Växjö, Sweden: The Greenest City in Europe

Professor Ann Dale, Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Community Development, Trudeau Fellow (2004), Royal Roads University, School of Environment and Sustainability
Published March 7, 2011

Case Summary
This case study examines the relationship between political and social motivation and the realization of sustainable development at the municipal level. Specifically, it looks at Växjö, Sweden as a case study of success in collaboration, community engagement and political leadership in addressing the ecological and economic imperatives of sustainable development, blending politics and social inclusion.

The focus in Växjö shifted from one of environmental degradation in the 1960’s, to thirty years later being considered Europe’s greenest city following the municipality’s decision in the mid-1990’s to be a fossil fuel free city. Now, Växjö is routinely described in the media, and promotes itself, as “The Greenest City in Europe.” Växjö has a long tradition of broad institutional collaboration on environment-related initiatives, of taking the lead in monitoring its CO2 emissions and introducing policies to reduce these emissions in the city’s operations and within the its geographical boundaries.

Sustainable Development Characteristics
People migrate to cities for different economical, social and political reasons. In 1950, 30 % of the world's population resided in urban centers. By 2008, the world’s population was evenly split between urban and rural areas. By 2050, the number residing in urban areas is estimated to increase to 70% of the world’s population (Population Reference Bureau, 2011). The increased concentration creates new issues, and added pressures on the urban environment including waste management, adequate water supply, and urban sprawl issues.

Cities can be centres of innovation, creating synergies where stakeholders can work towards new sustainable technologies and advancements. Växjö blended the relationship between politics, ecological health, economic advancement, and social inclusion. In Växjö, local politicians have a long history of including all three elements of sustainability: ecological, economic, and social, and using broad institutional collaboration to build upon the city’s experiences and strengthen local networks.

The issue of sustainability has remained entrenched in its society and at the forefront of the political agenda since the city’s first political declaration, in the 1990’s, for a fossil fuel free Växjö. This case study will detail the important link between the political and social motivation at the municipal level to foster this level of enduring sustainability success.

Critical Success Factors
Sweden is recognized as one of the most progressive countries in the European Union (EU) for climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies, policies and action. As early as 1991, the Swedish government introduced a carbon tax with the goal of eliminating the country’s dependency on fossil fuel, by 2020.

As consensus is intrinsic to Swedish policy decision-making, the City of Växjö’s approach of collaboration between the city administration and stakeholders, including its industry, citizens, not-for-profit organisations, and the university was critical to gaining broad support for its proposals. City politicians cite this continuing collaboration between the municipality, residents and business as essential to achieving their targets (Environmental Programme, 2010).

While political support and broad collaboration are critical elements of the city’s success, access to the necessary financial resources, especially in the start-up phase, was also essential. Securing funding is the most important challenge for local authorities, since most climate mitigation measures carry high up-front capital costs albeit initial costs may be realized over the life of the project. Sweden has developed a suite of legislative and financial incentives available to municipalities to implement climate change mitigation and adaptation practices. The EU also provides funding for a range of sustainable urban development initiatives, including funding for educational programs and demonstration projects. The Swedish government’s and the EU’s funding programs have been critical for the implementation of the City of Växjö’s sustainable initiatives.

Community Contact Information
Växjö kommun, Box 1222
SE-351 12
Växjö, Sweden
Phone: +46 470-41 000

What Worked
Växjö’s long history of environmental awareness at the political level, coupled with a high citizen awareness and involvement has created a culture where sustainability is at the forefront regardless of changes in political party. City politicians attribute the start of this history of political commitment and political unity to the 1960’s and 1970’s when the city was cleaning up its heavily polluted lake district. Young politicians educated on environmental issues worked with local actors to create a political environmental agenda that continues to this day (personal interview, September 24, 2010). The unanimous support of all political parties was an important starting point for the progress achieved in Växjö.

