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GÖTEBORG, Sweden – Volvo is fighting to ensure that a zero-emission city is not a car-free city.
Ground Zero is the hometown of the Chinese automaker Gothenburg, where there is growing pressure to cut greenhouse gas emissions and rethink the role of the car – balanced against the economic importance of the region’s largest employer, which offers 23,000 jobs.
It’s also a low-lying coastal city whose very existence could be threatened by climate change. And more and more Swedes are calling on politicians to take bolder climate protection measures.
The country’s Left Party is leading the charge against cars in Gothenburg, pushing for a proposal to ban them from central areas of the city in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Switching off cars is “the fastest and most efficient way to reduce emissions, noise and air pollution,” said Gertrud Ingelman, the local MP for the Left Party. Among the party’s campaign proposals ahead of next year’s local elections will be a focus on reducing car traffic, she said.
That puts Volvo in a bind. The company has long portrayed itself as different from its automotive competitors – extolling its record for developing features like seat belts and striving for safety over horsepower. The company is also heavily reliant on electric cars and is committed to going fully electric by 2030.
But green and clean doesn’t mean people should stop driving.
“We want to constantly increase the customer benefit when driving a purely electric Volvo car,” says Henrik Green, Chief Technology Officer, called this summer.
At its new innovation center in Gothenburg’s Lindholmen district, Volvo is presenting its vision for integrating cars into a city that runs on fossil fuels.
The company hopes the center can become a launch pad for new technologies and services in the area of electrification, shared mobility, autonomous driving, connectivity and safety, which will secure a role for Volvo in Gothenburg’s carbon-neutral urban planning by the end of the year Decade.
“We want to be involved in shaping the cities of the future and keeping them liveable,” said Volvo Cars CEO Håkan Samuelsson on the occasion of the launch of an initiative called Green City Zone, which aims for emission-free transport in a north-south strip of Gothenburg by 2030. “This initiative gives us the opportunity to do this and take responsibility in our own hometown.”
But keeping cars on the streets is not what critics are looking for.
As Volvo refines its cleantech, fossil fuel vehicles will continue to emit greenhouse gases as they traverse the city, while even electric car tires grind road surfaces into dangerous airborne particles, they say. The production phase – if not the use phase – of electric vehicles also causes extensive emissions.
No return on cars
The activists’ vision for a green Gothenburg takes place at Grönsakstorget, a square that runs along a canal near the city’s main shopping area.
The square that used to be a vegetable market is now a busy parking lot, where drivers have to compete against each other to get vacancies. On an adjacent street, the line of cars regularly stretches for hundreds of meters.
On a Saturday in mid-August, Left Party activists and NGOs, including Friends of the Earth, gathered here to hand out leaflets calling on locals to support a request for eviction from cars and to give the space back to local dealers and self-driving passers-by .
On the demonstration’s social media page, a photo showed the place in bygone times, littered with cyclists, pedestrians and stallholders.
“Many cities in Europe have invested in large car-free areas in central locations,” a petition for the campaign said. “Instead of a large parking lot, Grönsakstorget could be a meeting place, with green spaces, benches and a place to have a coffee – the city must be planned for people and not for cars.”
For some, the following is an example Barcelona, where urban planners have developed so-called car-free superblocks in which pedestrians and cyclists have priority over motorists. Similarly, the authorities in the Saint-Gilles district of Brussels recently published plans to stop using the square in front of the town hall as a car park, sparking a debate about what else it could be used for.
Other cities like Paris are displacing cars by lowering the speed limit to 30 kilometers per hour and building more and more bike lanes. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo wants to ban cars from the city center by next year.
These efforts are being driven by a shift in public opinion about the climate – something that is also happening in Sweden. The number of Swedes who named “environment and climate” as the most important political issue rose by 9 percentage points to 43 percent in the last three months opinion poll from polling institute Novus, the fastest increase of all topics in the survey.
With cars and vans accounting for almost 15 percent of the EU’s CO2 emissions related to boomerangs against cars.
The surge of opinion followed the recent United Nations science report, which described extreme weather events like lightning Floods that were hit in August in the Swedish city of Gävle are becoming more common.
“In Gävle the streets were impassable and people had to wade through the floods,” said Left Party leader Noshi Dadgostar in a speech in a local park in Gothenburg last week. “This type of weather is becoming more common due to climate change – Sweden needs to act to reset itself.”
As fears of the climate crisis skyrocket the political agenda and local and national elections are on the horizon, politicians are likely to become more aware of people’s expectations that they will do more to cut emissions.
Still, Ingelman’s party has its work ahead of it.
At a recent meeting of Gothenburg City Council, their request to block cars from the city center was rejected almost unanimously, in part out of concern for downtown businesses who argued they would suffer financial losses if customers didn’t park closer to them could.
While activists struggle to drive cars out of the core of the city, the old ways continue nearby. In the immediate vicinity of Lindholmen, the location of the Volvo research center, a new road bridge and a multi-lane motorway are being built, while a barge moored under the bridge advertised hundreds of parking spaces.
But Ingelman said she wasn’t giving up. “We have to start changing some of these rooms now. We have to rethink. “
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