When many of the world’s hot spots seems to be spiraling into further violence, Colombia offers hope.
By Bruce E. Johansen, July 2007 Issue
Sweden and Norway have some of the highest liquor taxes in the world, provoking large-scale smuggling from Denmark. Until recently, gold-and-blue-capped Swedish Customs officers poured the contraband booze down the drain. These days, however, a million illicit bottles a year are trucked to a sparkling new high-tech plant about eighty miles from Stockholm that manufactures biogas fuel. Every busted booze smuggler has been drafted into Sweden’s war against oil dependence and greenhouse gases.
The Linköping plant also accepts packing-plant waste. This swill produces biofuel for buses, taxis, garbage trucks, and private cars, as well as a methane-propelled “biogas train.” The train’s boosters (not squeamish vegetarians, from the sound of it) have figured that the entrails from one dead cow buy 2.5 miles on the train.
The color of consensus in Sweden today is green. A growing web of pedestrian malls allows tens of thousands of people to traverse downtown Stockholm on foot every day—down a gentle hill, northwest to southeast, along Drottninggatan, past the Riksdag (Parliament) and the King’s Palace, merging with Vasterlanggatan, into the Old Town—for more than two miles. More and more streets across the city are gradually being placed off-limits to motor traffic.
To reduce oil consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions, Swedes are being encouraged to avoid commuting altogether. Teleconferencing is in. When they do commute, more Swedes now use public transport, hybrid vehicles, and biodiesel cars, as well as bicycles.
Stockholm will introduce a fleet of Swedish-made electric hybrid buses in its public transport system on a trial basis in 2008. These buses will use ethanol-powered internal-combustion engines and electric motors, an interim step toward development of entirely “clean” vehicles. The vehicles’ diesel engines will use ethanol.
Ulf Perbo, who heads BIL Sweden, the national association for the automobile industry, says even automakers there want to end oil dependency. “It is not in our interest to be dependent on oil, with regard to the production and sales of cars,” he says. “Oil is not what interests us; cars are. And oil is going to be a limitation in the future.” All Swedish gas stations are required by an act of parliament to offer at least one alternative fuel. Every fifth car in Stockholm now drives at least partially on alternative fuels, mostly ethanol.
The proportion of oil-heated homes in Sweden has fallen to 8 percent, as many neighborhoods use hot water from central plants that burn biofuels, often wood-based pellets. Since the beginning of 2006, householders have been paid to replace oil-burning furnaces with environmentally friendly heating systems. Such financial incentives already were available to libraries, pools, and hospitals that wanted to switch to more efficient renewable energy.
Per Bolund, one of nineteen Green Party members in Sweden’s 349-member Riksdag, says there may be less here than meets the eye. When Swedish officials brag that they have reduced the use of oil in home heating to almost zero, he says, they are ignoring the fact that half that total is from nuclear plants, and most of the other half from often-inefficient hydropower. “Any time you see the government claiming that oil use for heating has been minimized to nearly zero you have to say—yes, but!” Don’t stereotype Sweden as a green-power heaven, Bolund says. “We have a long way to go.”
But the Swedes are moving in the right direction, however. Another conservation measure, “congestion charging,” which levies a toll on cars entering downtown Stockholm, became a controversial issue in the Swedish general election during the late summer of 2006. The congestion charge of up to $7 a day narrowly passed in a referendum on September 17, 2006.
The congestion charge reduced auto traffic 20 to 25 percent, while use of trains, buses, and Stockholm’s extensive subway system increased. Emissions of carbon dioxide declined 10 to 14 percent in the inner city and 2 to 3 percent in Stockholm County. The project also increased the use of environmentally friendly cars, which are exempt from congestion taxes. The Stockholm congestion tax will become permanent this summer.
The Green Party favored a Stockholm congestion charge for decades, as conservatives blocked it. Ironically, the congestion charge will be imposed under the country’s present conservative-oriented coalition government.
Sweden’s Commission on Oil Independence, a government panel, also was a longtime Green Party initiative that is now embraced across the Swedish political spectrum. “The Social Democrats stole it from us,” Bolund says. He then grins, saying that the Greens must be prepared to be mimicked across the political mainstream to succeed.