In Växjö, environmental education is integrated into early childhood school programs, and is offered to businesses and interested stakeholders through information sessions and programs provided by city council. By connecting its stakeholders through education, Växjö’s residents, community groups, businesses, politicians, and media have access to the same information and knowledge, reducing misunderstandings and miscommunication. Education is considered important in demand side management, necessary to achieve a number of strategies such as reducing tenants electricity use by 10% .

Education and information sessions on environmental issues have also led to a broad understanding of the economic, social, and ecological reasons about why city council and interested groups advocate for sustainable development programs. This in turn has created transparency for residents and business and support for the city’s budget allocations through its environmental management system -- ecoBUDGET, and understanding of the long-term economic gains that result from the high capital start-up costs of sustainable projects.

What Didn't Work
In the 1970’s and 1980’s when sustainable development projects were first introduced, broad understanding and support was not obtained. This led to a number of projects not being realized to the extent that they are today, such as passive housing projects and the expansion of district heating programs beyond the initial demonstration project. As consumers had not been educated on the benefit of goods being offered, there was not wide take-up on the services and products from the initial small-scale biomass plant Sandvik I; the project was not initially considered successful due to the lack of a consumer market (personal interview, August 25, 2010).

As well, city-owned companies were not investing in energy efficiency projects as the return on investment horizons for the high start-up capital costs exceed the private sector horizons of ten years or so. Investing in any energy efficiency projects with long-term payback horizons impacts on the city’s future plans to sell any of its companies to the private sector. As markets tend to work on short-term time frames, if city-owned companies switched to energy efficient passive housing and district heating projects, their debt load in the short-term would make them unattractive to the private sector, even though profits would be realized in the decades to follow (personal interview, August 25, 2010). This is something Växjö has not yet been able to overcome. “It is critical to a project requiring innovation, that the stakeholders take the time to understand and appreciate conflicting values, come to a common understanding of the goals in order to ensure full implementation of the ecological, social and economic imperatives of sustainable development” (Dale, 2001).

Financial Costs and Funding Sources
In 1997, the Swedish government allocated €600 million for local environmental initiatives under its Local Investment Program (LIP). The City of Växjö accessed the LIP funding for a number of its climate-related projects, such as the start-up costs of its expanded biomass plant for district heating and power, the Sandvik II plant. The Swedish National Energy Agency has also provided funding for the city’s projects, such as the start-up costs of Växjö’s biogas plant.

The EU provides financial support for national and municipal environmental programs. For example, SESAC (Sustainable Energy Systems in Advanced Cities), a €25 million program of which the EU provides €10.4 million funded the biogas and biomass demonstration projects in three cities -- in Växjö, Sweden, in Delft, Netherlands, and in Grenoble, France. As well, SESAC funded a project to develop an environmental management system – called the ecoBUDGET within these same cities, which was co-ordinated by Växjö.

SESAC has funded other projects in Växjö including energy efficient buildings and passive houses constructed from sustainable wood, biomass for district cooling, photovoltaics, pedagogic systems to educate residents in reducing energy use, and transfer of best practices. With these large programs financed by other governments, the municipality of Växjö has been able to budget for smaller programs such as municipal subsidies for buying environmental vehicles (2002 – 2004), the creation of the centre for biomass gasification established at Växjö University (2003), and continuous expansion of the city’s cycling network.

The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency also provides finances to cities to describe what the city is doing to address climate issues, its goals and the actions to be taken under its local climate investment program (KLIMP). In 2004, Växjö accessed KLIMP funding to enlarge its cycling network, and to make public transport more attractive.

Research Analysis
Information and insights were drawn from interviews, including with the current mayor of Växjö, city officials, and the municipally-owned energy company, VEAB. The interviews used semi-structured questions designed to explore the social, political, and financial context behind the claim that Växjö is ‘The Greenest City in Europe’. Another research objective was to examine how Växjö has overcome the barriers experienced by many municipalities attempting full-scale sustainability, and what worked and what didn’t work. Information was also gathered from official city documents and its website, and international organisations’ websites such as the United Nations, and the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI).

