2 July 2009: Sweden leads

Sweden has taken over the six-month presidency of the EU. It was also president when Bush withdrew the US from the Kyoto Protocol and was central in rescuing this treaty. Therefore, the arrival of Swedes is good news for the Copenhagen Conference later this year.

Interestingly, the Swedish economy has grown by 50% since 1990, while its carbon emissions have been reduced by 10%. This shows that it is possible to ‘de-couple’ economic growth from growth in greenhouse gas emissions. This has not been due to switching to gas from coal (as is the case for much of the UK carbon reduction), since Sweden uses very little of either for electricity generation (see Sweden – climate and energy statistics). In fact, Sweden gets about 30% of its energy from renewables, making it the EU leader (the only European countries doing better are Norway and Switzerland).

Sweden is not good in all respects – it uses energy almost as wastefully and intensively as the US. There are 437 cars per 1,000 Swedes, compared to 403 in next-door Finland and 373 in the UK. The US figure is 478, Germany 508 and Italy 539 (see Nationmaster.com: Transportation Statistics). However, Sweden recognises that energy does not just mean electricity. Much of Sweden is on district heating systems, so when fossil fuels are used to generate electricity, the heat, rather than simply being lost up the chimney of the power station, is captured and used. However, 90% of the heat used in district heating systems is from biomass, meaning that over half of Sweden’s total heat use is generated from this source. Most of this is from the forestry sector, which means that the negative climate impacts of intensively-grown energy crops are largely avoided.

Half of Sweden’s electricity comes from nuclear. In 1980, a referendum committed Sweden to close all its nuclear stations. However, only two of the 12 have been closed (unlike in Italy, where a referendum decision to go non-nuclear led to all the stations being closed), and the government has now said that it wants to build new nuclear stations, for climate change reasons.

The Swedish government has said that it will use its presidency of the EU to push for an EU carbon tax. This is a laudable ambition, but will almost certainly be unsuccessful. Apart from the global recession making progress on taxation issues difficult, the debate about taxes in the EU is dominated by the question of whether the EU or its member states should control taxation (which is similar to the US debate about whether it should be the federal government or the individual states). Jacques Delors pushed for an EU carbon/energy tax for the whole of his eight years as president of the European Commission, but without significant success. Instead, Sweden should focus on making progress with the EU carbon capture and storage schemes, building or upgrading rail links, making cars more fuel efficient and diverting spending under the Common Agricultural Policy away from intensive, climate-destroying agriculture and into organic agriculture (see Agriculture and forests).

And, of course, it must make sure that the Copenhagen Conference leads to some progress.

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