Thursday, July 12, 2007

One very green Swedish town

From the Age, an Australian paper, a fascinating and inspiring story about a town in Sweden that has gone to great lengths to reduce its impact on the environment: …The city of Vaxjo has turned off the heating oil, even on the darkest, snowbound days of winter.…Vaxjo is chasing a future free of fossil fuels, and it's almost halfway there without having sacrificed lifestyle, comfort or economic growth.

The Vaxjo model has been repeated all over Sweden, creating a network of "climate" municipalities. Sweden's total emissions have long been falling and last year the Government announced its own ambitious national goal: to end oil dependency by 2020.

…The first step towards Vaxjo's and Sweden's success was the city power plant. Today, its giant smokestack towers over the pristine lakes, parks and cycle ways, barely emitting a puff of steam. Inside there's a huge furnace, similar to those that burn coal. But, the suffocating heat feels and smells like a sauna. Wood chips, sawdust and other wood waste discarded by local forestry industries are burning at extremely high temperatures to produce electricity.

Then, instead of dumping the cooling water, as most power stations do, it's pumped out scalding to the city's taps and to another vast network of pipes. The second delivery system of insulated pipes runs hot water continuously through heaters in homes and offices. The water leaves the plant at over 100 degrees, travels as far as 10 kilometres and comes back warm to be reheated, over and over again. An enormous municipal hot-water tank acts as back-up, so showers never go cold.

…In Vaxjo and elsewhere, there's been a relentless effort to get people out of cars and onto bikes and buses, to redesign housing, to encourage high-density living over urban sprawl and to start teaching green lessons from preschool.

More than 30 per cent of energy, she says, can be saved just by changing the way people live. But they need to be persuaded; the city charges petrol-run vehicles, for example, to park, while low-emissions vehicles may park for free.

Vaxjo's next big environmental first is partially concealed under a mammoth custom-built tent on the lake front. It's a 67-unit, eight-storey apartment block in a new, high-density wooden city; the first high-rise wooden building in Europe. Unlike high-energy steel, concrete and other manufactured building materials, wood is carbon neutral, requires less processing and insulates well. The tent is to keep the site dry to prevent warping and swelling; the one technical challenge not yet overcome is how to build in rain.

…In 1991, Sweden introduced the world's first carbon tax, slugging carbon emissions at a hefty $US100 a tonne, double the rate economists now suggest would sharply accelerate the development of renewable energy worldwide….Initially, the environment was only part of the motivation; energy security was a more immediate concern.

…But the economy was then in recession and businesses forecast dire consequences. Many energy-intensive businesses, such as car makers and aluminium smelters, won big concessions, but they still had to pay $US25 a tonne of carbon emissions, while their international competitors paid nothing.

"At the time this was very radical and the tax was very, very high," says environmental economist Professor Tomas Kaberger. "But suddenly we had thousand of entrepreneurs looking for low-cost, biological waste products that could be used for producing electricity and heat more cheaply than fossil fuels. They found residues in the forestry industry, waste in the food industry and agriculture and even wet, putrid garbage."

Dumping combustible bio-waste in landfill was also banned, so garbage collection …Economies cannot be transformed without a carbon price, says Kaberger. But a carbon tax shouldn't be just another cost to the economy; the revenue allows governments to lower tax in other sectors.

…"We are a small country, but we're exporting management, ideas and technical solutions to China and elsewhere. And China is sending technicians here to work for free just to learn. That's our chance to make a difference."

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