Detailed Case Background Description
Växjö is located in the south of Sweden in the province of Småland and consists mostly of forests and lakes, with a small proportion of land used for agriculture. It is a regional business and trading centre, with a population currently of about 83,000 inhabitants. The population has increased steadily over the last decade.

The city is less than two hours by train from Copenhagen, and there are several daily flight and train connections to Stockholm. There are major industries and a wide range of small and medium-sized companies in sectors such as engineering, bio-energy, retailing, telecom, heavy vehicles, wood processing, furniture and IT, and a university with more than 14,000 students specializing in entrepreneurship, logistics, business development and bio-energy. Forests cover more than 60 % of the region and the forestry and bio-energy sectors are well developed.

The City of Växjö’s first environmental decision was taken in the 1960’s to restore Lake Tummen, as the water quality of the surrounding lakes had become an issue for Växjö’s residents, and its city council (Environmental Programme, 2010). The restoration of the area’s surrounding lakes continued through the 1970’s to today where residents enjoy and promote the recreation of its clean lakes. This could be considered a fairly early start on dealing with environmental projects relative to other European municipalities.

Following the oil crisis in the 1970’s, Växjö and similar cities throughout Europe looked for ways to introduce local, renewable sources of energy. The City of Växjö and the local energy supplier, Växjö Energy Ltd. (VEAB) saw the opportunity to use the local forestry industry’s waste – wood chips and shavings as an energy supply, and in the 1980’s Växjö started using this biomass to produce some district heating. While oil continued to be used to meet the majority of the city’s energy needs, over time, its use for district heating has now been reduced to 1% (Fossil Fuel Free Växjö – the Story, n.d). With such an early start in the use of biomass for heating, Växjö was in the enviable position of being able to immediately offer cheaper energy to its citizens when the Swedish government introduced its CO2 tax, in 1991.

The original biomass project, Sandvik I was expanded with the construction of the Sandvik II plant, in 1997. This plant is a combined heat and power plant that uses biomass on a larger scale than the original demonstration project. City officials regard the biomass energy plant as one of its most successful renewable energy projects. The energy generated provides electricity, and 90% of the city’s heating and hot water needs. There are also smaller district heating plants built between 1997 and 2000 outside of the city core, which produce heat only. Other renewable energy measures aimed at attaining a fossil fuel free status have been subsidies for rural residents to convert from electric heating or oil burners to heating with wood pellets. Again, the strategy has been to take advantage of the region’s strengths – a readily-available input.

City officials cite a number of regional characteristics that led up to the first biomass plant project – an entrepreneurial culture in the region, independence from the Swedish government, and a solutions approach to problems and to trying new ideas. After the 1970’s oil crisis, city officials did not want to be dependent on outside sources for their primary source of energy. With the second global oil crisis in the 1980’s, the city began to look at more sustainable and domestic sources of fuel and was in the fortunate position of being surrounded by woodlots. By using the waste from the surrounding mills, Växjö addressed the issue of environmental waste from the mills, and used it in a sustainable and environmentally beneficial way. The construction of the later large-scale biomass plant, Sandvik II, also created jobs for locals, and ensured that Växjö is not dependent on outside sources for district heating and power needs.

When Agenda 21, the United Nations program for sustainable development was created in 1992, Växjö’s decision-makers decided the city should take a leading role in sustainable development. In 1993, Sweden ratified the UN Climate Convention and that same year, Växjö approved an environmental policy and started monitoring its carbon dioxide emissions per capita (The City of Växjö – a successful sustainable energy programme in Sweden, 2003). An Agenda 21 strategy was adopted in 1999, that was the result of a broad collaboration between the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC), city council and other local actors in Växjö.

