What can we learn from the Nordic low-carbon energy transition, given the new US leadership vacuum on climate change? A new study by Professor Benjamin Sovacool at the University of Sussex offers some important lessons.
The Trump administration’s ‘First energy plan’ criticises the ‘burdensome’ regulations on the energy industry and aims to eliminate ‘harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan’, which was introduced by President Barack Obama.
It has also deleted all mentions of climate change and global warming from the White House website.
Given the American leadership vacuum on energy and climate change, national and local planners looking to bring about energy transitions will need to look elsewhere.
Five Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden – could hold answers for how to make the transition to a more energy efficient society generating energy through renewables.
Denmark is renowned for its pioneering use of wind energy, Finland and Sweden bioenergy, Norway hydroelectricity and Iceland geothermal energy (main image). Each country aims to be virtually ‘fossil free’ by 2050.
About 83% of electricity generation in Nordic countries is low carbon, of which 63% comes entirely from renewable sources. The Nordic countries are also facilitating other low-carbon transitions across other sectors including heat, buildings, industry and transport.
Professor Sovacool’s study outlines broad lessons for how this transition could be replicated elsewhere and shows that, if you factor in the costs of air pollution, the energy transition pays for itself.
The total estimated cost of the Nordic energy transition is roughly $357 billion more than business as usual, which comes to a total of less than 1 percent of cumulative GDP between now and 2050.
Almost all of these costs will be offset by fuel savings. Even the external costs associated with the health impacts of air pollution alone in the Nordic countries (about $9 to $14 billion annually) are roughly equal to the additional investment needed to achieve a carbon neutral scenario.
Trade and interconnection with Europe play a role in allowing the Nordic countries to reach their carbon and energy targets.
Nordic electricity trade must expand considerably, underscoring the need for paralleled, coordinated grid development and interconnections with Great Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
Even for the Nordic countries, which are relatively wealthy, small and committed, the transition will take at least three to four more decades. Its success rests upon a number of compelling technological contingencies or breakthroughs, each of which will take time.
A few such breakthroughs include a continued phase out of nuclear power; a rapid ramping up of onshore and offshore wind energy; a spectacular diffusion of electric vehicles; a massive increase in bioenergy production and the commercialisation of industrial-scale carbon capture and storage.
On top of this, households and consumers must learn to adopt better energy management systems and industrial planners must come to install newer cement kilns, electric arc furnaces and feedstock switching for chemicals, petrochemicals and paper and pulping.
All the Nordic countries are endowed with plentiful fossil fuels that they can export to generate revenue that they funnel back into domestic decarbonisation process, coupled with a history of strong energy and climate planning and high fuel and electricity prices.
While the Nordic low-carbon transition has generally been successful and has benefited most within its society, the paper also identifies losers in the transition, including those set to lose their jobs as fossil fuels are displaced.
Other potential obstacles to be overcome are a lack of understanding among some citizens about energy and climate topics, and the outsourcing of embodied carbon emissions overseas.
Click here to read ‘Contestation, contingency, and justice in the Nordic low-carbon energy transition’.
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