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Sweden's Low Carbon Strategy

  • Published on 29 May 2018
Jean Fluchère

Translation of  La stratégie bas carbone de la Suède by Jean Fluchère

France always puts Germany forward as a model but Germany's "Energiewende" is an obvious failure as even France Stratégie[1] recognizes.

On the contrary, we have a remarkably successful low carbon strategy example with Sweden and its 10 million residents.

As early as 1991, Sweden embarked upon what we now call a low carbon strategy.

Between 1990 and 2013, this country, which was already one of the lowest per capita carbon dioxide emitters among OECD countries, succeeded in reducing its emissions by 22%.

France, which has committed to reducing its carbon dioxide emissions by 40% between 1990 and 2030 and by 75% between 1990 and 2050 must take an interest in Sweden's energy policy.

In the first place, the stability of the electricity demand since 1987, in spite of a population increase and a wider use of electricity for heating, finds an explanation with the government's decision, following the oil crises of the 1970-1980 decade, to launch the construction of one million dwellings with reinforced thermal insulation, which means that more than 10% of the existing housing was renewed. The approach was rational, starting with the replacement of the most energy intensive buildings and the energy saving renovation of the others.

Situating Sweden from the energy point of view, we note that it has a large hydraulic and biomass energy potential, including its wood fuel. Forests cover 54% of the country and account for 19% of the EU's forest area. Sweden is the second largest worldwide exporter of paper, paper pulp and wood (second to Canada). Moreover, the wood industry produces multiple wastes that can be recycled into the energy sector.

Sweden has halved its oil consumption within 40 years: 16.0 Mtoe petroleum products consumed in 2011 compared to 31.3 Mtoe in 1970, before the oil crises.

It has decided to retain its nuclear power, up to a 10 GW maximum capacity.

Its population is highly urbanized, facilitating the use of thermal renewable energies in district heating networks.

Thanks to its well structured energy policy, Sweden has succeeded in having no more than 30% fossil fuels in its final energy consumption in 2013 (compared to 65% in France) and it has increased its GDP by 60 % between 1990 and 2013 while reducing its CO2 emission by 22%.

Sweden's low carbon strategy rests on 4 fundamental pillars. 

  1. Carbon-free electricity generation.

The generation of electricity is based on a hydropower and nuclear power mix which ensures 85% of the production. The rest is produced from biomass for 6%, wind power for 7% and fossils for 3%, as a backup to deal with the large weather fluctuations of the country. Note that nuclear power is operated in base load mode. The fluctuations of wind power are compensated via hydropower dams.

Regarding nuclear power, in a referendum organized in 1978, Sweden had approved a nuclear power phase-out scheduled over 30 years but this decision was reversed in 2009 when it was decided to keep a nuclear power fleet limited to a 10 GW maximum capacity, with an option to increase the capacity of individual plants (which was done). The replacement of an existing plant with a more efficient plant is allowed, provided the existing plant is permanently shut down. Only as a plant reaches end of life and is permanently shut down will a new power plant be allowed to be brought into operation.

Recently, the Swedish government has decided to allow Ringhals 1 and 2, which were brought into operation in 1975 and 1976, to continue operation up to 50 years, and up to 60 years for Ringhals 3 and 4 along with Forsmark 1 to 3, under provision of an upgrade to the highest safety level.

Note that 4 of the 7 plants are boiling water reactors (BWR), the same type as the Fukushima plants but, contrary to the Fukushima plants, the upgrades applied to pressurized water reactors have been adapted to these.

Thanks to this carbon-free electricity, Sweden has been able to realize use transfers and reduce its fossil fuel consumption.

  1. Considerable use transfers

Sweden has specifically targeted the replacement of fossil fuels. The Swedish industry, which still accounts for nearly 50% of the country's GNP, relies mainly on carbon-free electricity and on thermal renewables for heat, the two representing 78% of the energy consumption in the sector.

The residential and tertiary sectors rely on thermal renewables and electricity for up to 91% of their heating needs. Oil and especially natural gas have been considerably reduced, thanks to a deep transformation of the heating systems which use standard electricity, heat pumps (the Swedes have acquired close to 100 000 heat pumps per year for a good number of years (both ground-source and air-source heat pumps)) and cogeneration with biomass-burning district heating.

This results in the Swedes being the largest electricity consumers in the EU with almost 14MWh per capita, compared to the 7MWh per capita of France. On the other hand, the fossil fuel consumption is much smaller.

  1. A consistent energy policy

Above all, Sweden defined an energy efficient policy, with the construction of well insulated housing and an energy-saving upgrade of existing buildings.

The development of carbon-free technologies rests on a well adapted fiscal policy and on efficient financing measures.

The Swedish government aims to reduce CO2 emissions by 40% by 2020 and 100% by 2050.

It has not adopted the EU emissions trading system which, by general agreement, is not operational with a CO2 price of 7 €/tonne. But, as early as 1991, it has established a progressive taxation of the tonne of CO2 which is currently taxed at over 120 €/tonne. This tax applies primarily to private individuals so as to avoid jeopardizing the industry relative to international competition.

This carbon tax is complemented with a tax on energy, excluding electricity.

As a counterpart, the income relative to these taxes enables cost deductions for companies and to support energy saving with grants at the national and local scale. 

  1. Transportation

The transportation sector remains the largest GHG emitter in Sweden (it is number 2 in France). It absorbs nearly 80% of the final consumption of petroleum products.

The Swedish Energy Agency now considers low carbon transportation its priority research field. Henceforth, success in reaching the 100% CO2 emissions reduction in 2050 depends on this sector.

The Norwegian neighbor's example, with highly developed electric powered mobility, will very probably be taken on in Sweden.


Let us not pick the wrong model. Germany's energy transition is a failure.

Whereas Sweden's energy transition is a remarkable success.


[1]    Translator's note : France Stratégie officially known as "Commissariat général à la Stratégie et à la Prospective (CGSP)" is an institution that reports to the prime minister and helps identify future orientations to further France's economic, social and environmental development.