17th Jun 2019

Swedish oil-free utopia unrealistic, say experts

  • Sweden wants to create energy by biomass heating, wind and water power (Photo: European Community, 2006)

Sweden has said it wants to end fossil fuel dependency and become the world’s first oil-free country by 2020, but experts in the Nordic country’s commission on oil independence have dismissed the goal as unrealistic.

"For heating it is probably possible, but not for the transport fuel section," general secretary of the commission, Stefan Edman, said after a hearing of the commission, which consists of industrialists, scientists, farmers, carmakers, civil servants and other stakeholders in the energy and industrial fields.

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The transport sector is the villain in the European energy drama, say the group, with cars annually eating up almost double the amount of oil as households and industry put together.

Swedish carmakers Saab and Volvo are currently working with the Swedish government to develop cars and lorries that burn ethanol and other biofuels, but the mere size of Swedish family cars is a headache for environmentalists as well as those trying to cut energy use.

"The Swedish car fleet is 20 percent thirstier than the EU average, making petrol costs higher for households and producing unnecessary CO2 emissions," says the oil independency commission.

One of the proposals the group will put forward to the government is to tax car owners according to how much petrol they use. This would be used as an incentive to make people exchange big thirsty vehicles to smaller cars that are more economic on petrol use.

As a last step, all cars in Sweden would have to be run on ethanol or other non-fossil fuels, a move likely to be met with resistance by carmakers and drivers.

Energy independence

The oil independence commission was created last autumn after Stockholm first announced that Sweden would be the first country in the world to stop using oil.

The ambitious target, announced in September by prime minister Goran Persson, was met with enthusiasm by environmental organisations eager to lower CO2 emissions, believed to be a major cause of global warming.

But the Swedish government also said it considers the move crucial to reversing the growing dependence on energy imports from unstable parts of the world, such as the Middle East or Russia.

"A Sweden free of fossil fuels would give us enormous advantages, not least by reducing the impact from fluctuations in oil prices," sustainable development minister Mona Sahlin told international media after the winter’s gas crisis, which forced the EU to re-examine its energy policy and its strong dependency on Russian gas.

According to the government plan, oil independence will be reached through a mix of boosting research on alternative fuels and giving financial incentives for people to switch to green alternatives.

Some tax breaks have already been introduced for homeowners who convert from oil to other fuel, and since the beginning of 2006, households that turn in their old boilers receive direct cash support to install environmentally friendly heating systems for their homes.

At a meeting in Brussels in March, Ms Sahlin pointed to several factors that could help Sweden phase out oil.

The government has said it wants to create energy by biomass heating, wind and water power, making use of the country’s immense forests as well as its long coastline.

Uranium dependency just as bad

Ms Sahlin also said that the EU as a whole must aim to become self-supporting in energy, and get away from importing fossil fuel - as well as uranium, raw or enriched.

Sweden took the decision to phase out nuclear power in 1980, but this has still not been finalised.

Despite a growing demand for nuclear power in the EU, from both those who wish to cut ties to unstable oil producing countries and those who want to reduce CO2 emissions, Sweden is not envisaging taking up nuclear power to compensate the planned drastic cut in oil use.

On the other side of the Baltic Sea, however, neighbouring country Finland, currently constructing the world’s largest nuclear power plant, has also started to construct a pipeline under the sea that could provide Sweden with atomic energy.

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