Travelling Lightly in Europe – Part III

By David Chernushenko

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of interesting places, stories and interviews. Here are some of the highlights:

Freiburg and Freiamt, Germany

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I came to Freiburg to see for myself what leads the city to call itself the Solar Capital of Europe. And I wanted to visit a couple of fascinating-sounding “sustainable communities”: the Quartier Vauban and Reiselfeld, as well as see some innovative buildings like the Solar Seidlung, designed by solar architecture pioneer Rolf Disch.

I was not disappointed. The Quartier Vauban was a particularly attractive destination “Hey, I could live here,” was the thought my wife and I had as we watched people whizzing by on bikes, trams slide silently down the green (grass-covered) tracks, and kids returning home (alone!) from school.

Surprisingly though, I was most impressed by the way that cycling has been integrated into the city, with infrastructure that makes pedaling safe and attractive. People of all ages are riding. The biggest problem is finding a parking space at the train station — for your bike!

And then, I was blown away by the small town of Freiamt, which has pursued the path of being “100 percent renewable.” Almost all the energy generation is owned by the citizens, privately and collectively, so when the wind turbines (4), solar panels, biomass and small hydro plants generate a profit, the people make and keep the money. Last year Freiamt sold the 30 percent surplus it generated at a profit to the national grid.

For a related Blog, check out this article posted at my Eco Voyager site.

Stockholm, Sweden

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My long-anticipated Swedish tour started in Stockholm on a Sunday, affording me a day to cycle around town. Normally this would be a daunting experience, especially on an old 3-speed fighting my way through traffic. But the little traffic there was posed no threat to me: I was able to wind my way through Stockholm almost entirely on dedicated bike lanes and paths.

The locals complain that their cycling infrastructure needs to be improved in order to attract more cyclists. While they may have a point, everything is relative. Cyclists like me in Canada (and most of the world) would love to have what they have got. With more than 20 percent of local trips being taken on the bicycle in Stockholm, and now with a downtown congestion charge for drivers, Stockholm is heading in the right direction, by bike, by train and sometimes by car.

Linkoping, Sweden

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My visit to Linkoping was a real eye opener. This university- and Saab auto plant-dominated town has made a major commitment to developing sustainably. But what really opened my eyes was the half-day spent seeing and discussing the “waste to energy” power plant.

Linkoping’s plant is operated by Tekniska Verken, which is a “private” utility company but whose shareholders are the citizens. That is an interesting topic in itself, but I digress. The feedstock for the plant is mostly waste – industrial, commercial and household. All those things that cannot be recycled (and believe me, they try to recycle first) become the raw resource for a highly efficient incinerator that produces very low levels of pollution. The entire process is cleaner and produces fewer greenhouse gases than the standard ways we have in Canada of generating electricity and heat, or our messy “solution” to waste management by dumping the majority of our waste in landfills.

Plants like these are CHP (combined heat and power), generating electricity from what is burned (some biomass is burned in addition to the waste stream) and then using the waste heat to provide residential, institutional and commercial heating and cooling (yes, but that one is too complicated for a short blog). The heating is done via a “district heating” network: insulated pipelines that make their way underground throughout the city. Such a heating buy accutane nyc method is highly efficient, providing reliable heat at a much lower cost than other traditional, fossil fuel methods. It is quite standard in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries.

So, why the eye opener? I think it is time for us in Canada to take a good hard look at “waste to energy” systems. They are not the smoky, inefficient beasts they used to be, a misconception that causes many of us to dismiss this option. Does it make sense to burn coal and oil, or to use nuclear energy, with all its costs and long-term risks, to make electricity and generate heat, while at the same time burying our waste, or trucking it hundreds of kilometers so somebody else can bury it for us? I think not! Is modern, high-tech incineration the answer for us? I don’t know yet, but I think we should give this option a very good look before concluding we need to burn more coal or build more nuclear plants.

Vaxjo, Sweden

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Named the “Greenest City in Europe” by the BBC, the city of Vaxjo (population 80,000) has gone on to add several environmental awards to its name. Not bad for a city that attracted a mere four local residents to its first meeting to discuss how to tackle its environmental challenges.

Whereas some cities become more sustainable as the result of popular pressure, Vaxjo is one case where political leadership and municipal staff have been the driving force, working to educate the citizens while moving forward with initiatives that will ultimately benefit the city, its economy, and the quality of life, in addition to protecting nature.

Vaxjo has a goal of becoming Fossil Fuel Free, a decision taken by elected officials from all parties in the local assembly. Hard targets include reducing per capita carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels by 50% by 2010 and 70% by 2015, based on 1993 levels. It is a tall order, and they are only part of the way there. But the number of initiatives currently in place are enough to make the head spin. I guess this is why Vaxjo is on the travel itinerary of any “Eco Voyager” filmmaker, journalist or politician.

Copenhagen, Denmark

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Copenhagen is a city of so many contrasts. So vibrant and beautiful and full of bicycles and trains on the one hand, and yet so full of social challenges, graffiti and private vehicles on the other. But for now, I’ll just look at the bicycles.

When the decision was made more than a decade ago to make Copenhagen the leading bicycle city in the world (a goal the Dutch will have something to say about!), it was a traffic-clogged and fairly polluted city. Much has changed. There are still a lot of car trips being taken, notably in the suburbs and the countryside, but the shift to cycling (or perhaps back to cycling) has been remarkable. Cycling now accounts for over 30 percent of local trips. Cyclists are so numerous you have to look over your shoulder constantly or risk being run down. So, while a good campaign in cycling etiquette may be needed for some of the less responsible riders, most are law-abiding, all-weather riders who have played a critical part in shifting the whole look and feel of Copenhagen – for the better!

Road accidents are actually down as drivers have adjusted their speed and aggression to accommodate the constant presence and vulnerability of the two-wheeled vehicles. The infrastructure for cyclists is extraordinary: special lanes, coloured crossings, dedicated lights and more. There is even a plan for “bicycle highways” coming in from each direction so that cyclists will not have to contend with lights and crossings. One big additional benefit: bicycle sales are way up. This cyclist says, “Way to go Copenhagen”! Oh, and “Get with the program Ottawa/Toronto/Montreal…!”