Sweden’s smooth energy transition

Sweden’s goal is to become carbon neutral. During the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly, in 2015, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven announced that Sweden would become one of the world’s first fossil-fuel free states, and that it would no longer emit greenhouse gases by 2050. This deadline was finally brought forward by five years with the passing of a climate law on 15 June 2017.

Sweden, which turned away from oil following the crises of 1973 and 1979, currently has the highest renewable energy share in Europe, having taken it to 53 per cent of its total energy consumption in 2014.

In addition to robust environmental taxes designed to stimulate the transition, Sweden is making good use of its extensive natural resources. Almost half of the country is covered in forests and the organic matter produced is turned into biofuel, used mainly for heating, in urban areas, and to generate electricity.

Its many lakes and watercourses feed over 2000 hydropower plants, which provide almost half of the country’s electricity output. Wind and solar energy is still relatively limited, but the country is planning to build the largest onshore wind farm in Northern Europe on its own soil.

Nuclear energy still occupies an important place in its energy mix, providing around 40 per cent of the country’s electricity.

But the nuclear debate, which divided the country for many years, has gradually drawn to a close. Nuclear is no longer as profitable as renewable energy and the old facilities are expensive to maintain.

Four out of the country’s 10 reactors have to be dismantled by 2020. The fate of the six others remains undecided. Despite the closure of these sites and the potential consequences for workers, the trade unions are confident about the future.

Since the first waves of industrial decline, which mainly affected shipbuilding and textiles, Sweden has adopted a positive approach, largely thanks to effective cooperation between the various social partners. When faced with restructuring, workers are able to rely on the Job Security Councils, which provide them with support at every level in the retraining process.

The councils, set up following the massive job losses linked to the 1973 oil crisis and established on the basis of collective agreements, are financed by employers’ contributions.

In addition, thanks to Sweden’s 70 per cent rate of union membership and the obligation to have at least two unionised employees on the board of directors in all companies with over 25 employees, workers have a real voice.

“We have a few years ahead of us to anticipate the changes set to affect the nuclear sector, but tackling the training issue is already crucial,” explains Johan Hall, head of research at the Swedish trade union confederation Landsorganisationen Sverigen (LO), where the main issues he deals with are climate and energy.

“We are engaged in an ongoing dialogue with companies to convince them to regularly offer their employees new training.” We may have different interests but the companies themselves recognise that they will benefit in the long term from training their staff,” he explains.

The other sectors affected by the energy transition should not undergo any major economic upheaval. The metal and steel manufacturers, for example, will not be forced to close but, rather, to invest in new non-greenhouse gas emitting methods.

New job opportunities will no doubt be created in the energy sector, especially for skilled workers.

According to Energiföretagen, an association that brings together over 400 companies in the sector, 29 per cent of them expect their staff levels to increase over a period of three years, and some 3,200 technicians and engineers are likely to be recruited over the same period.

The Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), a technical and engineering university in Stockholm, which offers several degrees and masters in sustainable development, is preparing these future employees.

“The energy transition occupies a prime place in research and education, and our interest in this field has been growing over the last ten years,” says Göran Finnveden, a professor and vice president for sustainable development at the KTH.

The corporate sector is also starting to take part in the endeavour. Almost 300 of them have joined the Fossil-free initiative set up by the government to speed up the transition towards 100 per cent renewable.

Svante Axelsson is the national coordinator. “There has been a change in mindset since the Paris climate agreement [approved by 195 delegations in December 2015],” he remarks.

“Companies used to consider the energy transition to be a burden that they had to take a share of. Now they see it as a real business opportunity and a way of winning new markets.”

According to Lars Andersson, head of the renewable energy section within the Swedish Energy Agency, their role is fundamental. “When companies tackle a new problem, their ideas have a snowball effect.” For instance, the automobile industry, he points out, is taking a close interest in exploring all the alternatives to the combustion engine.

Volvo, a member of the Fossil-free initiative, is set to be the first global automobile group to leave it behind. The Swedish manufacturer intends to switch to electric or hybrid vehicles as of 2019. It is an important step forward in the energy transition, given that the transport sector, responsible for 24 per cent of CO2 emissions, is one of the greatest challenges to be met.

This story has been translated from French.