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GOTHENBURG, Sweden – Volvo is fighting to ensure that an emissions-free city is not a car-free city.
Ground Zero is the hometown of Chinese automaker of Gothenburg, where there is increasing pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and rethink the role of the car – weighed against the economic importance of the largest employer. of the region which provides 23,000 jobs.
It is also a low-lying coastal town whose very existence could be threatened by climate change. And a growing number of Swedes are calling on politicians to take bolder climate action.
The country’s Left Party is leading the charge against cars in Gothenburg, pushing a proposal to exclude them from central areas of the city to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Shutting down cars is “the fastest and most efficient way to reduce emissions, noise and air pollution,” said Gertrud Ingelman, local Left Party MP. Among the party’s campaign proposals ahead of next year’s local elections, the focus will be on reducing car use, she said.
This puts Volvo in a bind. The company has long touted itself as different from its rivals in the automotive industry – touting its track record in developing features like seat belts and safety over power. It is also making a big bet on electric cars, committing to go all-electric by 2030.
But green and clean doesn’t mean people should stop driving cars.
“We constantly want to increase the customer benefits of driving a pure electric Volvo car,” said Henrik Green, chief technology officer, this summer.
Volvo is setting out its vision of how to bring cars into a post-fossil city at its new innovation center in the Lindholmen district of Gothenburg.
The company hopes the center can become a launch site for new technologies and services within “electrification, shared mobility, autonomous driving, connectivity and safety” that will ensure Volvo a role in the carbon-neutral project that Gothenburg city planners see emerging by the end of the decade.
“We want to participate in creating the cities of the future and keep them livable,” Volvo Cars CEO Håkan Samuelsson said at the launch of an initiative called Green City Zone, which targets emission-free transport in a northern strip. -South. of Gothenburg by 2030. “This initiative gives us the opportunity to do that and to take responsibility in our own city.
But keeping cars on the streets isn’t what critics are looking for.
As Volvo refines its clean technologies, fossil fuel vehicles will continue to emit greenhouse gases as they pass through the city, while even electric car tires grind road surfaces into dangerous particles suspended in the air. ‘air, they say. The production phase – if not the use phase – of EVs also generates significant emissions.
No yield for cars
The activists’ vision for a green Gothenburg is playing out in Grönsakstorget, a square that runs along a canal near the city’s main shopping district.
Site of a former vegetable market, the square is now a very busy parking lot where motorists have to compete to grab the spaces as they become available. On an adjacent road, the queue of cars steadily stretches hundreds of meters in length.
One Saturday in mid-August, activists from the Left Party and NGOs, including Friends of the Earth, gathered here to distribute leaflets calling on residents to support a motion to evict the cars and return the space for local traders and self-propelled passers-by. .
On the protest’s social media page, a photo showed the plaza once dotted with cyclists, pedestrians and merchants.
“Many cities in Europe have invested in large car-free spaces in central areas,” said a petition for the campaign. “Instead of a large parking lot, Grönsakstorget could be a meeting place, with green spaces, benches and the possibility of having a coffee. The city should be designed for people and not for cars.
For some, the example to follow is Barcelona, where town planners have developed so-called car-free superblocks where pedestrians and cyclists have priority over motorists. In the same vein, the authorities of the Brussels district of Saint-Gilles recently published plans to stop using the square in front of its town hall for parking cars, opening a debate on what it could still be used.
Other cities like Paris are crushing cars by reducing speed limits to 30 kilometers per hour and building more and more cycle lanes. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo wants to ban cars from downtown by next year.
These efforts are motivated by a shift in public opinion about the climate – something that is also happening in Sweden. The number of Swedes who said “environment and climate” was the most important political issue rose 9 percentage points to 43 percent in the past three months, according to a recent poll by pollster Novus, the fastest increase of all problems in the survey.
With cars and vans accounting for almost 15% of the EU’s CO2 emissions, this concerns the boomerangs against cars.
The spike in opinion follows the recent United Nations scientific report that extreme weather events – like the flash floods that hit the Swedish town of Gävle in August – will become more frequent.
“In Gävle, the roads were impassable and people had to cross the flood waters,” Left Party leader Noshi Dadgostar said in a speech last week in a local park in Gothenburg. “This type of weather is more and more common because of climate change – Sweden needs to act, to reset.”
As fears about the climate crisis soar on the political agenda, and with local and national elections on the horizon, politicians are likely to be increasingly aware of people’s expectations that they are doing more. to reduce emissions.
Yet Ingelman’s party has its work cut out for it.
At a recent Gothenburg city council meeting, his motion to block downtown cars was almost unanimously rejected, in part out of concern for inner city businesses, who claimed they would suffer. financial losses if customers could not park closer to them.
As activists fight to drive cars out of the heart of the city, the old ways continue nearby. In the immediate vicinity of Lindholmen, site of the Volvo research center, a new road bridge and a multi-lane motorway are under construction while a barge moored under the bridge has announced hundreds of parking spaces.
But Ingelman said she wasn’t giving up. “We need to start working now to transform some of these spaces. We have to rethink. “
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