In the fall 2019 semester, I participated in a seminar through Syracuse University that explored sustainability and environmental justice in Scandinavia. This seminar took me to Sweden, Finland, and Denmark.
Walking through Stockholm in the early evening, it is nearly impossible to avoid the herds of bikes that come barreling down the roads, traveling in swift fleets each weeknight. Rush hour in this city is in stark contrast to rush hour in other cities such as New York and Los Angeles, as cars drift easily down the street, obstructed by bikers and pedestrians instead of by thousands of other cars. This can be attributed to a multitude of factors, such as Sweden's effective public transportation, Swedes' preference for biking as a more active mode of transportation, or the cost-effective nature of avoiding car ownership. One common goal, however, unites Swedes in their quest to avoid fossil fuel-powered vehicles: the desire to diminish carbon emissions. In fact, Stockholm plans to be fossil fuel free by 2040.
This goal comes with strong motivation, as Reuters reports that in 2018 humans added 33.1 billion tons of carbon into the air, 14% of which came from transportation according to the EPA. Carbon emissions are responsible for 64% of global climate change, the European Commission reports, as they contribute to the greenhouse effect which warms the planet. This means that decreasing the amount of fossil fuels that we burn each year could have an immensely positive impact on the global climate crisis.
Stockholm is on track to achieve a maximum of 2.3 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents emitted per resident in 2020, according to a strategy report prepared by the city. Reports from the World Bank show that in 2016 — the most recent year available — the U.S. produced 15.5 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per capita, while all of Sweden was at just 4.4 tons.
My classmates and I were first introduced to Stockholm's plan to become fossil fuel free by our guide, Zennid, on a walking tour around the city. He outlined how the metro system in Stockholm is electric and how the public buses run on biofuels. Additionally, most car owners power their vehicles with electricity or biofuels. One challenge that he identified was making this work for tourism, as large tour buses and cruise ships that bring people to Stockholm are still powered by fossil fuels.
The determination of the Swedes to reduce their fossil fuel emissions was tangible in the amount of people biking, walking, and taking the train around the city. I was shocked when another tour guide who showed us around a sustainable living development at the Royal Seaport told me that she refuses to travel in vehicles powered by fossil fuels. I was shocked by this statement, as completely avoiding fossil fuels has never been something that I could even dream of achieving. To get to the grocery store, school, or the train station from my home in Rhode Island, it is necessary to drive. This could still be fossil fuel-free with the use of an electric or biofuel-powered vehicle, but the lack of affordable and versatile versions of these cars on the market in the U.S. has left my family with classic gas-guzzling American cars.
So this leaves me with the question: Is there a future in which Americans can avoid fossil fuels as our tour guide could in Stockholm?
Of course, electric and hybrid vehicles have already reached the U.S., the Toyota Prius and the Tesla Model 3 being two prominent varieties. While people can charge these cars at home, charging stations in parking spaces have become noticeably popular in Sweden, and their implementation in the U.S. could convince more consumers to go electric. A challenge in implementing electric car culture in the U.S. seems to be the looks of electric cars, as most models, such as the Toyota Prius and the BMW i3, are smaller, less American looking cars. Getting over our obsession with large pickup trucks and SUVs may be a major hurdle in this transition. Even I have trouble with the idea of my family having only small cars, as American road trip culture gives us the ideal of driving down country roads from state to state in a big comfortable car.
I had always heard that biofuel technology was not efficient, so I was shocked when I heard about its popularity in Stockholm. It turns out that biofuel is less expensive than typical fuel in Sweden, as diesel costs 16.08 Swedish Krona per liter — or $1.83 a liter, as of publication time, which is the equivalent of about $7 per gallon. And biodiesel for a truck costs 14.24 Krona ($1.62) per liter.
Biodiesel, a popular form of biofuel, is made of hydrogenated vegetable oil (HVO), which according to one HVO company is compatible with all diesel engines and "does not release any new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere." A study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S. found that "biodiesel yields 93% more" energy than the energy used to manufacture the fuel. Moreover, the study found that biofuel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 41% when replacing fossil fuels. Consumer Reports found that using biodiesel works just as well as fossil fuels, but the lack of access to this type of fuel in the U.S. makes it unsuitable for everyday use.
Ethanol is another type of biofuel, usually made from corn, that "yields 25% more energy than the energy invested in its production" and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 12%, according to the National Academy of Sciences report. In the U.S., a mixture of 90% gasoline and 10% ethanol is usually used to fuel cars. The U.S. is the world's top ethanol producer, but as National Geographic reports, this fuel is controversial because of the amount of energy necessary for its manufacture.
Next steps for the U.S.
Overall, Stockholm's fossil fuel free ambitions were noticeable and inspirational. The government and the residents of Stockholm are both taking prominent roles in reducing carbon emissions, and I left Stockholm with a new understanding of sustainable transportation. I think that the first step to freeing ourselves from fossil-fuel powered transportation is to make the alternatives more accessible. If we can make these alternatives normal, hopefully their economic and environmental advantages will encourage Americans to follow in the footsteps of the Swedes.