Swedish environmental lessons

With help from a climate-conscious nordic town, four U.S. families lessen their carbon footprint.

Gunnar Seijbold/Swedish Presidency/EU
Maud Olofsson (center back), Sweden’s deputy prime minister, stands with members from three US households that are participating in an energy saving program linked to the town of Kalmar, Sweden. They are Nolan Stokes (left) and his children Leila and Ryker (front); Isaiah and Mya Akin (right); and Angela Ulsh (left of center).
Gunnar Seijbold/Swedish Presidency/EU
Deputy Prime Minister Olofsson (right) took part in a July 1 groundbreaking for a geothermal heating system at home of Nolan Stokes (left), whose children, Ryker and Leila, look on.

Gathered around a dining room table in a typical home in this suburban Virginia community, four people are talking about the lifestyle changes they've made in order to live more sustainably.

"I don't think we've had beef since July 1," says Nolan Stokes, a financial planner. In addition, "we all eat smaller portions of meat." Angela Ulsh, a teacher, chimes in: "You don't miss it."

"We got a digital thermostat and cut our electricity use in half because of it," says Isaiah Akin, a Senate staffer, as his wife, Mya, a teacher, nods and adds, "The changes don't have to be a burden."

A woman wearing a purple suit and stylish glasses listens to this recitation of changes undertaken to benefit the environment and smiles.

"Every day you have to make choices," she says. "You cannot live a perfect life, but you can do so many things."

She's Maud Olofsson, Sweden's deputy prime minister. During a November visit to the United States she visited the group, whose members are part of a Swedish-sponsored environmental initiative that teaches people how to reduce their carbon footprints.

On July 1 last year, four households in the Washington metropolitan area were designated "Climate Pilots" and embarked on a seven-month program. Two were couples with children, one was a childless couple, and one was a single woman. The first order of business: looking at four areas of their lives – food, spare time, energy, and traveling – and how those affect the environment.

A series of worksheets guided group members through exercises designed to increase their awareness and cut down on their use of nonrenewable resources.

The Swedish Embassy in Washington facilitated the program, but the impetus behind it belongs to the city of Kalmar in southern Sweden. It's part of a region that has pledged to be fossil-fuel-free by 2030, and officials there ran a similar, although more rigorous, initiative in 2007 with 12 Swedish families.

Coping with climate change is a priority for Sweden, so to highlight both the issue and the program's success, Kalmar suggested that the embassy re-create it in the US on a smaller scale.

"We thought that was a wonderful idea, very much in line with what we were doing and with our president's priorities," said Lars Roth of the Swedish Embassy. "It's one thing to talk about international negotiations and climate change, and another thing to bring it down to earth and have four families involved and see if it's possible."

Those who took part knew one another before the program began. Mrs. Akin and Ms. Ulsh teach second grade at Congressional Schools of Virginia, and the other two families have children in their classes. All had been interested in trying to live more sustainably.

Although the project didn't require participants to give up their car keys or pledge to stop shopping for six months, they did have to rethink many areas of their lives.

They began paying closer attention to how often they shopped and whether they really needed to use their car for every errand.

Because the program emphasized that the biggest impact humans have on the environment comes from food cultivation and transportation, they also altered their eating habits, eating less meat, especially beef, which, they discovered, has more of an impact on the environment than fish or poultry. "We learned a lot about eating lower on the food chain," said Mr. Akin. "We found a local dairy for milk, cottage cheese, and eggs. When you start eating fresher food … it's hard to go back."

Another area of reevaluation was use of electricity and heat. "I talked to my roommates about turning off lights," said Ulsh. "We started to keep it cooler and wear extra sweaters, and it's been great." The small changes have had a double benefit: Not only are they good for the environment, but they've saved money, too.

In the beginning, some of the Climate Pilots wondered if cutting their carbon footprint would be expensive. "I was a little nervous, wondering if this is going to entail me spending more money, because I don't have it," said Ulsh. "But it's saved me money. Our bills went down."

The Akins agreed. "The programmable thermostat has saved us a ton of money," said Mrs. Akin. "And even though we have the dairy [products] delivered, it's less than it'd be at a regular store, for the amount we eat." But some voluntary changes, such as major energy efficiency upgrades, have larger upfront costs, as Mr. Stokes can attest.

Going deeper than light bulbs

No one took to the challenge quite like Stokes, who says he simply needed the impetus provided by the program to go beyond the basics and begin to methodically examine his family's energy consumption. "I just had to believe that being green is more than recycling and putting in compact fluorescent lights," he said.

