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Daring Cities Podcast, Episode 7: Malmö, Sweden

Welcome to the Daring Cities podcast, where we talk to urban leaders around the world who are taking radical climate action to prepare for, adapt to and tackle the climate emergency. In this episode, we visit Malmö, Sweden. This Scandinavian city has plans to form Europe’s first cross-border carbon-neutral zone with its neighbor, Copenhagen. At the same time, Malmö finds itself grappling with how to be “climate neutral” in a connected world where you can only act on the emissions you can control.

Show notes

  • Host: Julia Scott
  • Produced by: ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability
  • Music credits: Ketsa, Chad Crouch


Episode transcript

Julia Scott: [00:00:05] In this episode of Daring Cities, we visit Malmo, Sweden. This Scandinavian city was one of the first in the world to attach the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals to every aspect of its policy and planning, from ocean life to infrastructure.

Simon Chrisander: [00:00:20] That’s something that in our budget, for example, everything is related to the goals, and it really gives us a good direction.

Julia Scott: [00:00:28] Malmo is growing without sacrificing its goal of becoming Sweden’s most climate friendly city. Part of that vision includes a massive regional collaboration with its neighbor, Copenhagen, Denmark, to get both cities on the same page when it comes to climate action and the economy.

Simon Chrisander: [00:00:45] Our idea is to create a new connection to Copenhagen that’s going to be very important for the environmental aspect and sustainability.

Julia Scott: [00:00:59] Welcome to the Daring Cities podcast, where we talk to urban leaders around the world who are taking radical climate action to prepare for, adapt to, and tackle the climate emergency. Cities are taking daring steps towards solving the climate crisis and finding ways to navigate opposition — and support — from unexpected places as they go.

Julia Scott: [00:01:20] I’m your host, Julia Scott. Daring Cities is produced by ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability. ICLEI is a global network of more than 2,000 local and regional governments committed to sustainable urban development. We drive local action for low-emission, nature based, equitable, resilient and circular urban development.

Julia Scott: [00:01:51] Water from the Oresund Strait rushes by Malmo. It’s a port city that lives directly across the water from Denmark on one of the world’s densest traffic waterways. Malmo is south of Stockholm on the Baltic Sea. Access to the Baltic has defined Malmo’s life and its industry for two centuries.

Julia Scott: [00:02:10] But since the 90s, its shipbuilding and manufacturing economy has given way to greener and more diverse industries.

Simon Chrisander: [00:02:17] It’s been really an industrial city, and it’s not that anymore. There used to be shipyards that built submarines and ships, and we kind of transitioned to a more service, maybe knowledge-based economy.

Julia Scott: [00:02:32] That’s Simon Chrisander, the city’s municipal councilor for Urban Planning and the Environment. Now the Oresund is redefining Malmo again based on what’s across the water. When I was in college, I took a ferry from Copenhagen to Malmo for the day. I remember cruising by a phalanx of massive wind turbines that looked like floating skyscrapers. Little did I know that I was one of the ferry’s last passengers. In the year 2000, the Oresund bridge opened and united both cities via bridge and tunnel in ten minutes. The ferries ended and the modern phase of Malmo’s growth began.

Simon Chrisander: [00:03:07] So the other southern region is really trying to use all the value that Copenhagen, Malmo and Lund brings together. So we have a lot of people from Malmo and Lund that commute daily over to Copenhagen, to Denmark, to work, because Copenhagen has attracted a lot of headquarters for companies.

Julia Scott: [00:03:30] That third city he mentioned is Lund, Malmo’s inland sister city. It’s become common for people to settle in Malmo or Lund, where home prices are more affordable, and commute to Copenhagen. But this partnership goes way deeper than commerce.

Simon Chrisander: [00:03:44] From my standpoint, we’re focusing on Malmo becoming carbon neutral. And I know that Copenhagen has very ambitious goals as well.

Julia Scott: [00:03:54] Malmo is working with Copenhagen to make the Oresund region Europe’s first cross-border carbon neutral zone. In practice, this means Malmo will be supplied by 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. It also calls for a pretty radical vision of principaled development, where both cities benefit from growth without taxing the environment.

