STOCKHOLM — President George Bush may have surprised international observers by pledging in his State of the Union address to break his country’s addiction to foreign oil — but Sweden was already one step ahead of him.
The environmentally progressive Scandinavian nation has announced one of its most ambitious goals yet: to completely end its dependency on petroleum — and do it in the next 15 years.
“Our dependency on oil should be broken by 2020,” said Mona Sahlin, the minister of Sustainable Development.
The target — announced in September by Prime Minister Goran Persson — has been met with applause from environmental organizations, but also with great skepticism from some experts who think the target is unrealistic.
Officials here acknowledge that getting rid of oil completely in such a short time is close to impossible, but the aim is to ensure that Swedes will never be forced to use fossil fuels because a renewable energy source is not available.
“There shall always be better alternatives to oil, which means no house should need oil for heating, and no driver should need to turn solely to gasoline,” Sahlin told The Associated Press in an interview.
The ambitious plan is a response to global climate change, rising petroleum prices and warnings by some experts that the world may soon be running out of oil.
“We want to be both mentally and technically prepared” for a world without oil, said Martin Larsson, a senior administrative officer in the Ministry of Sustainable Development. “A lot of people think that in five to six years, a liter of gasoline may cost 20 kronor ($2.50). That would be a dramatic change, and a hard hit to a lot of households.” Today, the price is around $1.43 per liter.
Persson has said the target will be reached by boosting research on alternative fuels, giving financial incentives for people switching to “green alternatives,” and increasing the annual electricity production from renewable sources by 15 terawatt hours by 2016 — that figure equals nearly one-third of all the electricity used by Swedish industries in 2004. Some tax breaks have already been introduced, while Persson has formed a special commission tasked with finding other ways to create a society independent of oil. The commission will present its first proposals this summer.
As with Bush’s plan, no one is debating Sweden’s good intentions.
“I don’t think this is realistic, but it is a good ambition,” said Kenneth Werling, chief executive of Agroetanol, which runs Sweden’s largest ethanol factory. “Maybe we can build a society that is less dependent on oil, and that is good in itself.”
Sahlin, however, is confident Sweden can succeed.
“Honestly, what is the alternative?” she said. “Wait and see when oil gets even more expensive?”
Sahlin and other experts point to several factors that give Sweden better chances than most countries to phase out oil.
The country of 9 million people has coastlines stretching hundreds of kilometers, which have given rise to a number of wind power and water power plants. A large new wind farm is being built off Sweden’s southern coast, expected to be online by 2009.
Sweden also has more forest per capita than any other EU country, allowing it to burn tons of biomass, which has helped make it one of the world leaders in renewable energy.
In 2003, 26 percent of the energy consumed in Sweden came from renewable sources — more than four times as much as the European Union average of 6 percent, according to EU statistics. Only 32 percent of its energy came from oil — down from 77 percent in 1970, according to Sweden’s own statistics. About one-third of Sweden’s energy is nuclear power, with the rest coming mainly from coal and natural gas.
So while the EU is striving to double its average use of renewable energy to 12 percent by 2010, Sweden is correct in setting the bar much higher, said Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen, Denmark.
“Many countries are setting renewable energy targets. The difference with Sweden is that the targets are achievable rather than aspirational,” McGlade said. “This is because government departments across sectors in Sweden have built renewable energy into their long-term policies.”
That is evident in Sweden’s system for heating houses and apartment buildings — a key function in a country where the harsh winter usually lasts up to five months. Many Swedish counties use district heating that distributes steam heat, often produced by burning garbage or wood.
Today only 8 percent of Swedish houses are heated by oil, said Stefan Edman, an environmental adviser to the government. As of Jan. 1, those households get tax rebates if they switch to renewable sources.
“I’m an optimist in that area,” Edman said. “I think we can completely get rid of oil there.”
A much bigger challenge will be the transportation sector. Only 1 percent of the about 4 million vehicles on Swedish roads run on alternative fuels. But sales of so-called “environmental cars” that run on alternative fuel have almost doubled over the last year, and the parliament passed a law in December making it mandatory for all major gas stations to offer at least one alternative fuel at its pumps.
Sweden already uses more ethanol per capita than any other EU country, because of a pilot project where about 5 percent ethanol is mixed into the gasoline sold at gas stations, in order to reduce pollution, said Werling, the Agroetanol CEO.
Regardless of whether Sweden or the United States succeed in their ambitions, they are likely to pave the way for more ambitious renewable energy targets elsewhere in the world, said George Sterzinger, executive director of the Renewable Energy Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization working to boost the use of alternative fuels in the United States.
“Society sets a goal, and in moving toward that goal technology improves and you can set a better goal,” Sterzinger said. “Taking on that goal, it sets a sort of (example of) ’If Sweden can do it, why can’t we?”’
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