell as far back as the 18th cen­tury – acted as a cat­a­lyst for more am­bi­tious en­vi­ron­men­tal projects, he added.

“When I was a kid you wouldn’t have dreamt of tak­ing a swim in it, but today you can,” said the 39-year-old en­vi­ron­men­tal of­fi­cer. “That very ob­vi­ous change has stayed in peo­ple’s minds. It showed that if you re­ally want to do some­thing and set your mind to it, you will suc­ceed.”

In the 90s, be­fore global warm­ing was grab­bing head­lines, the city coun­cil an­nounced plans to aban­don fos­sil fu­els by 2030 and to halve car­bon emis­sions in less than two decades – among a host of “green goals” that also en­cour­age lo­cal farm­ers to go or­ganic and ev­ery­one to re­duce pa­per con­sump­tion and to use bi­cy­cles or pub­lic trans­port. Today, Vaexjoe’s Co2 emis­sions are in­deed al­most half what they were in 1993 – one of the low­est lev­els in Europe at 2.7 tonnes per per­son – and al­most half of Swe­den’s al­ready low av­er­age.

en­ergy from moss and twigs

In the 70s, Vaexjoe de­vel­oped a dis­trict heat­ing and power sys­tem – pump­ing heat and hot wa­ter from a cen­tral boiler around the city. That was not unique for Swe­den, but the city-owned en­ergy com­pany went on to pi­o­neer a change-over from oil to biomass – in­cin­er­at­ing left­overs from the forestry in­dus­try.

At the plant just out­side the city, Bjo­ern Wol­gast, the di­rec­tor, picks up a hand­ful of tan­gled twigs, moss and bark, and breathes in the pun­gent pine fra­grance as an ex­ca­va­tor de­liv­ers a pile of the dusty ma­te­rial to a nearby con­veyer belt.

“It’s to­tally re­new­able en­ergy. Swedish forests still pro­duce more than we take out,” he said, adding: “And we send ash back to fer­tilise the for­est.”

Today, al­most 90% of the city’s 60,000 in­hab­i­tants get their heat and hot wa­ter from the plant, which also sup­plies about 40% of elec­tric­ity needs.

Thanks to a se­ries of fil­ters, the plant’s emis­sions are al­most neg­li­gi­ble – one-twen­ti­eth of the na­tional limit.

But whether Vaexjoe re­ally is “Europe’s Green­est City” is open for de­bate and the slo­gan ir­ri­tates some lo­cals, in­clud­ing restau­rant owner Go­eran Lind­blad. “Why were we years be­hind other parts of the coun­try in re­cy­cling food waste?” asked Lind­blad, one of the first in Vaexjoe to start re­cy­cling food two years ago.

Potato peels as fuel

None­the­less, when the lo­cal coun­cil did start col­lect­ing or­ganic waste things hap­pened quickly. Two-thirds of house­holds signed up vol­un­tar­ily – in re­turn for lower charges – and today the city’s fleet of green bio­gas buses runs al­most en­tirely on lo­cally pro­duced gas made from rot­ten food and sewage.

“It’s dif­fi­cult to com­pare cities of dif­fer­ent sizes but I’d say it’s one of Europe’s green­est. They’re very ad­vanced and am­bi­tious,” said Cristina Garzillo, a sus­tain­abil­ity ex­pert at the lo­cal govern­ment net­work ICLEI in Freiburg, Ger­many.

ryan Provencher, a 39-year-old en­gi­neer, moved to Swe­den from Texas just over a decade ago and could be de­scribed as a fer­vent con­vert to the green rev­o­lu­tion. “We re­cy­cle just about ev­ery­thing. I only use my car about twice a week and tend to run or cy­cle to work,” he said.

Provencher lives with his wife and three chil­dren in Vaexjoe’s most en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly “pos­i­tive house”, which sends more en­ergy back to the lo­cal grid than it uses thanks to a roof cov­ered in so­lar pan­els and an ar­ray of other en­ergy-sav­ing gad­gets.

He says the con­trast with life in Waco, where his par­ents live, is like “night and day”. “Gas is so cheap there that no­body thinks twice about driv­ing.”

Vaexjoe may be a world away from Waco, but many of its res­i­dents have a sim­i­lar love af­fair with the car – about 60% drive – and it has proved hard to change that, mak­ing the city’s fos­sil-free goal harder to achieve.

“We’re de­pen­dent on na­tional changes and on car and fuel com­pa­nies to make al­ter­na­tives avail­able. We can’t force peo­ple out of their cars,” Jo­hans­son said. “But we’re mak­ing it more and more at­trac­tive to use bikes or buses and harder to drive shorter dis­tances. And it’s pretty easy to make quick im­prove­ments: gas sta­tions are al­ready blend­ing bio­fu­els into or­di­nary fuel so ev­ery­one can start low­er­ing their Co2 emis­sions.”

“By 2030 I think we’ll be at least 80% there,” Jo­hans­son said. “And that would not be so bad!” — AFP

europe’s green­est city: In Vaexjoe, Swe­den, a fleet of pub­lic buses runs al­most en­tirely on lo­cally pro­duced gas made from rot­ten food and sewage. The city plans to aban­don fos­sil fu­els by 2030. — aFP

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