Julia Scott: [00:04:19] Malmo’s sustainable ambitions date back decades. It’s been a member of ICLEI since 1996. In 2012, Malmo became a member of the Procura+ Europe Sustainable Procurement Network, and it now goes out of its way to source sustainable and ethically certified products. Its choices were recently recognised with the EU Cities for Fair and Ethical Trade Award. In 2015, it was the first city in Sweden to announce that it would adopt the UN’s goals for sustainable development as local goals.

Simon Chrisander: [00:04:50] We kind of have, here in the South, I think, a little bit of a little bit of a cocky attitude. But we want to be first with things and we have. Right now, and for quite some time, our focus is to have a sustainability when it comes to economic aspects, environmental and social.

Julia Scott: [00:05:07] Unless you follow these sorts of things, you may not know that the U.N. adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. They cover everything a society needs to be healthy, peaceful and livable… From reducing inequality and ending hunger, to responsible production and clean energy. Simon Chrisander explains that these goals now govern everything his city decides to do, like serving only organic food and schools, as well as what it won’t do, like expand Malmo’s footprint outward. It’s decided to densify instead.

Simon Chrisander: [00:05:40] We want biodiversity and so forth, and the surroundings are really agricultural land, some of the best in Europe. In general, there has been an approach to be in fairly restrictive about using agricultural land for development. But with the global goals, maybe there’s more attention on really being cautious when we make decisions like that.

Julia Scott: [00:06:01] In Malmo, these goals don’t just fade into the background. They’re proudly displayed on banners around town. Mr. Chrisander sees them when he bikes his sons to school.

Simon Chrisander: [00:06:11] You know, the kids are like, what are these signs now? You have to talk to them about it. So we’re trying to bring attention to it.

Julia Scott: [00:06:18] Malmo’s goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 applies to the whole city. That’s going to be a challenge because of where most of that renewable energy comes from. Malmo is in southern Sweden. It gets wind power and hydro from the north.

Simon Chrisander: [00:06:33] So we produce a lot of energy, but most of it is up north. And if you don’t have a proper grid to bring all that energy down south, then you’re going to have an issue. So that’s why we need to have more local production of energy.

Julia Scott: [00:06:46] Sometimes in the winter, southern Sweden has to burn oil to make up the difference. Malmo also burns trash to power its heating grid. Its carbon emissions are significant, according to Mr. Chrisander.

Julia Scott: [00:07:01] Geothermal could be really big for Malmo. Already in Malmo’s Western Harbor District, which is in a former shipyard, a geothermal heat pump system supplies energy to area residents. Now a major energy company is in Malmo testing out a geothermal system that could heat way more homes, just using water and the earth’s natural thermal energy.

Simon Chrisander: [00:07:22] So it’s about one hundred and thirty degrees Celsius down there. So if you can successfully do this, you can send water down, you get water up in a different hole, and then you send that out into heating grid and it’s fossil free.

Julia Scott: [00:07:37] Depending on the geologic setting, this process could be replicable in places that rely on coal and oil all year round.

Simon Chrisander: [00:07:44] Then, you know, if they succeed here, they can bring it to the region. And if you look at Eastern Europe, they have similar heating grids with water.

Julia Scott: [00:07:54] Other legacy problems are proving even harder to solve. Malmo calls itself the ‘city of knowledge’ based on the modern skills that help its communities succeed today. But some of them are being left behind.

Simon Chrisander: [00:08:07] I think it’s fair to say that it’s fairly segregated. We have many neighborhoods that are dominated by people with foreign roots, so to say, and we have certain parts of the city where that is absolutely not the case.

Julia Scott: [00:08:23] Malmo has welcomed immigrants for decades. Former Balkan refugees now form the backbone of much of society. But many newer immigrants live in older housing projects and encounter deprivation and unemployment. They’ve had a harder time breaking into the knowledge economy.

Simon Chrisander: [00:08:37] So we’re battling with trying to, I don’t know if you say desegregate, but trying to mix up the city and trying to create spaces to draw people from each side to the other.

