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Stockholm pursues climate holy grail: A fossil-fuel-free future — Part 1: Ambitious goals

By John J. Berger, PhD, an energy and environmental policy specialist based in the San Francisco Bay Area, who is currently working on a new book on resolving the climate crisis.

It’s been 20 years since Stockholm became the world’s first city to create a formal climate action plan. Back then, the city was producing 5.4 tons of greenhouse gases (CO2eq) per person a year.

Today, emissions have been driven down to only 2.5 tons per person and are still falling. The city’s latest target is only 2.3 tons per person for 2020, just three years from now.

By comparison, annual CO2 emissions in the U.S. are over 16 tons per person, and in China, they are close to 8 tons. Even in environmentally conscious Sweden—the first nation to have an Environmental Protection Agency in 1967—CO2 emissions are almost double Stockholm’s.

If metropolitan Stockholm, a fast-growing area of over two million people, can constrain its greenhouse gases to net-zero annual emissions, no one will ever be able to accuse it of not doing its part to protect the climate.

But what exactly do city officials mean when they hold out the prospect of a fossil-fuel-free future, and is it really attainable by the city’s self-imposed 2040 deadline?

More importantly, what can other nations and cities learn from Stockholm’s progress on the path toward a fossil-fuel-free future? The answer requires a deeper understanding of what Stockholm is doing today, and how the city came to be so committed to a sustainable future.

Virtually Free

Stockholm’s climate strategy begins from the premise that climate change is accelerating and jeopardizing the future of Stockholmers and their children. City officials are adamant that the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere “must be stopped.”

Whereas Stockholm officials believe the city can be virtually fossil-fuel-free by 2040, success will depend on the adoption of energy-efficient infrastructure, smart urban design, and modern energy equipment.

It will also require broad collaboration by major sectors of the economy, support for new innovation and technology, and perhaps most of all, steadfast adherence to the Strategy for fossil-fuel-free Stockholm 2040[i], the city’s latest climate action plan.

This complex new plan assesses the technological opportunities for cutting energy-related emissions and lays out a roadmap for managing the city’s energy, land, and resource use over the long term, through energy policy design and implementation.

The plan radiates confidence that the many technological challenges and risks the city faces in fulfilling its long-term climate targets can be overcome on time and under budget.

Undergirding that confidence is the unspoken presumption that the municipality and its leaders will remain unwavering in their determination to forge on for at least the next generation to fully implement the plan in all its details until victory is won.

An Inspiration

Stockholm’s leadership does indeed seem imbued with the conviction and determination to “stay the course” by fully implementing the city’s climate and energy plans.

In 2014, for example, Stockholm’s then-mayor, Per Ankersjö, expressed his hope that the city’s long-term goal of being fossil-fuel-free, would serve as “a source of inspiration for other cities that will follow our lead in our endeavors to build a greener and more beautiful world.”

Stockholm officials see the climate action plan as an opportunity to lead the world in phasing-out greenhouse gases while continuing the city’s economic growth and accommodating its swelling population.

With many nations failing to reduce their emissions despite the growing global climate emergency, the actions of cities to reduce greenhouse gases is all the more critical. Stockholm’s leaders are thus working in concert with other cities to amplify their impacts.

Stockholm, for example, is one of the founding Members of ICLEI as well as an active participant in the C40 Climate Cities Leadership Network of 90 cities representing 650 million people, the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy to which 7,445 cities are committed.

Stockholm’s Secret Sauce

People concerned about climate change have been wondering what the city’s secret recipe is for making carbon emissions disappear, and what the city’s next steps will be.

They got a partial answer in 2016 when the Stockholm City Council concurred in a resolution by the board of its independent corporate energy provider, Fortum Värme, to end all reliance on coal in Stockholm by 2022.

(Fortum, the Finnish energy company, co-owns Fortum Värme, which operates the district heating system with Stockholm.) The district heating system currently uses very little coal.

The company has just recently opened a large, new, biofueled, combined heat and power plant in Stockholm’s Värtan district. The Värtaverket plant—the company’s largest investment ever at $630 million—is among Sweden’s largest power plants and is one of the world’s largest biofueled plants.

The new Värtaverket combined heat and power district heating plant in Stockholm is among Sweden’s largest power plants and is one of the world’s largest biofuel plants, located in the city’s Värtan district. Photo by FORTUM VÄRME

Värtaverket produce 750 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of electricity along with 1,700 GWh of heat annually—enough heat for 190,000 apartments. The plant is fueled by wood chips and other woody material, and it is reducing Stockholm’s CO2 emissions by 126,000 tonnes a year.

Committed to leading the public-private climate plan effort by example, the city administration has declared its intention of modeling the transition to the post fossil-fuel economy by making the municipality’s own operations and facilities fossil-fuel-free by 2030, ten years ahead of the city as a whole. (Municipal operations account for about 10 percent of the city’s total emissions.)

Stockholm has divided the responsibility for assuring the achievement of this 2030 goal among various committees and municipal boards. Each is tasked with identifying the most cost-effective measures for reducing emissions in a different priority area. The city has set aside special funds to pay for the climate investments required.

A major factor in the city’s success in reducing emissions to date is its adherence to the maxim, “Trust, but verify.” Hence the city annually audits its progress in all domains of its emissions-reduction work. The city also monitors progress every four months using an integrated management system to compare work done, and its economic impacts, with program objectives and milestones.

If results lag, the problem is flagged and efforts are intensified. Every four years, the city also overhauls and updates its Environmental Programme.

City planners thus continuously analyze and calculate the city’s greenhouse gas emissions and emission reduction potential in all major spheres of urban activity. Their mandate is to assure that all milestones are met on the city’s journey to fossil-fuel independence by 2040.

In the next installment in this five-part series on Stockholm’s energy transition, we will look at the economic impacts of Stockholm’s decision to trim its emissions and how the city is coping with the emissions it can’t readily control.


This article is the first of a five-part series on Stockholm’s energy transition originally published on The Huffington Post and republished with permissionThe first three articles of the series present Stockholm’s climate action plan in historical and global perspective.They describe the city’s efforts to reduce emissions from heating, cooling, and transportation, along with how the city recaptures energy from wastes and wastewater. The articles also explain how Stockholm will compensate for stubborn emissions, and how the city keeps its complex climate efforts on track through vigilant management and a “take-no-prisoners” approach to emissions reduction. The fourth article describes the city’s renewable energy production, its building energy efficiency programs, and its transportation programs. The fifth article describes the Stockholm Royal Seaport, where the city is striving to surpass the breakthroughs made in its first eco-district, Hammarby Sjöstad.

Read the next part of the series.


John J. Berger, PhD is an energy and environmental policy specialist who has produced ten books on climate, energy, and natural resource topics. He is the author of Climate Peril: The Intelligent Reader’s Guide to Understanding the Climate Crisis and Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science. He is currently at work on a new book about climate solutions.

Follow John J. Berger on Twitter: www.twitter.com/johnjberger

The contents of this article reflect the personal opinions and interpretations of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability. 

Cover photo by Henrik Trygg: An aerial view of Stockholm’s Old Town, Gamla Stan, in central Stockholm, site of Sweden’s Royal Palace, Riddar Church, Stock Exchange, and the Nobel Museum.

[i]Strategy for fossil fuel-free Stockholm 2040, No. 134-175, City of Stockholm, Executive Office, December 2016.

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