In Transition: How Scandinavia Abandoned Fossil Fuels

Copenhagen, Denmark is one of Europe’s greenest cities with bikes outnumbering people, but it was not always like that. (Wikimedia Commons)
Copenhagen, Denmark is one of Europe’s greenest cities with bikes outnumbering people, but it was not always like that. (Wikimedia Commons)
Copenhagen, Denmark is one of Europe’s greenest cities with bikes outnumbering people, but it was not always like that. (Wikimedia Commons)

Renewable energy and Scandinavia have become practically synonymous. Beginning in the 1970s, after the Arab Oil Crisis of the 1970s sent shockwaves around the global economy, the northern countries of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Iceland began to relieve their unsustainable dependence on crude oil and petroleum in exchange for more effective and reliable ways of heating their homes and fueling their cars. Windmills have rapidly replaced oil rigs and biofuel is being substituted for oil.  Copenhagen is the bicycle capital of the world with 50% of residents commuting by bike. In Norway, the best-selling car is the emissions-free Tesla Model S. Stockholm, the financial and cultural hub of Sweden, is known for its burgeoning green economy and green initiatives that have been incorporated into the day-to-day affairs of the city.

The United States does not trail too far behind Scandinavia in the number of wind farms and solar panels. The country has invested in renewable energy since the 1930s, with 11 percent of the country’s total energy being produced through renewable energy in 2015. The US Energy Information Administration reported that “the consumption of biofuels and nonhydroelectric renewable energy sources more than doubled from 2000 to 2015, mainly because of state and federal government mandates and incentives for renewable energy”.  There is no question as to whether or not this sector is growing in the US. However, the extent to which political leaders want the country to leave the fossil fuel industry behind is largely debatable. President Barack Obama’s attempts to curb the growth of nonrenewables have been stalled by Republicans in Congress who believe they can bolster American national security. While some new technologies allow for cleaner and more efficient energy, others allow companies to access deep and hard to reach oil reserves which further contribute to the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. In many ways, the situation in Scandinavia mirrors that of the US and provides solutions to future (hopefully avoidable) energy crises.

Background of Scandinavian Energy        

Many will be quick to label Scandinavia as the land of high taxes, staunch socialists, and zealous eco-maniacs. However, critics overlook the oil crisis of the 1970s that was exacerbated by the region’s roots in unsustainable resource extraction and heavy dependence on fossil fuels. Before the Arab oil embargo of 1973, the Scandinavian countries heavily relied on oil which was, and still is plentiful in the North Sea. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Observatory of Economic Complexity reported that in 2014, “the top exports of Norway [were]Crude Petroleum ($45.1B), Petroleum Gas ($43.6B), Refined Petroleum ($6.56B)”. Consequently, the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo hit global oil consumers hard, including the US and Scandinavia. The Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) severely cut their oil production and completely halted the export of oil to targeted nations. Northern Europe attempted to mitigate the repercussions of the embargo by disassociating itself “from US foreign policy in the Middle East, in order to avoid being targeted by the boycott”, but ultimately suffered from the same high oil prices as the rest.

Scandinavia Foresees a Green Future

The crisis was a wake-up call for Scandinavia, and it prompted a progressive shift towards renewable resources. The pivot to green energy was a massive undertaking. Øystein Olsen, the governor of Norway’s central bank said in a speech, “The shift to an oil-driven economy with a high wage capacity has been a comfortable journey. The journey forward, where the oil service industry must downscale and other trade-exposed industries must grow, will be more challenging”. Moving away from fossil fuels undoubtedly comes with bumps in the road, but the Scandinavian countries have restructured and readapted to the drastic changes, meaning other nations can do so too.

Sweden’s government has allocated billions of kronor towards green infrastructure such as “solar panels and wind turbines, as well as cleaner public transport and a smarter energy grid and energy storage system”, more energy-efficient residential buildings, as well as environmentally-focused research. Additionally, with the introduction of a carbon tax in the 1990s, greenhouse gas emissions have dropped significantly as people and businesses search for ways to reduce their carbon footprints. Harnessing its most plentiful resources, wood and water, Sweden has successfully distanced itself from the fossil fuel industry. Now “wood fuels supply about 90 percent of the city’s heating and cooling energy” and hydropower has become a dependable energy source due to Sweden’s abundance of lakes and rivers.

