Carbon Pioneers: A Swedish Family Dramatically Cuts Its CO2 Production

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 12, 2011

The Lindells of Sweden: The sacrifices are worth it. (One Tonne Life photo)
The Lindells of Sweden: The sacrifices are worth it. (One Tonne Life photo)

Just going about our daily routines with what frowning environmentalists call the "high-consumption western lifestyle," Americans generate an average of about 19 tons of carbon dioxide per person per year. Europeans, with their mass transit and other green choices, are much less guilty of destroying the planet--the Swedish average was 5.4 tons in 2007.

I once visited a family in upstate New York so frugal that they generated one bag of trash in a year--it was so singular that the bag went on display at the Smithsonian. And here's a couple in New Zealand who managed that same feat. But it's not easy, and most of us don't do as well.

Is it possible to produce only one ton of CO2 annually? Sure, the Nigerians do better than that--their annual average was a mere 0.6 tons last time I checked. But we're talking here about westerners with cars, dishwashers, computers and iPads. One ton would require a big lifestyle change, surely.

Not as much as you'd think. An ongoing experiment called One Tonne Life in the environmental bastion that is Sweden aims at just that, getting an average Swedish family (well, a very green one) down to just one ton of CO2 per person per year. The key isn't living like a monk, but accessing green technology (including electric cars) we have available to us right now.

I talked to the Lindell family, which consists of Nils and Alicja and their two kids, Jonathan, 14, and Hannah, 17. They live in the suburbs of Stockholm, and they're environmentally aware but not nuts about it. The house isn't theirs; it's a climate-friendly wooden abode created with input from partners Vattenfall (the local utility), Volvo, Siemens and A-hus (which built it). The house has triple-layer walls coated with solar cells, smart meters, and a full rack of green appliances.

The CO2 reduction is gradual, and the family has gone from an average of 7.29 tons four months ago to 3.1 tons right now. "Now we're entering the Swiss Family Robinson period, really trying to get to the One Tonne Life," Nils Lindell told me. "That's the hard part, because it means giving up meat and milk products."

For the kids, it also means reducing access to electronics, which is more important to them than to their parents. And Jonathan's none too happy about going vegetarian. But since the family is already driving an electric car (a Volvo C30, down from the two gas vehicles they used to have), diet is the biggest hurdle ahead.

A snapshot of where the family is right now shows that "meat and fish" produced 59 kilograms of its CO2 output in week 18, far more than anything else. Just switching to a family vegetarian lunch made a big difference. No wonder the United Nations said that the livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas than transportation.

The Lindells and their much-loved Volvo C30. (One Tonne Life photo)
The Lindells and their much-loved Volvo C30. (One Tonne Life photo)

That electric car? Five kilograms, because although it's "zero emission," it's also plugging into the Swedish grid. The website says it runs on renewable energy, presumably meaning the hydro power that supplies half of Sweden electricity. Nobody in the family flew anywhere that week, but if they did that would have been a big CO2 bump. Planes pollute.

Lindell told me that having just one car hasn't crimped their lifestyle too much, though it means a lot more coordination with public transit schedules. And he said that the car's range has been compromised only about 10 percent by Sweden's cold weather. But it gets worse when it's really cold--this video says the car's usual 93-mile range goes down to 50 miles if you drive it in Sweden's north at the Arctic Circle:

"We love the Volvo," Nils Lindell said. "It behaves more or less like a normal car, but it's quiet and easy to drive. The range is sufficient to take us into central Stockholm and back, and for other things we do. And I think because we have children, it's important that it's a safe car, too."

And it's not just the car. The Lindells like their ultra-green house so much they're thinking of buying it after they get to the one-ton milestone, scheduled for about six weeks from now. "We realize that we may have to put up with being somewhat uncomfortable for a few weeks," Lindell said. If they do buy the house (and the car, presumably, too) they'll maintain their status as among the greenest families in Sweden--even if they don't always live the One Tonne Life.

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