Julia Scott: [00:08:51] Malmo has made large social investments in these areas, but serious discrepancies persist. Life expectancy isn’t equally distributed throughout Malmo, and opportunities vary on the basis of where in the city you grow up.

Simon Chrisander: [00:09:04] But we haven’t fully succeeded. Far from it. I would say because it’s a segregated city where, you know, parts of the city have less opportunity. So it’s not that’s not a city that we strive for.

Julia Scott: [00:09:19] The city has also struggled to overcome a different problem affecting many neighborhoods: flooding. Malmo is flat, and when the streets flood, basements do, too. Sewage overflows and cars float. And with climate change, Mr. Chrisander says city leaders know it’s only going to get worse when it comes to dealing with heavy rains.

Simon Chrisander: [00:09:38] We’ve tried multi-functional solutions, so we have playgrounds that are actually lowered in certain parts of the city. So when there’s heavy rain there, it’s going to flood into those playgrounds. It’s not going to hurt anyone.

Julia Scott: [00:09:53] Rain is good for nurturing Malmo’s ambitions of growing many more public green spaces as the city densifies. Too much rain is really not. So the city is looking up to find solutions. In one neighborhood, Augustenborg, it developed what it says is the world’s first botanical roof garden to improve stormwater management. When it rains, the water drains down into open channels that feed into duck ponds.

Julia Scott: [00:10:18] The green roof zone is big enough to fill two football fields.

Julia Scott: [00:10:27] Yet as Malmo looks ahead at the next decade, there is unfinished work.

Simon Chrisander: [00:10:32] I think if you look at the environmental program for 2021, we have fallen short in many of those aspects.

Julia Scott: [00:10:39] Here’s a big one. Malmo was actually supposed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2020, one of its many ambitious goals. It didn’t make it.

Simon Chrisander: [00:10:48] What does that actually mean? We need to find a way to measure it and we need to be able to say, OK, this is how we’re going to reach that goal. So we’re still working on that.

Julia Scott: [00:10:59] Technically, going carbon neutral means you get to a point where you’re removing more CO2 than you emit, at least theoretically. In the real world, we all share one planet. And as Malmo has recently learned, you can only act on the emissions you can control.

Simon Chrisander: [00:11:15] And some of them are actually outside of where we can really impact things.

Julia Scott: [00:11:20] For instance, he’s been thinking about the packages everyone’s having delivered, especially during the pandemic.

Simon Chrisander: [00:11:26] When it comes to consumption, we consume a lot, you know, we buy stuff online and so forth. Does that count those emissions that are created from those very products? Does that count towards our goals or not? And how do we measure that?

Julia Scott: [00:11:41] What about construction projects within city limits? Do the materials count toward emissions data? And what about the air itself?

Simon Chrisander: [00:11:49] We have pretty good air here, but if you set up very ambitious goals, one also needs to realize that some of the the dirty air is coming in from other places, from other countries, for example.

Julia Scott: [00:12:04] Simon Chrisander wasn’t in the city government when leaders adopted the first climate neutral goals. Now the city is launching a new plan for the coming decade. He wants it to reflect the realities of taking action for change in a very connected world.

Simon Chrisander: [00:12:19] I think it’s going to show that we’re quite daring and we’re willing to put up ambitious goals. Hopefully we’ll be more thorough when it comes to measuring them and really see where we are in relation to the goals. We really need to focus on, you know, what can the city do? We can’t set goals that the national government is going to influence one hundred percent. We need to really focus on what we can do on a local level.

Julia Scott: [00:12:44] For Malmo, the path to becoming Sweden’s most climate friendly city will actually mean looking more inward… Becoming self-sufficient, powering its own future with local energy, growing and consuming local food, reusing what’s available before buying more.

Julia Scott: [00:13:01] At the same time, its regional plan with Copenhagen acknowledges that cities won’t succeed if neighbors aren’t on board… Because climate change does not stop at a city’s doorstep.

Julia Scott: [00:13:18] Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Daring Cities podcast. Daring Cities is produced by me, Julia Scott, with engineering help from Chris Hoff. Special thanks to Simon Chrisander from Malmo, and to Ariel Dekovic from ICLEI.