Starting in 1995, the city worked with the SSNC to develop a series of environmental projects and to position itself uniquely as a leader. There was ongoing dialogue over three years between the SSNC, city staff, and politicians as well as numerous roundtables were held with business, non-governmental organisations and residents for their input and to gain broad support. Using its entrepreneurial expertise, analysis was also conducted on its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT analysis). The city considered that it was well positioned to take a lead role given its early experience with biomass for the production of heat and power and the local university’s biomass research. In dialogue with SSNC, a link was made between local work on a global problem and the city made its first pronouncement, in 1996, that it would be a fossil fuel free city (although no ’by date’ was indicated this first time) and that CO2 emissions should be reduced by 50 % per capita by 2010 compared to 1993 levels (Fossil Fuel Free Växjö, The Story, n.d.). This early pronouncement attracted media attention and Växjö started to be regarded as perhaps Europe’s greenest city.

In 2006, Växjö developed its first enviromental programme, using ecoBUDGET, an environmental management system used to manage natural resources and municipal budgets, which Växjö piloted with other municipal partners, in 2003. Växjö acted as the coordinator for this EU-funded project to demonstrate ecoBUDGET at a local level in three cities -- in Växjö, Sweden, in Delft, Netherlands, and in Grenoble, France. EcoBUDGET provides local authorities with a model for annually tracking environmental resource consumption. Although strictly non-monetary in nature, ecoBUDGET tracks environmental spending (the use, degradation or destruction of natural resources) in the same way a financial budget tracks financial spending. Based on measurable physical indicators spanning different environmental areas or issues, the system requires short and long-term target setting as well as collaboration between different municipal departments. Common ecological indicators have been set by the city administration, and for all boards and municipally-owned companies. Evaluations are conducted every 6 months and linked to the economic budget reporting.

In addition to its initial biomass and renewable energy projects aimed at achieving its goal to be completely fossil fuel free, the city continues to introduce other energy-related projects such as energy efficient street lightning, energy efficient building/construction, energy reduction by consumers, solar panels, more cycle paths, environmentally friendly cars, free parking to energy efficient cars, solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on the roofs of buildings, subsidies to homeowners for solar panels, free energy advice to residents with 2000 consultations per year (The City of Växjö – a successful sustainable energy programme in Sweden, n.d.), biofuels in public transport with expansion planned for 2013, and has taken actions to improve bus use.

Växjö’s environmental programme of 2006 had set a target of reducing CO2 emissions by 50% by 2010, from 1993 levels. By 2008, emissions had been reduced by 35% per inhabitant while economic growth had increased by 69% (Environmental Programme, 2010). Sweden, and its municipalities such as Växjö, have decoupled economic development and CO2 emissions reduction.

While projects such as the biomass plant have created jobs in Växjö, its reputation as “The Greenest City in Europe” and its leadership and expertise in bioenergy have also given it a regional competitive edge; its efforts help to develop new economic development opportunities such as exporting, and creating new jobs locally. The BioEnergy Smaland – Expo Växjö project started in 2003 built a cluster of Swedish bioenergy technology expertise for export. Växjö also conducts technical tours of its projects, and provides its expertise to other municipalities. An investment grant of €18 million from the Swedish Ministry of Environment in the early 2000’s, in turn leveraged €17 million in new investments in local private and public organisations. Växjö regards its leadership role taken in 1996 as directly contributing to the development of these new economic opportunities and its success in attracting EU funding for various projects (City of Växjö – a successful sustainable energy programme in Sweden, n.d.).

Växjö’s environmental programme, which was revised and approved by city council in 2010, has three visions: Living Life, Our Nature, and Fossil Fuel Free Växjö. The vision of a fossil fuel free Växjö is that its energy consumption does not lead to any climate effect. Continuing to be a leader in the field, the city continues to set targets that are more ambitious than those in the national legislation (Environmental Programme, 2010).

The overall targets in the city’s 2010 update to its environmental programme continue to be to cease using fossil fuels and use energy efficiently. The 2010 update sets new targets for 2015 as the following.

- Fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions shall be reduced by at least 55 % per inhabitant by 2015, compared with 1993. Växjö shall be a fossil fuel free city by 2030 at the latest.
- Consumption of electrical energy shall be reduced by at least 20 % per inhabitant from 1993 to 2015.
- Cycle traffic in the City of Växjö shall increase by at least 20 % by 2015 from 2004.
- Public transport as part of city traffic shall increase by at least 20 % per town inhabitant and for country traffic by at least 12 % per county inhabitant from 2002 to 2015.
- Energy consumption shall be reduced by 15 % per inhabitant between 2008 and 2015.

The strategy for a fossil fuel free Växjö has consistently included initiatives aimed at changing the behaviour of its residents. Acknowledging that changing people’s behaviour is difficult if it involves financial sacrifice and a change in lifestyle, the city seeks ways to make it easier for its residents to live without fossil fuels, for example by providing cheap and convenient district heating, attractive public transport and good walking and cycling paths (Environmental Programme, 2010). The 2010 environmental programme also reports on its performance in key areas, as of 2008, and includes budget indicators and concrete follow-up indicators.

The city routinely holds information meetings, has created a comprehensive website with the city’s goals clearly outlined, and introduces new information sessions based on lessons learned such as eco-driving lessons to its employees and citizens. A citizen survey is conducted bi-annually on environmental and sustainability awareness. City officials report seeing a significant increase each year in the participation rate, and in the level of sustainability awareness (personal interview, August 25, 2010).

As well as receiving media attention for its efforts, Växjö has received international awards for its achievements. For example, in 2000, Växjö was awarded the international environmental award for excellent atmospheric protection, and in 2007 was awarded the EU’s inaugural Sustainable Energy Europe Award.

The city also participates in numerous partnerships with other international environmental actors. Växjö is affiliated with a number of networks including; the Covenant of Mayors, Energy Cities, ICLEI, IDA International DME Association, REVES, Sustainable Cities and Towns Campaign, Union of the Baltic Cities (UBC), Climate Neutral Network, and National Network, Climate Municipalities.

Adaptability to Case Studies in Canada
This case study highlights the importance of the following factors for meaningful implementation and exploitation of best practices at national and local levels:

providing national leadership through appropriate financing mechanisms, assessment tools and reporting mechanisms;

engaging diverse communities through dynamic ongoing and iterative engagement processes, complimented by education and information programs;

ensuring implementation at the local level through local autonomy;

clearly identifying a niche (access to woodlot waste) and optimizing its contribution to sustainable development, and

integrating sustainable development into policy and decision-making, municipal budgeting, and accountabilities.

Strategic Questions

  1. Växjö’s city politicians and officials regard the international recognition of its early leadership role and its expertise/experience in renewable energy projects as reason for its initial and continuing success in accessing Swedish and EU funding over the years. What are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to being a leader in this field?
  2. Växjö cites broad political, business, organisational, and citizen support as essential to its success. What role does institutional collaboration play in sustainability success?
  3. Is political leadership necessary to begin, and successfully implement sustainable initiatives at the municipal level?
  4. What role does education play in obtaining public support for sustainable initiatives that are a cost to the taxpayer?
  5. What is the interplay between paying increased taxes for sustainable initiatives and demand management (behaviour modification)?

I am indebted to the work of my research associate, Elaine Dale, MBA, and to the research assistance of Krista Gallagher in the preparation of this case study.

Resources and References
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Dale, A. (2001). At the Edge: Sustainable Development in the 21st Century. Vancouver: UBC Press.

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Soares, C. “In Europe’s greenest city, even its power plant smells more like a sauna.” The Independent (UK), July 24, 2007. Available: http://postcarboncities.net/europes-greenest-city-even-its-power-plant-smells-more-sauna. Retrieved September 15, 2010.

“Sustainability Management.” Iclei-europe.org. ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability, 2011. Available: http://www.iclei-europe.org/topics/sustainability-management/ecobudget. Retrieved February 6, 2011.

“The City of Växjö – a successful sustainable energy programme in Sweden.” unep.org. United Nations Environmental Program. n.d. Available: www.unep.org/GC/GCSS-IX/Documents/Swedish-1A.pdf. Retrieved February 17, 2011.

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