Sweden's low-carbon transformation is on display in the coastal, industrial city of Kalmar.
The city of 60,000 is replacing most of its oil, gas, and electric furnaces for district heat with "cogeneration" plants, which burn sawdust and timber waste from the surrounding wooded region. Publicly owned cars and buses have switched to burning either biogas made from waste wood and chicken manure, or an 85 percent ethanol blend from Brazil.
Kalmar has become a model for what all of Sweden hopes to achieve. The Nordic country plans to be carbon neutral - releasing zero net carbon emissions - by mid-century, according to Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren.
"If you can see the resources you have, you can really make the opportunities," Carlgren said during an event at the Swedish embassy in Washington, D.C., on Monday. "It's not written in the resources. You have to see it in your mind."
Sweden is positioning itself to become a regional leader in fighting climate change as it takes over the presidency of the European Union in July. Sweden will lead the EU when international climate negotiators meet in Copenhagen in December to discuss a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol.
"Clearly it is the presidency speaking for the EU," Carlgren said. "Therefore, we will really try to represent the EU in the climate process."
The European Union agreed on its latest climate policy in December. By 2020, member states must cut greenhouse gases at least 20 percent below 1990 levels (or 30 percent if other industrialized countries make comparable commitments), increase renewable energy to 20 percent of total energy production, and reduce energy consumption 20 percent by embracing greater energy efficiency.
Sweden has long implemented one of the most progressive energy policies in Europe. The national government enacted one of the world's first carbon taxes in 1990. Ministers announced further ambitions last week through a plan that would increase renewable energy production to 50 percent by 2020, transition the Swedish vehicle fleet to fossil fuel independence by 2030, and reach complete carbon neutrality by 2050.
While the new energy plan may provide Sweden with the political authority to encourage international commitments at December's climate summit, lead negotiator Anders Turesson said his country will not be pushing its own agenda. "Sweden's involvement will be non-existent, effectively," Turesson said in an interview. "We are putting the EU first and foremost."
The EU presidency must often set aside its own views to compromise with other member states, said Martin Bursik, environment minister of the Czech Republic, which currently holds the EU presidency.
For instance, during last year's debate over revisions to the EU Emission Trading Scheme, the region's cap-and-trade system for regulating carbon emissions, EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas supported a 100-percent auction of emission allowances. In the end, French president and then-EU leader Nicolas Sarkozy reached an agreement with Eastern European countries to allow some of their power companies to receive free allowances for a limited time.
"It's easy for the Commissioner to be more radical than us because he was not negotiating with the other ministers," Bursik said.
Still, Sweden is hoping it may lead by example. The country's per capita electricity consumption is among the highest in Europe, with hydropower and nuclear energy supplying about 90 percent of electricity. But electricity accounts for only about one-third of Sweden's end-use energy supply. Bioenergy-powered district heating and oil supply much of the additional heating sources. The country stills relies on gasoline for the vast majority of its transportation needs.
Mainly through higher carbon taxes, Sweden plans to use bioenergy to meet more of its heating needs and to replace gasoline use with ethanol or biogas. The country is also exploring wide-scale use of electric vehicles, with wind power possibly supplying a larger share of the electricity to charge the fleets. Rather than phase out the country's 10 nuclear reactors by 2010, as previously agreed, the government announced last month that the plants will run until they expire.
Sweden joins a growing list of countries that are competing to become carbon neutral - a race now being referenced as the "Carbon World Cup." Others have included Norway, New Zealand, Iceland, Costa Rica, and the island nation Maldives.
Image credit: Laurenz Bobke