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2015-12-03

Refuse rather than environmental policy behind shift to non-fossil fuels

In the 21st century in Sweden, there has been a transition from fossil to non-fossil fuels. This is often claimed due to political initiatives and environmental innovations. However, a new study from Halmstad University shows that it is in fact an increased solid waste and wood fuel combustion behind the transition. Nor has it led to a significant decrease of carbon dioxide emissions – but waste is still preferable to oil as source of energy.

In the 21st century in Sweden, there has been a transition from fossil to non-fossil fuels. This is often claimed due to political initiatives and environmental innovations. However, a new study from Halmstad University shows that it is in fact an increased solid waste and wood fuel combustion behind the transition. Nor has it led to a significant decrease of carbon dioxide emissions – but waste is still preferable to oil as source of energy.

– Reality is sadly not as flashy as many politicians have given the impression of. The shift we have seen to non-fossil energy is not about high-tech environmental innovations, but rather simple changeovers, says Mikael Sandberg, Professor of Political Science at Halmstad University.

Difference between private and public actors

Mikael Sandberg together with research colleague Max Rånge have looked at how Swedish public and private organisations and businesses have selected energy sources between 2003 and 2011. The material has been accessed from Statistics Sweden (SCB).

In this time period, there has been a steady increase in the non-fossil fuel share. In 2006, there was a shift towards more non-fossil than fossil fuel use.

Incineration of wood chips and garbage releases as much carbon dioxide as oil. "But it is still preferable – it is material that is already on the Earth’s surface and, therefore, better for the overall energy balance", says Mikael Sandberg.

The study shows a clear difference between public and private actors’ energy use. It is mainly public organisations – e.g. power plants in municipalities – that cause the shift, since they have moved from mainly oil to primarily solid waste and wood fuel.

– At first, it was most likely the result of having a lot of solid wood waste from all the trees that fell in the storms Gudrun and Per, says Mikael Sandberg.

However, for private actors, fossil energy sources still dominate.

Refuse still preferable

– We are given the impression that our environmental technology is advanced and behind the shift to non-fossil fuels in Sweden. But in fact, environmental technology has played an insignificant role in the transition, Sandberg argues.

The researchers also found that the increased use of non-fossil fuels has not lead to a significant decrease in the emission of greenhouse gases.

– Incineration of wood chips and garbage releases as much carbon dioxide as oil. But it is still preferable – it is material that is already on the Earth’s surface and, therefore, better for the overall energy balance, says Mikael Sandberg.

Updated 2015-12-03