The owner of the house where the meeting with Ms. Olofsson took place, Stokes is fond of saying, "What gets measured gets done." The program gave him a reason to begin measuring everything, including the gas and electric bills, and the amount of trash the family threw out weekly.

In response, he and his wife and two children made major changes: replacing half their windows with more efficient ones, lowering the temperature on their hot water heater to 120 degrees F., reducing their household waste by half, and changing their dishwasher and laundry settings.

Stokes also researched renewable energy sources and decided to invest in a geothermal heat pump, which uses the earth's constant temperature to heat and cool a building. He found that this is a good time to install a geothermal system, since the purchase earns a 30 percent tax credit.

Even with that, it isn't inexpensive. The cost is about $30,000, but it should pay for itself and begin saving the family money after seven years.

That's not all the alternative energy system will save. Because more than half a home's energy use is related to heating and cooling, "we're going to be able to accomplish a very meaningful reduction in energy use," Stokes said.

Still, despite the Stokeses' efforts, the changes the American families have made in their lives pale beside the Swedes' accomplishments a couple of years before. Members of the Kalmar group had to quantify the fossil fuel impact of every purchase they made and were even asked to examine their use of time and whether rushing led to inefficient or environmentally harmful decisions.

The result? A 32 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by the Swedish group. Although the Washington families didn't measure their carbon footprint either before or during the program, it's fairly clear that they didn't reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by a third. That's not just because the Swedish version of the program was stricter. In some areas of their lives, the Americans found that their habits were virtually impossible to change. Take transportation, for example. In most Swedish cities, residents can walk out their doors, board a bus or a train, and go just about anywhere they want.

Challenge of cultural differences

In contrast, the northern Virginia suburbs, where the families live, feature a web of wide boulevards lacking sidewalks or crosswalks, and public transportation goes only so far.

The result is that, as in most areas of the United States, using an automobile and burning fossil fuel as an individual driver is largely unavoidable. As the Akins pointed out, even if they want to go hiking, they have to get in their car first and drive to the hiking area.

The ability of the Swedes to decrease their environmental impact more than the Americans can also be traced to cultural differences. As Ulsh and Mrs. Akin, who visited Kalmar this summer, can attest, Swedes are more concerned about being good stewards of their environment.

"There were recycling bins everywhere, and regular people doing small things," remembered Akin.

"In general, people bike and walk more, and the cities are structured differently. They're not so dependent on cars," Ulsh said. "It's amazing – there's a community spirit and you know that everyone's doing [things to help the environment], so you're making much more of an impact."

Ulsh's comment came a few weeks after Deputy Prime Minister Olofsson's visit, on an evening when the Climate Pilots were gathered around the Stokeses' dining room table again. In light of the international climate talks then occurring in Copenhagen, the question arose: Would the US ever be like Sweden on the environmental front?

Stokes was optimistic: "Once you know these things [that are harmful to the environment], you can't in good conscience continue doing them," he said, musing that one day people will be deemed "uncool" if they drive inefficient vehicles or eat a lot of beef.

"We'll look back at the '70s and '80s and say, 'Remember when we used to do that?' But it's like [the campaign to reduce] smoking – it takes a long time," he added. Others weren't so sure Americans would measure up.

"I think there's a lot of resistance here to changing the culture and the community to be more ecological," said Mr. Akin. "I think people want what's convenient, not necessarily what's better for future generations. But when things get so expensive that they have to cut back, they do."

Experts are also divided on whether projects such as this are worthwhile. John Rogers, a senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, supports initiatives, such as the Climate Pilots, that challenge people to change their behavior. "I cast my vote for individual action," he said. "Small changes make a difference, and these things can have a real impact once you aggregate them."

Small changes not enough

"Any time there's an effort to draw attention to living more sustainably, it's beneficial," said Erik Assadourian, who's in charge of the Worldwatch Institute's annual report, State of the World, which examines Western culture's impact on the environment. "Efforts like this help open people to new ideas and begin to normalize these behaviors."

However, Mr. Assadourian cautions that making small changes to personal behavior may not be enough to end climate change. "The scale of what we're talking about requires a total shift in how we live," he said. "We have to change the culture and consume radically less."

Since the project ended at the end of January, the Climate Pilots will probably stop meeting as a group, but all agree that they'll keep up their sustainable lifestyles. The program, they say, gave them something lasting – an awareness that living green doesn't have to be a monumental task.

"We see now that you don't have to change your whole lifestyle," said Mr. Akin. "You can do small things, bit by bit."

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