In the past, Denmark depended on oil for over 90 percent of its energy. Today, it has drastically reduced that number by replacing cars with bikes and building wind farms near populous cities. Some of the most impactful measures have been centralized power plants, strict building codes and car-free Sundays (a phenomenon put in place during the oil embargo), which have all shaped the culture and people of Denmark. Today the country has more bikes than people, and around 400 km of cycle paths. Most importantly, as Denmark’s economy grows and expands its total energy consumption remains at the same levels as 1973, despite the increase in population.

A map of oil and gas fields in the North Sea, the source of Norway's economic success (Wikimedia Commons).
A map of oil and gas fields in the North Sea, the source of Norway’s economic success (Wikimedia Commons).

Norway, although socially progressive and environmentally conscious, differs from all other Scandinavian nations with regards to its fossil fuel dependence. The country’s chief resource was and still is crude oil. Although the country still holds huge fossil fuel reserves, Norwegians have adopted a highly sustainable lifestyle with a minimal carbon footprint. Electric vehicles (EVs) are all the craze as they are quite cheap (due to the lack of an import tax). Additionally, the government places incentives for consumers to purchase EVs with free parking in public parks, ability to use the bus lane, and plentiful recharge stations around the country. Aside from the transportation sector that is dominated by electric vehicles, Norway’s electricity for both commercial and residential use comes from hydropower. These measures seem to communicate Norway’s desire to move away from fossil fuels by investing in an ever-growing, relatively stable sector – renewable energy. However, the biggest stumbling block for most observers of Norway’s economy is the fact that its largest export is oil. It seems rather hypocritical that a country wants to do away with fossil fuels at home, but encourage its dependence and proliferation abroad. Nevertheless, societal independence (if not economic) from fossil fuels is better than none at all. A progressive abandonment of nonrenewables will ultimately allow politicians to worry less about the consequences of a future oil crisis, and ordinary citizens can rest assured that the future of their children and grandchildren will be secure as the region combats the causes and effects of climate change.

Can America Follow Scandinavia’s Lead?

There is reason to believe that Scandinavia may be able to do away with fossil fuels by the mid-21st century, considering the many steps their governments have taken to slowly move away from a highly unstable resource. If the elimination of fossil fuels were feasible anywhere, it would be Scandinavia. This can be attributed to the Nordic Model, a “unique combination of free market capitalism and social benefits”. The high trust that citizens place in their government as well as the economic opportunity and equality that results from the implementation of such a model allows for a complete elimination of the fossil fuel industry. Scandinavian political systems are not only known for being trustworthy, but also transparent. As The Economist reports, “Governments are forced to operate in the harsh light of day: Sweden gives everyone access to official records. Politicians are vilified if they get off their bicycles and into official limousines.” This level of scrutiny certainly exists in the US, but it comes from a general public distrust in political proceedings. For many American people, C-SPAN certainly provides some insight as to how Congress operates, however a good number of the deals, bargains, and decisions are made behind closed doors.

Because of the nature of our government and its relationship to the people, it would be difficult to rid the United States of fossil fuels by 2050. Current politicians and lawmakers are far too intertwined with the fossil fuel industry both politically and financially to invest in renewables so easily. Under a Trump administration, the US may become even more dependent on fossil fuels than before if the government encourages fracking and reopens coal plants and oil rigs. It may take generations for the US to get to the place where Scandinavia is now.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors or governors.


Katerina Fomichev

Katerina Fomichev is an International Relations and Environmental Studies double major at the University of Southern California. She has traveled to over twenty countries, most of which are in Europe developing a deep love for that region of the world. For her senior project in high school she traveled to Italy for a month researching food standards and meeting with executives of the grass-roots movement “Slow Food” headquartered in Bra, Italy. Her primary interests are in European environmental policy and Russian-American relations. She is particularly interested in how European “green initiatives” like sustainable tourism and the use of biofuels can be adopted in the United States. She is fluent in Russian, English, and French and is an executive board member of the Russian Culture Club at USC. She has also been a member of USC’s Teaching International Relations Program, and plans to intern and study at the Institute for European Studies in Brussels during the Summer of 2017.