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Sweden, the E.U. and Renewables
Alan AtKisson, 23 Jan 08

For those of you who are still thinking of Sweden as the country planning to become "Fossil Fuel Free" by 2020, today's announcements from Brussels -- where the European Commission has just released its proposed new compromise policy for climate change action, to grumbles from both the greens and browns -- should puncture any illusions, and remind you that a new government is in charge in this Nordic land.

Sweden had been asked by the EU to increase the share of its electricity produced from renewable energy sources from today's 40% to 55% by the year 2020. This was to be Sweden's contribution to the new EU goal of 20% renewable by 2020. But Sweden, formerly always the "good student" when it comes to environment, protested. The center-right coalition made headlines not for its leadership in pushing the EU to more ambitious goals, as it used to do, but for bargaining its way down to 49% — still a substantial improvement, but nothing like the far more ambitious goals (in relative terms) being set by Germany, for example. Currently producing 12% of its electricity from renewable sources, Germany is volunteering to hit 40% by 2020.

And what was the Swedish government's explanation for negotiating its goal downward? I have just finished watching a live interview on Swedish television with prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, and I could not believe my ears. Sweden, he said, had already done much more than any other EU country. And if we took on this more ambitious goal, then other countries would be partly let off the hook. In effect, he said, "Why should we push ourselves to do more? It just encourages others to do less." That is not a direct quote, but it is a very fair paraphrase.

Perhaps this explains the low popularity figures this government is currently enjoying (not), and why so many people speak of a "lack of leadership" emanating from the Prime Minister's office. Leadership, in my view at least, does not consist in choosing to do less, as a way of forcing others to do more. Imagine that Tiger Woods (married to a Swede) would say, "I've decided to notch back my performance, because my excellence just gives those other golfers an excuse to be lazy."

The truth in Reinfeldt's argument is that many EU countries are not doing very much at all. Even the UK, despite being a very visible and vocal actor on the world's climate stage, currently only produces 2% of its energy from renewable sources, tied with Belgium and Italy for the low ranks. They will all have to increase to 15% by 2020, under this new EU initiative.

And Sweden does face challenges in continuing its march toward renewables. The interview with Reinfeldt was followed by a news story on windparks in northern Sweden's forests. Why the forests and not the coasts, where there is much more wind? Because Sweden also has problems with "NIMBY" syndrome ("Not In My Back Yard"), and by placing the new windparks in the least populated areas, protests are avoided. Indeed residents welcome these new clean energy and economic engines with open arms.

The bargaining among EU nations, now complete, has global implications, because Europe's credibility as a driver in the global negotiations on a post-Kyoto climate regime is seen to hang on its embrace of adequately ambitious targets and on-the-ground actions. Understanding of the need for those targets, with all the technology changes and higher petroleum taxes and perceived "new costs" they represent, is at best spotty around the continent. For every super-ambitious German town there is a an apathetic (country-name-withheld) city whose leaders are asleep at the wheel or innumerate or just plain corrupt. There are shining examples here of well-managed, responsible places that are fully self-sufficient on bio-fuels (like Güssing, Austria); and then there is Naples, where the abundant sunlight strikes not PV arrays, but literal mountains of garbage clogging the streets, choked by the worst waste-management crisis ever seen in modern Europe.

The world needs Europe to be a strong, ambitious, principled, even visionary advocate for action on climate change, both in terms of reducing consumption (Sweden's consumption of electricity is the highest in the EU), and in terms of production from renewables.

And Europe needs Sweden, to continue its role as "best in class" and as a driving force in this essential energy transition, without which we get more winters like the one we are currently having in Stockholm: very, very green.

If Sweden, the leader on renewable energy, refuses to lead, who will?

(With thanks to the reporters of Sveriges Television, whose crystal clear reporting on these issues was on in the background as I wrote this, and provided me with both facts and insights. Some things about this country are still best in class.)

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Why in the world is Sweden "best in class." How much energy does sweden get from wind & solar? Answer: less than 1% of its electricity. Wind & solar can't do baseload. Hydroelectric power can. That's the difference.

They get half from hydro & half from nuclear. France gets 80% from nuclear, the rest from mostly hydro. France has the cleanest air of any country in the industrialized world. And nuclear is sustainable using fast breeder reactors. We need to sit doen and have a serious discussion about how much we can really get from wind & solar. Science needs to take precedence over romanticism. According to the wind report 2005 by E.ON Netz, world leader in wind in germany, "Wind canot replace traditional power generation to any significant extent."

Posted by: zachary on 23 Jan 08

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Posted by: colehilling on 23 Jan 08

Hi Alen,
nice article; but where did you get the information that Germany is volunteering to hit 40% by 2020? To my knowledge, Germany is aiming to increase the share of renewable energies in electricity provision to 20% and in primary energy consumption to 10% by 2020 (
According to the recent proposal of the European Commission, its binding target for the share in primary energy consumption by 2020 is 18%...

Posted by: Bjørn-Oliver on 26 Jan 08

Right, I am a Swedish citizen myself, and I feel a sudden urge to set things straight here.

First of all, to imply that the low support for the government has anything to do with this topic, which basically hasn't been mentioned in the media, when at the same time there has been non-stop headlines about scandals within the government (tax fraud and such), is just ridiculus.

Furthermore, it must be understood that Mona Sahlin's statment about being fossil fuel free hold no credability. It was hardly mentioned in the swedish media and there was no plan or strategy to put it in place. It was simply a political remark at the right time, to win votes. The question has nothing to do with the new government, as that goal never had any chance of being met in the first place. In fact, Mona Sahlin is i opposition, she cannot answer who she is willing to rule with in the future, and she has just fired her right-hand man Pär Nuder.

Moreover, a recent study shows that Sweden is the most environmental friendly country in the WORLD.
Reinfedlt has a very good point, the world cannot be devided into green countries and "bad" countries, we all have to make an effort, and to be frank, we have allready made ours.
The rest of the world needs to catch up, and we can't be expected to always THAT much more that everyone else.

Sweden has no problem in leading the way, we already do, and when the rest of the world catches up, THEN we will happily go further and keep leading.
But we are still waiting.

Posted by: Hjalmar Nilsonne on 28 Jan 08



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