08 January 2024

Lysekil, Luleå and Slite. Three locations where the demands for transition to a fossil-free society have upended people’s lives. For several years now, researchers from Linköping University have studied the residents’ stories and sought answers to the question of what is required to make the transition more anchored in society.

Preem's refinery in Lysekil. Preem's refinery in Lysekil. Sandra Hummelgren

In the past, canaries were used in English mines. If the little animals became unconscious, the miners knew that the air was becoming dangerous to breathe. The birds were the first warning sign.

Professor Eva Lövbrand at the Department of Thematic Studies, Environmental Change (TEMAM), refers to the three localities, Lysekil, Luleå and Slite, as “the canaries of climate transition”. They all have heavy industry that is responsible for a large share of Sweden’s total carbon dioxide emissions. The demands for transition are therefore great and those who live here are intensely aware of it.

“We’ve sometimes talked about these places as being on the front line of the transition. It’s a bit like with the canaries. Here we see what the transition means,” says Eva Lövbrand.

Eva Lövbrand and  Anna Bohman.Eva Lövbrand and Anna Bohman. Photo credit Charlotte Perhammar In a three-year research project, they have interviewed municipal politicians, industry representatives, trade unionists and ordinary locals. The idea has been to capture citizens’ thoughts about what the transition means in these locations and how climate policy affects them. These are local voices that are otherwise missing in the debate, according to the researchers.

Three locations - three perspectives

It turns out that although these locations have a lot in common, there are also differences.

In Lysekil, Preem’s refinery is part of the city’s soul. The demands for transition create a kind of identity crisis, according to the researchers’ interviews. People ask themselves what they and the community will be without the oil industry. The demands for change evoke nostalgia and uncertainty.

In Luleå, the mood is partly different. SSAB and the steel industry are already in the process of transition. Production is to become fossil-free. The locals are proud of this, but there is also some concern. What will happen to the rivers in northern Sweden when SSAB triples its electricity consumption?

It’s a bit like with the canaries. Here we see what the transition means

In Slite, on the island of Gotland, the cement factory is located in the middle of the village and limestone quarries surround the site. The environmental effects are very tangible. There is concern about the impact of lime mining on groundwater and biodiversity, but also just as much concern about what will happen when production has to change.

“It’s a recurring theme in Slite. That Gotland’s nature is being sacrificed so that climate-neutral cement can build the fossil-free society on the mainland. In Slite, it’s a matter of ecological survival here and now. In Luleå, the journey toward the future has already begun and in Lysekil it’s still mainly about history,” says Eva Lövbrand.

Calling out for dialogue

The interviews also reveal common features between the localities. The fear of jobs disappearing, of course, but also the conflict between country and city. The feeling that the conditions for climate transition are determined elsewhere and that the burdens are not being fairly distributed.

The researchers conclude that there is no forum for dialogue between politicians at the national level and local citizens. People in all three locations are calling for talks about the future where they can have a say.

“If you want to recognise that citizens’ voices also matter, it’s important to create space for dialogue and actively show interest in listening,” says Anna Bohman, associate professor at TEMAM.

The research study can be said to be part of the dialogue that the residents lacked, but the transition can also be difficult to talk about. It is not entirely obvious that you, as a Lysekil resident, would talk openly about being critical of the industry that so many depend on.

An artwork from the project.The researchers used art as a method. Photo credit Sandra Hummelgren

Art as a method of research

To get a little deeper, researchers have used art as a method. Locals have been invited to create textile art, photos or sound recordings. This resulted in an exhibition that formed the end of the project.

“Art doesn’t talk down to people. It opens up for conversations that become quite permissive. It was a nice way to invite more people to talk and hear other things than just what’s said in an interview situation,” says Eva Lövbrand.

The study was funded by Formas and was carried out in collaboration between the University of Linköping and the University of Newcastle.

Translation: Anneli Mosell

Publications: Catalyzing industrial decarbonization: the promissory legitimacy of fossil-free Sweden, V Brodén Gyberg, E Lövbrand. Oxford Open Climate Change, Volume 2, Issue 1, 2022, doi: 10.1093/oxfclm/kgac004
Transitioning unions: what constitutes a just transition for Swedish trade unions? J Gärdebo. Oxford Open Climate Change, Volume 3, Issue 1, 2023, doi: 10.1093/oxfclm/kgac006
In the Shadow of an Oil Refinery: Narrating Just Transitions in the City of Lysekil, E Lövbrand, V Brodén Gyberg. Included in: Governing toward a green decarbonized state: The interplay between state and non-state actors in Sweden, [ed] Bäckstrand, K., Marquardt, J., Nasiritousi, N., and Widerberg, O. (eds), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023, 1
More than one story: remaking community and place in Sweden’s transition to a fossil free society, A Bohman, C Evers, E Lövbrand. Ingår i Local Environment: the International Journal of Justice and Sustainability, 2024, doi: 10.1080/13549839.2023.2300959

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