How to reach zero carbon

One country that’s ahead of most in the fight against climate change is Sweden...
30 June 2020

Interview with 

Kimberly Nicholas, Lund University


A road busy with car traffic.


One country that’s ahead of most in the fight against climate change is Sweden. Sweden now has an energy grid that emits almost no carbon. Kimberly Nicholas is a sustainability expert at Lund University in Sweden - she’s currently helping the city of Lund reduce its emissions to zero. I asked her whether Sweden might have any lessons for us…

Kimberly - There is actually almost no country on earth that is on track to limit warming within the range that the Paris agreement specifies and even these climate goals are not sufficient. And certainly the policies that are being put in place at the moment are nowhere near fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Phil - Oh dear. If the targets aren't good enough, what do they need to be?

Kimberly - What's necessary as I said is to get all the way to zero, which is a really a round and unforgiving number.

Phil - That's zero carbon dioxide?

Kimberly - Exactly. So humans need to completely stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The reason for that is because it lasts essentially forever. So there's some carbon now in the atmosphere that's been there longer than Stonehenge, for example, or longer than the pyramids have been around. We really are setting the thermostat for essentially the future of civilisation. And we need to do about half of the work in less than 10 years. So we've got a big job ahead of us if we want a relatively safe and a stable climate. Sweden is further ahead in terms of having a clean energy source. Now we're faced with how to eliminate emissions from transport and from land use.

Phil - How do you deal with them? Because people obviously still need to go about their life, go to places, use land for various agriculture, whatever.

Kimberly - The first step is stepping back and having a pretty big rethink of what we're aiming for here. And we know that business as usual is headed for catastrophic climate change. Transport, I think a big part of it is reducing the need for mobility, making it safe and attractive to walk and cycle instead of drive. Services available where people live - kind of relocalising neighbourhoods, and digital substitutions for what would otherwise have been a really long work trip for a short meeting. We need to move to fossil free cars, so we need cars that are inherently clean that don't pollute by driving but we also will need to actually reduce the total miles driven. So there's a lot of discussion around that of why are people driving, for what purposes? It ends up being things that you would probably never think of as climate related.

Phil - Obviously here in the UK we're not quite there. I mean, we've gone off coal as of a couple of months ago.

Kimberly - That's great. Congrats. Let's celebrate that. We need to celebrate the climate victories when they do happen, because that's huge.

Phil - What do we do now though?

Kimberly - Yeah. Now you've got to decarbonise everything else! And you also need probably even more clean electricity because we need to run a lot of things that today are not run on electricity, like cars for example, most of them are running on a fossil fuel. So we need not just 100% clean electricity, but more like 200% clean electricity, because that will be our major fuel source in the future.

Phil - How do you actually do that?

Kimberly - You shut down a lot of dirty infrastructure, unfortunately ahead of its planned lifetime. We need then politics that will help deal with those losses. Make sure that the workers get a fair transition to clean energy jobs, and there's a lot of demand for that. There are a lot more jobs in clean energy actually than today's dirty energy system. And the workers themselves would prefer in many cases to organise for just this kind of transition.

Phil - How much then is sort of my job, and how much is Boris Johnson's job?

Kimberly - One piece of research that my colleague Jonas Sonnanschein did, that was really fascinating, had to do exactly with this. So in a survey, he asked people who's responsible for the emissions from aviation: is it the industry themselves, the manufacturers of the plane or the industries that run them, the consumer who buys the ticket? And basically no one took responsibility for the emissions. So I think it was, you know, the industry said, well, it's the government's responsibility. The government said, it's the private citizens we can't tell them what to do. The citizens said, well, I wouldn't fly if industry didn't make it so darn cheap. So basically you have this perfect circle of everybody pointing the finger the other way. And I think if we are actually going to stabilise the climate, what is necessary is that people take responsibility for the things that they can control.


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