Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven recently declared at the U.N. General Assembly that his nation of 10 million people would become “one of the first fossil-free welfare states in the world.”
His announcement comes at a time when 146 nations have made promises to reduce their carbon emissions with the COP21 talks in Paris starting next month. Löfven and his government have made a bold statement that has prompted many commentators to ask: How on earth this could this happen, if ever?
The reality is that the Nordic countries already have a strong track record when it comes to action on climate change and clean-energy generation. Denmark, for example, hit a point over the summer when it produced 140 percent of its energy needs from wind power, some of which it ended up exporting to its neighbors. Oil-rich Norway produces about 99 percent of its electricity from hydropower and has one of the highest rates of electric vehicle ownership on the planet. And, blessed by copious amounts of geothermal sources, Iceland meets about 85 percent of its energy needs from renewables.
So, how can Sweden take the lead on the renewable front, especially when considering the fact that it has a sophisticated economy, which includes automobile manufacturing?
The reality is that Scandinavia’s largest country has already made headway toward this goal. Currently almost 80 percent of Sweden’s electricity comes from non-fossil fuel sources. The challenge, however, is that a large portion of this power comes from nuclear.
After decades of promising to decommission its nuclear power plants, the country’s government decided it would allow new plants to replace shuttered ones in 2010. Mothballing 10 to 13 nuclear power plants will throw a wrench in Sweden’s plans, as not everyone, notably the country’s power-sharing Green Party, sees this form of power as “clean” despite the fact it discharges zero emissions into the earth’s atmosphere.
That nuclear sticking point aside, Sweden’s government claims it is on an ambitious course to wean itself from fossil fuels. In 2016, the country’s energy and environment ministries will spend about 4.5 billion crowns (US$545 million) on projects including solar-cell research and electric-vehicle technologies. Smart-grid and other energy-efficient technologies will also see a boost in research dollars.
Curiously, Sweden is not just investing money within its borders — some of those funds will be spent on sustainable development projects abroad in poorer countries. In that sense, Sweden is taking leadership and is nudging richer companies to do the same.
“Developed countries have a special responsibility to transit quickly to clean energy systems,” said Isabella Lövin, Sweden’s minister of international development cooperation, “and at the same time to support developing countries to leap-frog directly to renewables.”
Sweden has not set a timetable on when exactly a 100 percent renewable society will become reality. According to Bloomberg, the focus is a rapid reduction in emissions by 2020, with the country’s capitol, Stockholm, possibly going fossil fuel-free by 2050. But the significance of Sweden’s announcement is that it behooves the world’s richer nations to put their money where their mouths are.
“Increased climate funding to developing countries and climate action within the framework of development assistance are fundamental to Sweden’s and the EU’s credibility in the climate negotiations,” said the Swedish government in a recent press statement.
In this case, the how of Sweden’s energy policy will be more important that the what. By taking actions that go beyond issuing a proclamation, the land of blue and gold could play a pivotal role in helping the world go green.
Image credits: Leon Kaye