Sweden plans to be world's first oil-free economy
By John Vidal
Sweden is to take the biggest energy step of any advanced western economy by trying to wean itself off oil completely within 15 years - without building a new generation of nuclear power stations.
The attempt by the country of 9 million people to become the world's first practically oil-free economy is being planned by a committee of industrialists, academics, farmers, car makers, civil servants and others, who will report to parliament in several months.
The intention, the Swedish government said yesterday, is to replace all fossil fuels with renewables before climate change destroys economies and growing oil scarcity leads to huge new price rises.
"Our dependency on oil should be broken by 2020," said Mona Sahlin, minister of sustainable development. "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."
According to the energy committee of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, there is growing concern that global oil supplies are peaking and will shortly dwindle, and that a global economic recession could result from high oil prices.
Ms Sahlin has described oil dependency as one of the greatest problems facing the world. "A Sweden free of fossil fuels would give us enormous advantages, not least by reducing the impact from fluctuations in oil prices," she said. "The price of oil has tripled since 1996."
A government official said: "We want to be both mentally and technically prepared for a world without oil. The 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."
Sweden, which was badly hit by the oil price rises in the 1970s, now gets almost all its electricity from nuclear and hydroelectric power, and relies on fossil fuels mainly for transport. Almost all its heating has been converted in the past decade to schemes which distribute steam or hot water generated by geothermal energy or waste heat. A 1980 referendum decided that nuclear power should be phased out, but this has still not been finalised.
The decision to abandon oil puts Sweden at the top of the world green league table. Iceland hopes by 2050 to power all its cars and boats with hydrogen made from electricity drawn from renewable resources, and Brazil intends to power 80% of its transport fleet with ethanol derived mainly from sugar cane within five years.
Last week George Bush surprised analysts by saying that the US was addicted to oil and should greatly reduce imports from the Middle East. The US now plans a large increase in nuclear power.
The British government, which is committed to generating 10% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2012, last month launched an energy review which has a specific remit to consider a large increase in nuclear power. But a report by accountants Ernst & Young yesterday said that the UK was falling behind in its attempt to meet its renewables target.
"The UK has Europe's best wind, wave and tidal resources yet it continues to miss out on its economic potential," said Jonathan Johns, head of renewable energy at Ernst & Young.
Energy ministry officials in Sweden said they expected the oil committee to recommend further development of biofuels derived from its massive forests, and by expanding other renewable energies such as wind and wave power.
Sweden has a head start over most countries. In 2003, 26% of all the energy consumed came from renewable sources - the EU average is 6%. Only 32% of the energy came from oil - down from 77% in 1970.
The Swedish government is working with carmakers Saab and Volvo to develop cars and lorries that burn ethanol and other biofuels. Last year the Swedish energy agency said it planned to get the public sector to move out of oil. Its health and library services are being given grants to convert from oil use and homeowners are being encouraged with green taxes. The paper and pulp industries use bark to produce energy, and sawmills burn wood chips and sawdust to generate power.