Sweden’s Model Urban Policy Still Can’t Control ‘Unsustainable Consumption’

Sweden’s Model Urban Policy Still Can’t Control ‘Unsustainable Consumption’

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Following the long Swedish summer holidays, Stockholm has been slowly coming back to life with a series of cultural and sustainability festivals. The end of August saw the city host the Stockholm Act, including talks, cultural events and seminars on how Sweden can deliver on international sustainability goals. On the heels of that was World Water Week, a globally renowned forum attracting researchers and policymakers from top international institutions dealing with water and sustainability.

Stockholm also has been joined by cities such as Gothenburg and Umeå, in the country’s north, in driving sustainability. All three have been national winners of WWF’s One Planet City Challenge, a global initiative designed to highlight cities that are implementing sustainable, low-carbon solutions and strategies to accelerate the global transition to renewable energy. In addition, Gothenburg has built a reputation around pioneering green bonds and its state-of-the-art public transport system, while Umeå has focused on integrated planning, measuring quality of life linked with sustainability.

Swedish cities thus appear to be global models of sustainability. Indeed, the urban districts of Hammaerby Sjöstad in Stockholm and Western Harbour in Malmö regularly attract throngs of urban planners from the world over, eager to learn or mimic the innovative and high-tech sustainability efforts underway in these cities.

Those efforts are finding parallel at the national level, too. Sweden’s burgeoning reputation for urban sustainability has often been reinforced by the repeated claim at the national level that the country has successfully managed to decouple economic growth from its emissions performance.

But what about the country’s “ecological footprint”? This measure takes into account consumption-based emissions from the goods and services consumed by Swedes but that may be produced abroad. In fact, it tells a far different story.

As set out in WWF’s latest Living Planet Report, Sweden ranks among the worst such performers, along with Australia, the United States and the UAE. Today, the average Swede uses the equivalent of four times the planet’s per-person capacity — and most of this footprint stems from activities taking place in the country’s cities.

Containing ‘spillover’

But a new process is currently unfolding that could offer a key opportunity to rethink how Sweden’s cities function — even, potentially, pushing back on this trend of unsustainable consumption.

The government is formulating the country’s first-ever national urban policy. In part, this is seen as a means to cement the country’s implementation of the New Urban Agenda, the global agreement on sustainable cities adopted last year to support the U. N.’s broader Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

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