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Letter from Sweden: Fossil Fuel-Free by 2020, Maybe
Alan AtKisson, 18 Aug 06

esso.jpg "Fossil-fuel free by 2020." That was the amazing national goal announced by Prime Minister Göran Persson at the launch of the so-called "Oil Commission", an advisory body whose purpose is to chart a pathway to reach that goal.

In June, the Commission (the full title should be translated as "The Commission to End Oil Dependency by 2020", but the government translates it a bit erroneously as "The Commission on Oil Independence") released its first major report, with the nitty-gritty policy recommendations. To end its dependency on oil -- which is rather vaguely defined not as completely getting rid of the stuff, but dramatically reducing its use to the point where Sweden does not "need" oil anymore -- Sweden would need to do the following in just fourteen years:

• Increase energy efficiency throughout the entirety of Swedish society by 20%

• Reduce the amount of gasoline and diesel used in Swedish vehicles by 40-50% (with a combination of efficiency and a faster switch to renewable and biofuels)

• Reduce oil consumption in industry by 25-40%

• Eliminate oil completely in home and office heating systems

People familiar with energy issues generally can already guess how all this needs to happen: with a mixture of increased new and existing alternative/renewable fuel sources, efficiency technologies, and the policies to drive change in this direction. Fortunately, Sweden has plenty of each already, and plenty of room to develop them further.

While Commission's goal is still at the level of proposal, the proposal is serious, and the political response (which is divided, especially at the level of industry) is equally serious. The response is also somewhat surprising: among the supporters of the proposal is "BIL Sweden," the national association for the automobile industry. Ulf Perbo, who heads the association, explained it this way:

"Many people have asked [why BIL Sweden] is not against the Oil Commission, but it is not in our interest to be dependent on oil, with regard to the production and sales of cars. Oil is not what interests us; cars are. And oil is going to be a limitation [to the production and sales of cars] in the future." (Dagens Miljö, No. 7, 2006)

But this remarkably clear-sighted and water-tight economic logic was not shared, for example, by the wood industry association, who see the proposals for increased biofuels and ethanol production as an economic threat. Finished wood products generate approximately ten times the revenues in export income, compared to using wood for fuel, said the association's CEO (as cited in the trade press). Other industry groups used stronger language like "catastrophe" in connection with the Commission's proposals, and warned that Sweden's economy depends on cheap electricity and wood -- and the result of the Commission's recommendations would be higher energy prices, and greater demand on forest resources.

It's also not clear what the impact of the policy would be on Sweden's biodiversity, but so far, it is oppositional industry groups, and not environmental lobbyists, who seem to be most worried about such environmental side effects.

By and large, however, the response here is positive and is probably best summarized in this paragraph from the Commissioner's recent report (available in English):

We are technology optimists and want Sweden to be at the forefront in the gradual use of new, resource-efficient, renewable technology – hybrid vehicles, solar cells, wave energy, fuel cell vehicles, new biofuels, and energy-saving IT solutions and also technology we cannot know anything about yet or can just divine. We prepare for this type of development in our proposals by massive support to research, development and commercialisation of new technology.

Of course, it matters a great deal, in terms of policy relevance, that the Commission is headed by the Prime Minister himself. Persson is sounding a bit dubious in his official statements these days -- "My judgment is that reaching the goal by 2020 will be difficult" -- but he is still a (restrained) enthusiast. Will the Commission's work move from proposal to policy? That probably depends on the national election scheduled for 17 September ... and Persson's left-leaning bloc of parties is currently 5% behind in the polls.

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It sounds like Sweden knows a thing or two about conserving and not being dependent on oil. Too bad America isn't going down the same path.

Posted by: Alex on 19 Aug 06

It sounds amazing to me (French dude) that political leaders can be so advanced in taking consciousness about what will be our future, while our politics (France) focuses on very short term and short seighted goals.
The idea of a wide range of solutions is also difficult to understand for many people here, too many think we must find ONE solution for the greenhouse effect problem.

There is still hope ... but not were I live :-)

Posted by: LitteulDav on 31 Aug 06

I am extremely pleased to see a national-level leader taking aim at this issue.

We are well past Global Oil Production Peak, and face serious global society-wide oil shortage issues in the next 50 years.

We could generate all the electricity we need using nuclear power, but there is no clear viable successor to oil to fuel our ever-growing fleet of vehicles.

Perhaps we should all convert our home furnaces, water heaters, and stoves to electric...

The major industrial nations of the world need to focus research and development money on large-scale viable replacements for oil -- and they need to do it now!

As oil reserves decrease, and profit margins shrink, profit-driven businesses will pull out of oil.

How will we fuel our cars? Our semi trucks?

Will we be able to deliver foods and medicines.

How would the concept of "work" change without cars?

John Stilley

Posted by: John Stilley on 7 Sep 06



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