Sweden’s sustainable cities a lesson for Australia

The involvement of local government has been essential to Swedish city’s remarkable carbon emissions reduction success, experts say.

It calls itself “the greenest city in Europe.”

Växjö, a city in southern Sweden’s Kronoberg County, achieved a stunning 17 per cent emissions reduction in just one year, and since implementing a suite of policies in the early 1990s has slashed its carbon emissions by more than half.

A local district heating system that replaces fossil fuels with biomass energy like food waste and waste wood makes up 90 per cent of the city’s energy, while a key scheme taxes emissions and funds carbon-reduction projects.

The promotion of sustainable transport options like cycling has contributed to the city’s carbon reductions, while 25 per cent of the energy for transport and work machinery comes from renewable energy.

The municipality’s energy supply is now 67 per cent renewable, with a goal of going completely fossil-fuel free by 2020.

Lessons for Australian councils

Mikael Granberg

The secret to Vaxjo’s remarkable carbon reductions is the involvement of local government in driving sustainable development, says Professor Mikael Granberg, director of the Centre for Climate & Safety at the Karlstads University in Sweden.

In Sweden, local government has “substantial financial, constitutional, legal, political and professional resources” and an instrumental role in driving sustainability, Professor Granberg tells Government News.

“Looking at eco-governance, local government has quite wide responsibilities, including sewerage, waste-treatment, recycling, green public purchase, green consumption and green accounts. Swedish local government are crucial actors with a potential to contribute and drive sustainable development,” he said.

Since 1948, Swedish local governments have had responsibility for spatial planning within their own territory – a responsibility which Professor Granberg says plays an immense role in the nation’s overall climate targets.

“Spatial planning is expected to deliver both climate change risk reduction and adaptation, and to balance other societal interests and priorities,” he said.

Australian councils need to ‘step up’

Brendan Gleeson

Professor Brendan Gleeson, director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, says Australian councils can learn a lot from Swedish local governments’ success in driving down emissions.

It highlights the value of council leadership in driving sustainable power generation and distribution – a leadership that needs to be reasserted by councils in Australia, Professor Gleeson said.

“Växjö shows that local governments need not be constrained by poor national leadership on sustainability issues and can assert themselves to drive impressive sustainability transitions,” he told Government News.

Växjö illustrates the potential for concerted local action to drive per capita emissions down to very low levels, Professor Gleeson says. “Local action is feasible and potentially powerful even in the context of national inertia on sustainability action.”

Re-establish local ownership 

Many Australian councils once owned important forms of infrastructure including energy and need to consider re-establishing municipal ownership of key assets, such as power generation and transport, as a means to drive change and enhance local economies, Professor Gleeson argues.

Professor Granberg, who collaborates with Australian researchers in the area, agreed that Australian councils could play a key role in helping drive down the country’s emissions.

“Local government is able to deal directly with households and small businesses in ways not possible for state or federal government. Local government has also proved to be an important source of program innovation,” he says.

However, greater local government involvement in sustainable development and carbon reductions would necessitate more resource-allocation to councils, Professor Granberg said.

He added:

“In Australia, environmental protection is a largely unfunded mandate for local government and, accordingly, financial resources are scarce, which ties to the challenge of employing trained and expert staff. So, there are challenges, but I still cannot see how local government can be avoided if we want to mitigate emissions and adapt to climate impacts.”

Professor Granberg says local government needs to “step up and take on this challenge” and perhaps challenge other levels of government on sustainable development and climate change mitigation.

But while local governments are a “key frontline player” in promoting carbon reductions, Professor Gleeson says that strong federal leadership is still needed.

It’s this national leadership in Sweden that has also contributed to the nation’s carbon reductions, he says.

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