Danderyd, Sweden: Perhaps more than most Europeans, Swedes have a love affair with big cozy cars.
And with good reason: Volvo and Saab, two of the world’s best-known brands for comfort and safety, are made right in their own backyard.
“We’re real Svenssons,” said Victoria Klintberg, a teacher who believes her use of a roomy Saab to ferry her two children, a Labrador retriever and her husband, Matti, around town constitutes the essence of Swedishness. “We have to have a station wagon,” she said.
Olle Maberg, a 76-year-old retired executive, got into his four-wheel drive Volvo V70 outside a shopping centre in Danderyd and said, “It feels much safer to be in a big car than in a small one.”
But as concern about global warming ripples across this country, the average Swede’s relationship with comfortable — and highly polluting — cars is becoming strained.
The most recent available European Union statistics show that Sweden has the highest-pollution-emitting cars in Western Europe. Many of those happen to be Volvos and Saabs, which tend to be roomy, high-horsepower models that emit a high count of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.
In 2004, when the average new car in the 15 countries that belonged to the EU at the time spewed out 163 grams of carbon dioxide a kilometre, the equivalent number in Sweden was 196. According to a study by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, the biggest cars in all of Sweden are found here in Danderyd, a wealthy municipality with average emissions of 211 grams a kilometre.
Now a debate is brewing over how to reduce car emissions here — one with important parallels in many other European countries, especially Germany, where citizens also love the bigger, carbon-emitting luxury cars produced by their automakers.
The task was given new urgency in February when the European Commission proposed limiting emissions from new passenger cars to 120 grams of carbon dioxide a kilometre, or 6.8 ounces a mile, by 2012. And it is forcing Swedes to weigh a delicate trade-off between support for their cherished automakers and the nation’s rapidly greening attitude in which a fourth of their energy in 2003 came from renewable sources.
“In the 1950s, when Volvo and Saab made smaller cars for ordinary people, they came to define a typical Swede,” said Gunnar Falkemark, a political scientist who has written extensively about the Swedish car industry. “This sentiment has stuck, and people keep buying them.”
At the end of 2005, Volvo and Saab, which were sold in the 1990s to Ford and General Motors, respectively, together made up more than 40% of the top 10 brands on Swedish roads. Last year, all four top-selling models came from the two carmakers.
The latest version of the No. 2 car on this list, the Saab 9-5 station wagon, has average emissions of 218 grams of carbon dioxide a kilometre. The top-ranking brand, the Volvo V70, which alone made up more than 10% of the market for new cars in 2006, emits 231 grams of carbon dioxide a kilometre, more than 100 grams beyond the new goals set by the European Union.
Analysts agree that the popularity of the two brands is the main factor bumping Sweden to the top of the European Union’s emission list because of their large share of the domestic market.
Because Saab and Volvo make up a crucial part of the Swedish economy, the government — like others in the EU — provides indirect support. The tax code is structured so that company employees receive the maximum tax benefit for driving big new Volvos and Saabs.
“The tax system is tailor-made for these national treasures,” Mr. Falkemark said. The result is that almost half of all new cars sold in Sweden are sold to companies — and half of these are Volvos and Saabs.
“This is where some of the biggest cuts will have to be made,” said Jos Dings, the director of the European Federation for Transport and Environment in Brussels, referring to government support for Saab and Volvo. “In the U.K., company cars are more fuel-efficient than private cars, instead of the other way around, because the tax system encourages fuel efficiency rather than size.”
Use of biofuels
The Swedish car industry, which represents only Volvo and Saab, maintains that it is moving toward emissions reductions and that further regulation is not needed. Technical progress, especially the development of engines using nonfossil-fuels, like ethanol and biodiesel, will allow consumers to enjoy both the comfort they are accustomed to and a clean conscience.
Bertil Molden, the managing director of BIL Sweden, which represents all manufacturers marketing cars in Sweden, including foreign ones, said that environmental standards were quickly improving and that the view of Sweden as the worst emissions offender in Europe would soon be obsolete.
The number of cars running on biofuels in Sweden has risen rapidly in recent years: more than 16% of new cars sold in May were classified by the government as environment friendly because most run on ethanol, up from 13% in the same period a year before.
“The industry has developed products that mean you don’t have to choose between safety and comfort, and environmental friendliness,” Mr. Molden said, pointing to the rising use of biofuels.
At Saab, more than 80% of all new autos sold are so-called biopower cars, meaning they can use ethanol and gas, said a company spokesman, Christer Nilsson.
Niklas Gustavsson, a spokesman for environmental issues at Volvo, said that new technology was moving ahead quickly at the company and that it was also aiming to broaden its offerings of smaller cars.
But environmentalists say the planet cannot wait that long and that Swedes need to learn to drive less comfortably.
Magnus Nilsson, a transport analyst with the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, said the continuous growth in the size and strength of cars must stop, and that technological development would have to be aimed at fuel efficiency, not just replacement fuels. “I’m a big believer in what engineers can accomplish,” he said. “But in the last 20 years, new technology has not been used to make the cars more fuel efficient — just stronger.”
Yet much depends on whether the country can learn to wean itself off its diet of larger cars.
“As global warming becomes more evident,” said Mr. Maberg, the retired Volvo owner, “it will get more and more embarrassing to drive around in a big and heavy car like this.”