Lund Building in Sweden photo

The fourth in a series* of on-site reports on little-known energy and climate initiatives in northern Europe.

LUND, SWEDEN — Here’s a conundrum. Sweden is famously dark and chilly. Even in Lund, a college town in far southern Sweden, high temperatures in January average just above freezing. So it takes some effort to keep the 9.4 million Swedes toasty in the wintertime.

It’s no surprise, then, that in Sweden, buildings account for 30 percent of energy consumption. But what’s remarkable is that those buildings produce just 10 percent (PDF) of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions. In the comparatively warm United States, buildings consume 40 percent of the country’s energy and produce 40 percent of emissions. What’s the difference?

The answer, says Nora Smedby, a PhD student at the International Institute for Industrial Economics at Lund University, lies with policy.

“In Sweden, we still believe a lot in regulatory solutions to a lot of our common problems,” she says.

Photo of Lund University, Sweden
Lund University. Sweden is a leader in reducing the carbon footprint of its buildings. Photo: Sara Peach

After the oil crisis of the 1970s, the Swedish government enacted policies to increase the energy efficiency of buildings. During the same period, the country invested in nuclear power, and so relatively low-carbon nuclear power and hydroelectricity dominate the electricity supply today. The government in 1991 also instituted a carbon tax.

Sweden is a highly urbanized country, and city-dwelling Swedes warm their buildings with district heating systems, with central plants generating and pumping heat to many buildings. The 1991 carbon tax drove cities to switch the fuel they use for these systems from coal and oil to biomass and waste incineration.

In rural areas, Smedby notes, grants helped people switch from oil-based heating systems to electric heat pumps.

Under a 2010 European Union directive, all new buildings are required to be “near zero-energy” by 2020, meaning that they must be highly efficient and well-insulated and must produce renewable energy to offset most of the energy consumed.

The result of all of these policies is that Swedes use hardly any fossil fuels to keep warm or keep their appliances humming. Between 1990 and 2010, Swedish greenhouse gas emissions fell by 9 percent even as GDP grew by 51 percent, according to the Swedish government.

Does the Swedish example offer any lessons to the United States? After all, many U.S. college campuses and medical facilities already use district heating systems. But Smedby acknowledges that expanding district heating systems might be a tough sell to Americans: “It’s seen as something socialist,” she says. “It requires a lot of coordination, and in a country where individuality is celebrated, that can be difficult.”

*Read part one, part two, and part three.

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