Scandificate – verb: to embellish stories from Scandinavia

Proxima’s Calum Revfem busts a few Scandinavian sustainability myths, and explains what we can learn from them in New Zealand.

Sweden recycles 99% of its waste’ reads the attention-grabbing headline on my LinkedIn feed. Further down is a link to an article that the ‘Number of bikes in Copenhagen has overtaken cars’. Next is a story about Norway’s revolutionary uptake of electric cars. Wow! These Scandinavians have really got sustainability sorted! Or have they?

Everyone likes a good Scandinavian sustainability story – just like the Sagas of old. But beware! Lack of context and innocently careful editing can result in Scandification of these awe-inspiring stories. These stories of sustainable conquest merit closer scrutiny; just in case we find ourselves looking up to our Viking heroes for navigational clues, only to find we have unwittingly misled ourselves or, worse still, wasted our time and money.

Sweden has ridiculously high recycling rates

Sweden is proud of its waste management. So proud they even feature a story on recycling on their official webpage. It is true that many Swedes meticulously sort waste in different waste streams and bring it to their dense network of recycling stations. However, it is equally true that the rest of the waste – still about half of the volume – is incinerated and the recycling only relates to recovering the energy in that waste. It is then used to heat buildings through local district heating schemes. This is so successful that Sweden imports about the same volume of waste from other European countries as goes to landfill around Auckland each year, as a cheap fuel to keep themselves warm.

Denmark: Bikes, bikes and even more bikes

Copenhagen is a beautiful city endowed with plenty of accessible and healthy community infrastructure. There are a lot of bikes, easy public transport and plentiful cycle-ways. In fact, if you’re visiting, I’d recommend cycling as a great way to move around the city.

At the same time car ownership rates in the city are growing faster than ever before, putting immense pressure on public and residential parking space. Traffic volumes and congestion are also on the rise, along with critical trip times to the airport and other key locations around the city. In many ways Copenhagen has all the similar growth pains experienced by popular liveable cities like Auckland, including bubble-like housing prices and astronomical rents. Not all great news for Copenhageners, but read on for more positive news about Danish housing.

Norway: 100% Electric Vehicles by 2025

I have never seen so many Teslas as I did in Oslo. In fact, I have never seen so many EV charging stations in public parking spaces either. So how has the largest oil exporter outside of the Gulf States driven this prolific uptake in EV’s? Simple – subsidies. In a country where the purchase of a vehicle can include up to 100% in taxes and other on-road costs, the Government has taken a huge gamble. Removing the 25% of GST on EV’s, making EV’s exempt from road tolls, and providing free charging infrastructure has put a significant dent in Government revenue while putting a smile on the face of new EV owners.

Denmark tried something similar, and when subsidies were removed in 2015, the new car EV market nearly collapsed overnight. Hopefully Norway can build the critical momentum to get to a point where subsidy removal is possible without stepping backwards in EV uptake. Time will tell. All the while the Norwegian oil industry marches northward to explore new opportunities, including the Arctic basin. It’s the economy stupid! Yes, Norway is absolutely an oil economy, as reflected by the low value of the Norwegian Kroner in response to current flat oil prices (respite for travellers in the world’s most expensive country).

Scandification: Too good to be true?

I’m not here to bag the Scandinavians, and they are taking decisive and bold action to address their major national sustainability challenges. Over 10,000 years of planning for long winters and short summers has taught them a thing or two about survival.

My myth-busting observations around Scandinavian success stories was balanced by an awareness that in New Zealand we often dine-out on overseas sustainability examples. Yet, all too often, we don’t take the time to understand the complexity of the problem, or more importantly how it has been addressed in its local context. Perhaps, in our search for quick, proven fixes to our own difficult problems we are quick to assume that (like the Abba songs we all love) if it works over there, it will work over here.

The evidence I saw in Scandinavia of truly inspiring sustainability success stories was in the green building field. Three examples stood out:

  1. A full-page advertisement in a regional Danish newspaper from a company building zero-energy houses on a materials-only basis for around NZD 800 per square metre.
  2. A Norwegian super-market chain building an ultra-eco-concept store to celebrate its 40th year in business.
  3. A Danish home-building company offering near-Passiv houses for $2,700 per square metre with ground-source heating, airtightness, underfloor heating and a mechanical heat recovery ventilation system. And guess what? There was no mention of eco or sustainable anywhere near the house description.

Salaries and household income are approximately 1.6 times higher in Denmark than in New Zealand. So, in terms of relative affordability, you can build a high spec sustainable house in Denmark for around $500 per square metre (materials only) or less than $1,700 per square metre built.

There are good reasons why you can build affordable sustainable homes in Denmark. First, there’s healthy diversity in the building materials supply chain, which drives both competition and innovation in the market; and, second, there are strong regulations controlling home energy standards.

Things are also moving quickly, being driven by ever lifting standards. One energy certificate in a show home I visited demonstrated how the house performed against the 2015 home energy standard, and what its rating will be when the higher standard is introduced in 2020.

Take outs for New Zealand

While we can look to Scandinavia for some great sustainability success stories, we might benefit by focussing first on how they do things, before we get too carried away by what they do. Three aspects stand out to me, which we’d do well to reflect on:

  • Strong and purposeful government policy in targeted areas
  • Industry leadership in genuinely a competitive market
  • An ability to adapt quickly and an expectation that the bar will continue to rise

There seems to be a growing number of voices in New Zealand agreeing that we need to start tackling some of the difficult issues. And not just the obvious environmental ones, like water, Greenhouse gas emissions and waste; but the more difficult social ones too, like wealth disparity, home affordability and youth suicide. If we want to make sure that our people, communities and society enjoy genuine prosperity and maintained wellbeing, we have no choice. It will not be easy. There are no quick fixes. And overseas experience tells us it will take some grit and courage.

The major insight for me from Scadinavia is that we’ll need to find our own path, learning from others and adapting those lessons to our own context. Just as Team New Zealand showed; thinking for yourself, aiming big, and taking some carefully calculated risks is a recipe for innovation, even with very limited financial resources. It’s about self-belief, determination and creative thinking – three things that Kiwis have demonstrated on the sporting world-stage many times over.

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