Western society is an addict that craves oil. If our oil supply were cut off, food would disappear from the shelves, and consumer products would remain trapped in warehouses. The vast majority of motorists would be reduced to walking or cycling. While petrol prices stay at a high level, oil companies announce record profits, and drivers remain obliged to toe the line by continuing to hand over their hard-earned cash. Surely there must be alternatives.
In Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index, Sweden is ranked as the world’s second most environmentally friendly country, with the top spot going to New Zealand . Although this league table uses a subjective set of criteria, Sweden has certainly positioned itself at the forefront of environmental innovation, with the support of an enlightened government.
Eyebrows were raised last October when the Swedish Foreign Minister Mona Sahlin announced that Sweden intended to break its oil dependency by 2020, at which time it would probably be the first Western country to kick the fossil fuel habit. This decision was prompted by several factors:
To facilitate this shift, a committee of industrialists, academics and energy experts has been formed. The role of this Commission on Oil Independence is to liaise with the energy sector with a view to identifying and implementing solutions.
At present, Sweden obtains roughly half of its electricity from nuclear power, and the other half from hydroelectric plants. Responding to anti-nuclear sentiment expressed through a referendum vote, the country’s nuclear plants are being phased out one by one. To make up the shortfall, the government is strongly supportive of wind power and numerous sites are being investigated.
Although many Swedish homes are oil-heated, in recent years the heating sector has seen a shift from oil to renewable biomass fuel sources. Public buildings including health and library facilities have received grants to facilitate this transition.
For automotive fuels, Mona Sahlin’s aim by 2020 is to provide motorists with easy access to petrol and diesel alternatives such as ethanol and biodiesel. Diesel vehicles can already use biodiesel without modification, and from next year a car capable of running on 100% ethanol is expected to go on sale in certain parts of the world. For its part, Sweden’s government plans a collaboration with Swedish car manufacturers Saab and Volvo to come up with mass-produced vehicles that can run on biofuels, and is lobbying the EU to allow higher ethanol levels in petrol. Biogas, a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide, is another renewable option for vehicles that slashes greenhouse emissions by an impressive 95%.
Attracted by the prospect of price savings, Swedish day-trippers regularly travel to Germany and Denmark in order to buy alcohol, and some return over quota. This contraband booze is seized by customs officials, and until recently it used to be wastefully poured down the sink. Now a more constructive use has been found – as a feedstock for a biogas plant located at Linköping, about 200 kilometres south of Stockholm . At the plant, an alcohol cocktail is combined with an unappealing mixture of slaughterhouse and human waste and then fed into an anaerobic digester, a processing unit that excludes oxygen. In the Linköping area, biogas has been successfully used to power thousands of cars, hundreds of buses, and even a train.
To achieve their goal, the Swedes are pursuing a multi-pronged strategy. In addition to switching fuel sources and investment in renewable energy, a further direction is the strategic use of tax exemptions. The Swedish Government is keen to slope the economic playing field in favour of cars that run on renewable fuels, and has started to put this plan into action.
In 1990, a green tax package (including both an energy tax and carbon tax) was introduced as a disincentive against pollution, while other taxes, including income tax, were reduced by a roughly equivalent amount. To facilitate the move away from oil, vehicles running on renewable fuels such as biogas and biodiesel will be exempted from both green taxes. Renewable fuel vehicles avoid paying Stockholm’s congestion charge introduced earlier this year, and can park for free in Sweden’s larger cities.
Over recent decades, the role of oil in Sweden’s economy has dwindled substantially, from 77% of energy used in 1970 to only 32% in 2003. In this light, the recent decision on oil is a continuation of an existing trend. Even if Sweden’s plan falls short of its aims, it is raising international awareness of key energy issues and perhaps influencing the priorities of other governments.
Could such an initiative succeed in Australia ? Despite several hurdles, including Federal Government red tape that is blocking the use of the REVA electric car in this country, it would be a mistake with a global fuel crisis on the horizon to write off an ambitious shift away from oil as impossible here. As Mona Sahlin frankly puts it “To hide behind excuses of ignorance or economic considerations is not leading us to a sustainable future.”
How Cuba survived its oil crisis
By the 1980s, Cuba had become over-dependent on trade with the former Soviet Union. When the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1991, Cuba’s imports dropped by about 80 per cent, and incoming shipments of oil were halved. The resulting impacts were greatest in the agricultural sector, and for a while malnutrition was widespread. To survive, Cuba was obliged to reinvent itself along non-fossil fuel lines.
Within a short time, it had shifted from being a food-importing country focusing on export-orientated plantation crops to achieving a high degree of food security via organic farms and urban permaculture gardens. Much of the available space in the capital Havana, including rooftops, patios and car parking spaces, is now used for growing food. In the farms and gardens, human labour is used in place of machinery, and biological fertilisers and pesticides have taken over from their chemical equivalents.
- Concern from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences that oil supplies will soon peak and then start dwindling. Sweden is keen to jump off the oil bandwagon before it comes to a standstill somewhere down the track.
- A desire to shield the country’s economy from fluctuating or rising oil prices. Sweden was hit hard by the oil shocks of the early 1970s, and is aware that over the last ten years world oil prices have trebled.
- Environmental concerns such as climate change.
- The impact of high oil prices on households.
- In line with its policies on social justice, at an international level Sweden is striving to use no more resources than it needs to maintain comfort in a cold climate.
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