Carbon accounting in the circular municipality

Material flows in different scales

You would expect that material flows would present their own logic for whether they are best handled in your own home or at a global level. Or scales in between. Factors like material density, value and frequency of use and transport would be obvious candidates.

This article focusses on the municipality and looks specifically at the material flows that contain carbon. And we’ll take a practical example: the area called Västra Gästrikland (VG) in the north of Sweden. This is an area comprising three municipalities in cooperation.

The challenge for Sweden

Sweden emits net around 47 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year, depending on how you calculate and which sources you use. See some statistics here. Consumption-based emissions have a higher uncertainty than the figures for emissions that take place within Sweden’s borders. The Swedish plan, set in law, is to reach net zero by 2045. In the table, the proportions of CO2 emissions/uptake are related to property types and investment needed to reduce the associated emissions. When corporations buy infrastructure – like heavy trucks, logging equipment, boilers, buildings, they expect to use it to make a profit for many years to come. The economic plan therefore, will include retiring emission-causing infrastructure and investing in net zero solutions.

Apart from investments in infrastructure, changes in consumer choices through various incentives including “nudging” will be invested in.

To get an idea of the carbon flow in Västra Gästrikland, I compiled nationally-available statistics in a double-accounting table and worked out the percentage based on population.

Sweden has a population of 10.42 million, and VG has 56 000. The table is shown below.

How to read the table:

The table is based on the carbon flows related to the various types of property listed on the left. To adapt this property to net zero we should have some kind of investment estimate.
(1) The Net column is the sum of the columns to the right.
(2) CO2 taken up is from the various forms of property listed on the far left. For example in row two, forests sequester 861 million tonnes CO2 but logging potentially releases 646 million tonnes by removing trees to be used as industry inputs. (Column (3).)
(4) The CO2 coming from burning biomass – biogen – is listed in this column.
(5) The major challenge, fossil-fuel burning, Is listed against the various property classes int he final column.

The bottom row gives us a grand total of 278 million tons of CO2 emitted in the area, and the totals for the various sources of emission and absorbtion.

A column for input to the property would have been useful, I have omitted this one because of time constraints. Basically, some 9-12% of all harvested wood goes into buildings where the carbon is stored for many years. This explains the figure -29. The rest is turned into paper and other short-lived products where the carbon eventually, after two years, ends up in the atmosphere.

How relevant is it to use municipal figures?

The reason we have all the types of industries is to supply goods and jobs to citizens throughout the country. And people require more or less the same things wherever they are: housing, heating, food, transport etc. This is the value of using national statistics at local level.

What does the table tell us? What questions do we need to ask at municipal level?

The heavy fossil-source CO2 emitters

Most fossil fuel burnt in Sweden is in the transport industry. The questions to ask a municipal level, to pave the way to net zero emissions follow below.

Note that private, car transport is 62% of all national transport. So ways to increase public transport and decrease the need for individual transport are needed.

How can we reduce road transport demand overall, for people as a first priority and then goods?

Q 1

How can transport be defossilized?


The second largest emitter is industry.

To what extent can the municipality encourage using or reusing products for longer, reducing manufacturing?


The biogen emission from buildings come mainly from burning biomass to keep warm.

How can municipalities encourage insulation of buildings to reduce demand for bio fuel burning?

The heavy CO2 absorbers

This is unique for Sweden in Europe, but the forests absorb far more carbon dioxide than each person emits. However, what tips the balance is the huge amount of forestry that takes place for short-lived products.

How can the municipality encourage more forest growth and less cutting for short-lived products and biofuel?


Can the municipality set aside forest areas to help sequester carbon during the period 2024-2045?


Reconciling the need to adapt to climate whilst providing services

All of the above questions are technical and refer to the built and natural capital in the area. Municipalities are service providers too.

How can we deal with the challenges the answers to Q1-6 throw up whilst (a) ensuring we adapt our municipality to be able to better withstand climate change effects whilst (b) fulfilling the obligations of service in our social contract


Exploring municipal climate strategies further. Symbiosis.

As noted earlier, much of what drives emissions is infrastructure and corporations that are already invested in. The longer the infrastructure can be used, the better. For the climate, the fast this infrastructure can be replaced with non-emitting alternatives, the better.

One approach is urban symbiosis – connecting infrastructure in a way that maximises use and minimises waste. And nature-based, that is relying on nature to provide energy and materials to reduce reliance on fossil sources. The video below explains the approach.

Asking questions like this and doing high-level analysis raises many questions for municipalities struggling with the day to day need to provide services for citizens.

In coming articles we will be exploring approaches to manage the trade-off between accelerating transition to a more circular economy whilst ensuring or even improving local service.

Do feel free to use the comment function below to share your questions in this area.


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