The Swedish government recently adopted another Green Party idea: a vehicle tax based on carbon dioxide emissions rather than weight. Bolund pointed out that some cars (such as hybrids) are heavy, but relatively low in fossil-fuel emissions. This is the latest wrinkle in a sixteen-year-old Swedish movement toward carbon-based taxation. The country was the first in the world to adopt a carbon tax, in 1991. Today, nearly half of the Swedish income tax burden has been phased out and replaced by levies based in some manner on fossil-fuel consumption.
Everywhere in Stockholm you see little energy-saving tricks. Many renovated Stockholm hotel rooms and apartments have a door slot for key cards that must be activated to turn on the lights. When you leave your room, the lights automatically turn off. The escalators and moving sidewalks in the Riksdag stop when no one uses them. And signs in the Riksdag cafeteria advertise that food scraps can have a useful second life as biogas.
Sweden is not alone. The Danish Crown slaughterhouse uses the fat of 50,000 pigs a week to generate biogas. The entire Danish Crown plant has been redesigned with an eye to saving energy, part of a thirty-year Danish effort to eliminate waste, conserve energy, and reduce consumption of fossil fuels, as The Wall Street Journal reports.
Surplus heat from Danish power plants is delivered to nearby homes, via insulated pipes. Large parts of Denmark have undergone a nearly total makeover of basic energy infrastructure. The new system now heats almost two-thirds of Danish homes. Power plants have been radically reduced in size and built closer to people’s homes and offices to reduce power loss during transmission. In the mid-1980s, Denmark had fifteen large power plants; it now has several hundred small ones.
Danish building codes enacted in 1979 (and tightened several times since) also require thick home insulation and tightly sealed windows. Between 1975 and 2001, Denmark’s national heating bill fell 20 percent, even as the amount of heated space increased by 30 percent. Denmark’s gross domestic product has doubled on stable energy usage during the last thirty years. The average Dane now uses 6,600 kilowatt hours of electricity a year, less than half of the U.S. average, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Denmark has become a world leader in wind-turbine technology. Turbines generate electricity that competes in price with oil, coal, and nuclear power, and they provide several thousand jobs. Some wind turbines now have blades almost 300 feet wide—the length of a football field.
During January, a very stormy month, Denmark harvested 36 percent of its electricity from wind, almost double the usual. In the United States, the comparable figure is one-quarter of 1 percent.
Urban life in Denmark is being recast with the automobile as antithesis. Drivers are free to buy an SUV, but the bill includes a registration tax up to 180 percent of the purchase price. Denmark’s taxation system has become an environmental exclamation point. Imagine, for example, paying more than $80,000 in taxes (as well as $6 a gallon for gasoline) to buy and drive a Hummer H2—that, and pesky bicyclists may ridicule your elegantly pimped ride as an environmental atrocity.
Bicycles have become privileged personal urban transport. To sample bicycle gridlock, come to Copenhagen, which has deployed 2,000 bikes around the city for free use. The city’s environmental chief, Klaus Bondam, commutes by bicycle. Helmets are not required, despite the occasional bout of two-wheeled road rage as bicyclists clip each other on crowded streets. People ride bikes while drinking coffee or smoking. Rain or shine, they use a wide array of baskets to carry groceries and briefcases.
Many Danish companies offer indoor bike parking, as well as locker rooms. Employees ride company-owned bikes to off-site meetings. People tote children on extra bike seats. Members of parliament ride to work, as do CEOs of some major companies. Lars Rebien Sorensen, head of the pharmaceutical firm Novo Nordisk, even conducts media interviews from his bike saddle.
Imagine a CEO in the United States doing that, or a Senator. We are falling way behind Sweden and Denmark and many other European countries in taking serious steps to combat global warming. It may be a while before the U.S. Senate cafe?teria carries a sign urging colleagues to recycle scraps for biogas. But we don’t have a while to wait.
Bruce E. Johansen, Frederick W. Kayser Professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is the author of “Global Warming in the 21st Century.”