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When I was growing up, my family would drive up each summer to the northeastern United States to visit my paternal grandparents. My grandmother grew up in a Swedish-speaking household, with Swedish immigrant parents, in the Boston area. From my grandmother, and my father, I learned many things as a boy about Sweden that fascinated me, like traditional holiday cooking, decorating, and dress, especially for St. Lucia’s Day, a winter holiday (December 13) that begins the extended celebration of Christmas. And I admired Sweden’s history of technological innovation, socioeconomic progress, and the push in their society for justice, peace, and a clean environment. For example, chemist Alfred Nobel (1833 – 1896) established and endowed the Nobel Prizes (note that a prize for chemistry was just awarded to a UNC-Chapel Hill scientist). And Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-1961) became the second Secretary General of the United Nations, posthumously receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961. There was much to admire about the land of my ancestors.

Sweden continues to innovate and move forward today on many such fronts. For example, with the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (Nov. 30 – Dec. 11, 2015, in Paris, France) now imminent, Sweden has announced its intention to become one of the first countries in the world – and possibly even the first – to become fossil fuel free, generating all of its electricity from clean energy. The Paris U.N. meeting will be the 21st yearly session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 11th overall Conference of the Meeting of the Parties (CMP11) to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The Paris conference intends to achieve a legally binding, universal agreement on climate from all the world’s nations (unlike Kyoto).

So far, Sweden has announced no timetable for implementation of the national fossil-fuel-free plan. Whatever the timeline, Sweden appears to intend to strengthen their attempts in Paris to persuade other countries to follow their example in international climate negotiations. But how will Sweden, a country of approximately 9.8 million people, pay for this ambitious plan? And have any other governments already attempted this?

Other Examples from Around the World

In terms of announced intentions, the Swedish capital city, Stockholm, has released a plan to be fully free of fossil fuel energy by 2040. In the U.S., Hawai’i has announced plans to adopt 100% renewable energy generation by 2045. In general, the announced climate change plans of many countries are being tracked here by Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis group.

Stockholm, the capital city of Sweden. Source: http://bdo.se/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Stockholm1.jpg
Stockholm, the capital city of Sweden. Source: http://bdo.se/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Stockholm1.jpg

Some governments have achieved the mark already, such as Aspen, Colorado, which recently became the third U.S. city to reach 100 percent renewable energy generation (the first two cities in the United States to reach this goal were Burlington, Vermont and Greensburg, Kansas.) The Spanish Island of El Hierro (Canary Islands) and Kodiak Island (Alaska) have become the first two populated islands in the world to attain 100 percent renewable energy.

Regarding entire countries, Costa Rica was able for almost three months in 2015 to meet 100 percent of the country’s electricity needs from renewable energy. Denmark has also experienced periods where the entire country has been powered from wind energy. But these are only portions of a year – how does Sweden intend to pay for powering the whole country, year-round, by clean energy?

Swedish Plans to Pay for Fossil-Fuel-Free Energy

In a recent press release, the Swedish government said it will invest 4.5 billion Swedish kronor (SEK), or $546 million, in their 2016 national budget “to meet the challenges of climate change, increase the share of renewable energy, and stimulate development of innovative environmental technology.” Prime Minister Stefan Löfven told the press that “Sweden will become one of the first fossil-free welfare states in the world.” As broken down by Bloomberg, here is how Sweden plans to finance abandoning fossil fuels (keep in mind that no firm deadline for attainment of this lofty goal has yet been set):

  • 390 million SEK per year from 2017 to 2019 for solar photovoltaics
  • 50 million SEK annually on research on electricity storage
  • 10 million SEK on electric smart grids
  • 1 billion SEK to renovate residential buildings, making them more energy efficient
  • Create subsidies, and other investments, in green transportation (e.g. electric cars and buses)
  • 500 million SEK to increase Swedish funding of climate-related projects in developing countries

Evidently, the budget increase will mostly be financed through tax increases on gasoline and diesel fuels. But even so, can financing of such a plan be realistic, whatever the timetable?

Swedish Plans to Pay for Fossil-Fuel-Free Energy

Numerous important problems remain worldwide related to the mass adoption of clean, renewable energy technologies. There are issues with generation, storage, transmission and distribution, reliability, law and regulation, business models, politics and governance, economics, and, of course, finance – how to pay for it.

Early adopters, such as those listed above, often have structural incentives/advantages (e.g. the typically high cost of electricity generation on islands, such as the main island of Hawai’i, often due to the costly importation of fossil fuels from off-island) that may not currently be available to large swaths of the rest of the world’s population.

Sweden is better positioned than many countries to move ahead with their fossil-fuel-free energy plans. The country already receives about 78 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and hydroelectric power, which are carbon-free. However, it appears that Sweden has no plans to replace its aging plants – from the current budget, it seems Sweden intends to replace them with solar power, storage, energy efficiency, etc. Sweden also appears to be looking at “externalized” costs (i.e. costs not currently priced directly in the energy market) of fossil-fuel energy and global climate change. According to Science Alert, “the move comes after Sweden suffered extreme heatwaves last summer, and one of the worst bushfires in the country’s history. The government has committed to taking action to protect its citizens from the effects of climate change in the future.”

These are ambitious goals that the Swedish government has set, and I will be keenly interested to see if and when they can achieve them. Perhaps they are looking to the wisdom of native son and former U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld to guide their way, who said, “Never look down to test the ground before taking your next step; only he who keeps his eye fixed on the far horizon will find the right road.”

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