Kiruna, the paradox of the green transition

Kiruna, the paradox of the green transition

Isolation, darkness, mines, strangers coming and going… Located 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, the Swedish city of Kiruna has everything for a good crime novel and has inspired many writers in recent years.

The interest only increased with the news, official since 2004, that the town was being swallowed up by the land due to mining activity and it was necessary to move thousands of people to a new urban center so that the LKAB company, owned 100% by the State, could continue to operate. The books—many of them part of the publishing phenomenon known as Arctic Noir to which local writer Åsa Larsson belongs – were selling like hotcakes but, paradoxically, the 18,000 inhabitants of Kiruna had nowhere to buy them.

“For 25 years Kiruna didn’t have a bookstore so when we opened 11 years ago it was a great event. We made a lot of people very happy, although at first no one believed in our project and no bank wanted to give us money. They said that this is a mining town and people don’t want to read. The reality is that the local community has been very supportive of us and many tourists came to us looking for information,” recalls Tora Lindberg, owner of Kiruna Bokhandel.

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Mystery novels and the police genre are, in fact, some of the favorites of local readers, he explains in the brand new local that LKAB gave them as part of the massive urban relocation plan agreed with the city council, which, as responsible for environmental damage , you will have to pay and it will cost you about 2,000 million euros. Lindberg is delighted with her store in the new shopping arcade in town. They arrived in September and, although so far only 400 people have moved into the new center, three kilometers to the east of the original, every day they have more visitors and their business is better than ever.

“We had to grieve but, like other store owners, we decided to see this as an opportunity and take it,” explains Lindberg, the third generation of his family living in the city. The pragmatism with which this bookstore accepted the decision to remove some 6,000 people from their homes, and build some 4,000 houses, is representative of the majority sentiment in Kiruna.

“What the mine gives you, the mine can take away from you”, resigns the Lutheran pastor of the Kiruna church

“There is a symbiosis between LKAB and the city. Without the mine, there would be no city”, says the architect Sigrid Vestling, project coordinator for the municipality. She is of French origin and, at first, she was surprised by the resignation of the neighbors. “In France you would have taken to the streets but here we are not like that,” they remember being told.

The plan will not be completed until 2035 but, little by little, it will old (most buildings date from the 60s) gives way to the new. Some 40 buildings will be saved from the demolition order, including the neo-Gothic wooden church in the shape of a Sami tent, the original settlement of the region, a gift from the mining company to the city in 1912. In the temple it will move in one piece, on wheels, to the new center in Kiruna. “What LKAB gives you, LKAB can take away,” says the pastor, Lena Tjarnberg.

Fifty kilometers south of Kiruna, in Jukkasjärvi, is the Esrange space base, another focus of innovation in the Swedish region.

Fifty kilometers south of Kiruna, in Jukkasjärvi, is the Esrange space base, another focus of innovation in the Swedish region.


The mineral treasures of Swedish Lapland are at the origin of the Nordic country’s enviable welfare state. LKAB began mining in the bowels of Kiirunavaara Mountain and extracting iron ore in 1890. Ten years later, it founded the city. Thousands of people from all over Sweden and neighboring regions of Norway and Finland moved there, attracted by the job opportunities and low cost of living. Their salaries are today among the highest in the country, a good incentive to live in such an extreme land (the average temperature in winter is -20º) that also attracts young people and adventurers interested, for example, in outdoor activities or dog racing.

Every night, at two in the morning, LKAB carries out controlled explosions, supervised by robot dogs, to extract the mineral. It is extraordinarily pure and the seam is located diagonally, which makes it necessary to work ever deeper (currently 1,340 meters underground). In its heyday, the mine had 5,000 employees. Today many tasks are automated and it only has 2,200 workers, although it is still the largest employer in Kiruna and 80% of its inhabitants depend directly or indirectly on it.

