Q&A: Stockholm, Sweden's Irene Svenonius

Stockholm, Sweden's chief executive office explains how her country became a leader in reducing GHG emissions and an economically competitive success.

Many said it couldn’t be done — but the doughty Swedes have found the green in green. Between 1990 and 2008 Sweden reduced its greenhouse-gas emissions by 9%, yet it’s the Word Economic Forum’s fourth-most-competitive country. Irene Svenonius is the chief executive officer of Sweden’s capital, Stockholm. According to her, the city has reduced GHG emissions to 3.5 tonnes per person in 2008, from seven tonnes per person in the early 1990s (when the city first started measuring emissions). The goal is to be fossil-free by 2050. Rachel Pulfer spoke with Svenonius to find out the secrets of Stockholm’s low-carb success.

How did you first get involved in the effort to reduce Stockholm’s GHGs?

Before I was CEO, I was head of the city’s office for research and statistics. We planned a pilot test to implement a congestion charge — then tried out the charge from Jan. 3 to July 31, 2006. We saw significant changes — 20% fewer people using private cars — so we decided after a public referendum in September 2006 to bring in the charge in 2007.

You became CEO in October 2006. What leadership techniques have you found you need to keep the momentum going on emissions reduction?

You need to have a precise goal, and you need to communicate it throughout your organization. You also need to follow up to find out whether you achieved your goals or not. Every department reports to us three times a year. For example, we reduced the budget for heating costs. If department heads can’t reduce those costs by being more energy efficient, they have to cut back other things. Supposedly they prefer to work on energy efficiency.

What other policies have helped reduce emissions in the city?

We have used integrated city planning and the latest technology to reduce emissions from the new city districts. Of these, the single most important element was introducing district heating, which is produced by burning solid waste, or garbage. The congestion charge has also had a significant impact. In 2007, thenumber of commuters using public transport during rush hour was up to 77%. To support the changes, we put a lot of investment into public transport. We also built in incentives to use alternatives. There is no charge if you are driving private cars that run on alternative fuels — and those cars can park for free. Up to 70% of the city’s fleet is now powered by alternative fuels. For example, our buses run on biogas. Much of the biogas is produced from our waste-water treatment facility. At peak hours, we noticed it was not able to meet demand for biogas, so we set up our own biogas production facility. We are planning to sell the facility to the private sector this year. We also developed this new district, Hammarby Sjöstad. The overall goal was that its emissions per capita be 50% lower than other newly constructed housing areas.

How did you develop Hammarby Sjöstad?

We came up with a series of goals to achieve our target. Then we went to businesses. They took up the challenge. For example, a Swedish company, Envac, came up with a way to transport garbage by vacuum. Instead of having people put the garbage out for large trucks to pick up, the garbage is vacuumed to a central facility where it is then burned for heat energy. Envac is now selling this technology in China.

How did you convince private developers that building energy-efficient housing and commercial real estate in Hammarby Sjöstad was in their economic self-interest?

First of all, participating companies benefit from the branding; environmental goals have become very important to Swedish consumers. Secondly, the land was owned by the city of Stockholm, and we priced it lower than would have otherwise been the case. The cost to the city worked out to 125,000 Swedish krona (roughly $18,000) per unit. This reflects the cost of cleaning up the brownfield land Hammarby Sjöstad is built on. Normally, the developer would assume that cost.

What kind of opposition did you encounter to these changes?

Initially, the congestion charge was heavily opposed by the public. Many were afraid the charge would make it impossible for people on less income to drive cars. But, everybody saw how the charge worked during the trial period. When we had the referendum, a majority of our population voted in favour.