Stockholm pursues climate holy grail: A fossil-fuel-free future — Part 2: Stubborn emissions

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.

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN—Stockholm is aligned with the Swedish government in its belief that climate change is one of the world’s greatest challenges. Sweden’s parliament, prompted in part by the 2015 Paris climate agreement, has proposed a fossil-free Sweden initiative under which the nation would become fossil-fuel free by 2045.

The city has an even more ambitious goal: eliminate all net carbon emissions by 2040. The biggest challenge that remains for the city on its way to the 2040 net-zero emissions goal is to greatly reduce or eliminate carbon emissions from transportation. To do so, the city will have to depend virtually entirely on renewable fuels and electricity for transport by 2040.

Hard-to-Eliminate Emissions

Reducing transportation emissions is particularly challenging because the city’s population is growing rapidly and some of the city’s traffic emissions is caused by regional development. In addition, the city cannot control air travel or shipping to Stockholm without new national and international agreements.

Nonetheless, the city is currently investigating the possibility of issuing a complete ban on fossil fuel sales in 2040 with interim restrictions put in place by 2030. The city is also looking into the possibility of requiring fossil-fuel-free navigation in the port.

Maritime transport accounts for 4 percent of Stockholm’s total emissions and 10 percent of its transport emissions. Ships calling at the Stockholm Royal Seaport currently operate mainly on bunker oil or diesel fuel.

The port is working to increase the proportion of ships using dockside electrical connections instead of on-board fossil-fuel-fired generators. In the future, port fees could be structured to provide shipping companies with incentives to use renewable fuels—such as biofuel or bio-oil—or LNG, a fossil fuel with lower emissions than oil or diesel, as well as the port’s electrical connections.

In addition to emissions from shipping, Stockholm’s emissions accounting also includes fossil fuels consumed by trains within its borders, as well as aviation kerosene consumed from ground level up to 915 meters above Stockholm Bromma Airport.

Plastics made from fossil fuels and mixed with the municipal waste that the city burns in its district heating plants are also hard-to-eliminate. Between now and 2050, the city will strive to increase the share of its plastics made from bio-based (non-fossil-fuel) materials.

It will also try to sort more plastic from its waste stream for recycling, but there are limits. Plastic fibers cannot be indefinitely recycled without breaking down. The city therefore assumes that some plastic will still be incinerated in 2050.

Necessary Exclusions

In its emissions accounting, the city does not count the carbon generated in producing food and goods for Stockholmers outside the city’s boundaries, nor the carbon produced by Stockholmers traveling beyond the city limits. CFCs used in refrigerants, as well as short-lived climate pollutants, apart from methane and nitrous oxide, are also ignored.

Thus the city recognizes that, even with its best efforts, it may still have some fossil-fuel emissions in 2050—on the order of 0.4 tonnes per person. The city knows that it will therefore have to offset these persistent emissions if it is ever to achieve climate neutrality (net-zero fossil-fuel emissions). Zero fossil-fuel emissions in absolute terms likely will remain elusive and impractical even beyond 2050.

In addition, they city relies heavily on biofuels whose combustion emits a significant amount of CO2. The city projects that it will produce 350,000 tonnes of biomass-based emissions in 2050.

Biofuel Emissions and Offsets

While in theory biofuel emissions can be exactly counterbalanced by the removal of an equal amount of CO2 by photosynthesis during plant growth (if an equal quantity of biofuels has been sustainably replanted), in practice this system rarely, if ever, works perfectly.


Biomass is usually grown, harvested, processed, and transported with energy generated by the combustion of fossil fuels. The biofuels’ eventual combustion also produces some additional methane and nitrous oxide, both powerful greenhouse gases.

(c) Fortum Värme
– Unloading wood chip fuel for the Värtaverket combined heat and power district heating plant in Stockholm.

In addition, not enough biomass might be replanted—or a replanted biomass crop might succumb to fire, disease, or drought and thus not sequester enough carbon to offset the emissions it was intended to neutralize.

Moreover, should global demand for biofuels exceed demand by 2040, engines reliant on biogas or bioliquids—and residential and commercial users of biogas—might need to revert again to more plentiful natural gas, gasoline, or diesel. (To minimize this risk, however, Stockholm is working to increase the future availability of biofuels.)

Because of the many concerns about biofuels, in a world in which global emissions must begin falling by 2020 to keep global temperatures from rising by more than 2° C, reliance on biofuels remains problematic.

Nonetheless, the net emissions of biofuels used in Stockholm are significantly lower than they would be if an equivalent amount of fossil fuel had been used.

One carbon-offset method under study in Stockholm to deal with the city’s residual emission in 2050 is to produce biochar from organic materials and incorporate it into the soil (as an amendment), where it would be stored. The city is currently experimenting with a biochar pilot plant and other carbon-sequestration approaches.

Take No Prisoners

When it comes to eliminating carbon emissions, the city’s approach all along has been a genteel version of “take no prisoners.” Its transit efforts, for example, span the gamut from eco-efficient transport, smart traffic solutions, promotion of cycling and walking, and expansion of rail traffic and trunk bus network.

As already mentioned, the city is even considering a citywide ban on fossil-fuel sales after 2050. Conventional cars and trucks will be further discouraged by the establishment of environmental zones in which no fossil-fueled vehicles will be allowed.

Stockholm’s efforts, of course, reach far beyond its transit sector to include energy efficiency in buildings as well as in heating and cooling and an effort to maximize the use of renewable energy. That includes wind and solar power, as well as biomass and geothermal energy, along with biogas production. These initiatives will be described in forthcoming articles.

To better understand Stockholm’s emission-reduction efforts, I went to see Gustaf Landahl, head of Stockholm’s Environment and Health Administration. Landahl has been responsible for much of Stockholm’s climate work since it began in 1996. The third article of this series, informed by that interview, describes the origins of Stockholm’s climate strategy and its fervent commitment to climate protection.

This article is the second 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.

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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 Jeppe Wikström : Waterfront view of Sweden’s Royal Palace in the Gamla Stan (Old Town) section of Stockholm. The Royal Palace is the official residence of the Swedish royal family.