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Beatriz Navarro | Kiruna (Sweden)


It is very likely that any iron objects within his reach came from Kiruna. LKAB, which prides itself on having the highest environmental standards in the world, produces 90% of what is consumed in the European Union. But if the city and the region of northern Sweden are on everyone’s lips today, it is not only because of the legacy of its mining activity but also because of its future, potentially as brilliant as the northern lights that paint its skies during winter. “Norrland is at the forefront of the European green transition,” Swedish Energy Minister Ebba Busch celebrated on Thursday during a press trip organized by the Government of the Nordic country, excited by the announcement that LKAB has located the largest deposit rare earth known in Europe.

The paradoxes of the energy revolution in which Europe is immersed are clearly manifested in the snowy and silent plains of this region. In order to promote the transition towards a “greener, safer and freer” Europe, as the recently inaugurated Swedish presidency of the EU intends to do, society will have to assume difficult commitments, such as greater exploitation of its own mineral resources, in some cases in protected natural environments.

Lindberg has a bookstore.  He is the third generation to live in the city and sees the changes as an opportunity.

Lindberg runs the only bookstore in Kiruna. He is the third generation to live in the city and sees the changes as an opportunity.

Beatriz Navarro

Many leading Swedish companies are carrying out projects in Kiruna to speed up the electrification of society and get closer to the goal of zero CO2 emissions, for example by producing green steel from hydrogen (which implies a brutal consumption of electricity). or the extraction and production of the valuable rare metals needed to make electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines and batteries.

Currently, the EU massively imports these raw materials from China. After suddenly discovering, as a result of the war in Ukraine, the catastrophic consequences of the addiction to Russian gas and oil, this dependence seems too dangerous and Brussels wants to encourage exploration, exploitation and production within the continent of critical raw materials for the economic development and security of the EU.

The classic political and social gap between the countryside and the city, the upper class and the working class, has found its extension with the debate on environmental sustainability and a few months ago the Swedish mining employers launched a campaign to defend their activities. “No mines, no electric cars”, read the signs displayed, for example, in the Stockholm subway.

Some buildings, such as the neo-Gothic church of Kiruna, shaped like a Sami tent, will be moved in one piece to the new center.

Some buildings, such as the neo-Gothic church of Kiruna, shaped like a Sami tent, will be moved in one piece to the new center.

Wolfgang Kaehler/Getty

Is it possible to talk about ‘sustainable mining’? I ask LKAB CEO Jan Moström. “It depends on what is understood by sustainable. In our company and in Swedish mining we want to raise the standards so that the impact is only seen on the surface, where we operate, and has close to zero effects on water and air. Today mining Swedish and European are close to reaching that goal. But there will always be a conflict, because the way we live implies a high demand for infrastructure of all kinds,” he replies. “To maintain the life we ​​want to have, we need metals and minerals.” Thanks to free trade, he continues, “we have imported these materials and exported their environmental impact. Until now materials have been produced in South America and Africa and we have not bothered much how it was done.”

The rise of the green transition has fueled tensions between the Sámi community and the Swedish government, especially as a result of the renewal of LKAB’s permits to operate in Kiruna, and also with the municipality, which intends to grow on land where the Sami work. reindeer herders. “We do not accept that new mining activities are authorized on our lands,” says Stefan Mikaelsson, president of the Swedish Sami Parliament, who has a voice but no vote in the debate. “Mining companies make huge profits from extracting natural resources from land in the Arctic that neither the Sami community nor the Swedes enjoy,” complains Mikaelsson, who claims to have met the United Nations representative more times than the Swedish prime minister. to deal with these issues.

The discovery of new mineral resources that will extend the life of LKAB’s mines beyond 2060 is “bad news for the Sami,” says Aleksander, a member of this community in neighboring Norway. “I know that some Sami work in the mines but I know many reindeer herders and they are very disappointed. Yesterday’s announcement is a disaster for us, ”he commented on Friday after doing some last-minute shopping at the Kiruna shopping arcade. “We are tired of people from southern Sweden coming here, displacing us and taking more and more land. Now they call it the green transition.”

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