And so, it was time for Almedalen Week again, the first to be held in person after a two-year hiatus due to the Covid pandemic. Almedalen is sometimes called the world’s largest democratic meeting place for current events and social issues, where ministers mingle with nonprofits and members of the private sector.
But first, an introduction to Almedalen Week for our international audiences. In 1968, Olof Palme, minister of education at the time, held a public speech in the city of Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. This event kicked off a yearly summer tradition of speeches from Swedish political leaders. Even today, these speeches remain the core of Almedalen. The unique opportunities for meeting the exchange of ideas and meeting afforded by these speeches have developed into a festival-like atmosphere where, over the course of several days, a wide range of actors within the public, private and nonprofit sectors get a chance to listen to and meet political representatives and the media in formal settings like seminars and informal settings like off-the-record meetings and roundtables. Almedalen is open to the public for everyone who wishes to participate in a democratic discussion and forum. It has also inspired several other countries to create similar democratic meeting places and events, such as Folkemödet in Denmark, Arendalsuka in Norway and SoumiAreena in Finland.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has painfully exposed the fact that dependence on fossil fuels is not just a climate problem. This year’s Almedalen Week was characterized by the energy and raw material crisis stemming from the war and how it should best be handled.
During my two days in Visby, I observed that business and enterprise are experiencing the following megatrends:
- Declining confidence in global stability in the future. Concerns about geopolitical tensions make companies want to build close and long-term relationships with trusted partners to secure their value chains.
- We need more electricity – both in terms of load and power – and we need it very quickly. We shall not pit different technologies against each other and the permit processes must go much faster.
The political response to these challenges remains to be seen. Our minister of energy is now highlighting a target of “more of everything” – more solar, wind, combined heat and power, district heating, bioenergy and nuclear energy – as well as a grid that can provide this energy to its end users. However, the debate between Swedish political parties is, in my opinion, stuck in the fictitious choice of “windpower or nuclear power”.
Through the business network Hagainitiativet, Stockholm Exergi participated in two seminars on Monday. One was about how the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a war taking place about 100 miles away from Visby, affects the entire EU energy system and whether the measures that are currently being taken entail a major setback for climate change priorities. It is clear that Sweden’s and the EU’s crisis packages have provoked a lot of reaction – the word “backlash” has been used by many people. I, however, wasn’t as certain.
The fact that a totalitarian state has invaded a neighboring country is obviously a setback and, above all, an enormous tragedy. The whole EU was thrown into an existential crisis. For a long time, many warned of a large dependence on fossil fuel imports, not just for climate reasons. The risk has now become a reality. How we manage this risk and lessons learned from it will be crucial not only for the climate issue. The EU’s reaction, which was in the short term to by all means eliminate its dependence on Russian gas and oil (even if it meant the continued usage of fossil fuels), while simultaneously forcing a transition to sustainable sources of energy with lower climate impact, seemed contradictory. But this challenge is enormous and the whole climate issue depends on broad societal acceptance. One conclusion that I think everyone can agree on is that crisis management should, as much as possible, consist of measures that alleviate the crisis’ immediate effects on the national economy without damaging the credibility of the long-term policy needed for a more robust energy system with a reduced climate impact. The latter is not least necessary for us in the private sector whose investments are based on our confidence in fixed climate targets. National plans were far from sufficient. Whether this crisis is a setback, or on the contrary a painful kick that accelerates the green transition, remains to be seen. But at least now there is complete agreement that the dependence on fossil energy must be quickly eliminated.
The second seminar was about how more circular systems can contribute to reduced dependence on imports of various raw materials that are critical for our food supply and heavy industry. The crisis in Ukraine cast a shadow on this conversation as well. Several examples showing how we can stimulate reuse practices, extract for instance phosphorus and rare earth metals from residual products that already exist, and get more reusable plastic in circulation. Stockholm Exergi’s role in this system is undeniably special. Our waste management process is one of the very last steps, but since we recycle and produce energy during that process, we simultaneously initiate a different value chain. Every part of society needs energy.
At Stockholm Exergi, we even work to extract benefits from our own residual products (like ash), which is completely in line with what many others are working towards today. That we also could capture 90% of all carbon dioxide and process it into secondary and largely renewable (with CCU) raw material is less well known outside of more technical forums. I received many questions about this after the second, circular-focused seminar. After the seminar, I got many questions about it. One analysis is that researchers seem inclined to say that the question of whether captured carbon dioxide should be stored permanently in order to achieve carbon sinks or be processed into a secondary raw material that can replace fossil raw materials should be decided on a case-by-case basis. There is no universal answer.
However, the bottom line is that the demand for secondary raw materials must come from producers, and right now the demand is just not strong enough. This seminar, similar to others that I viewed, emphasized the need for a manufacturing quota obligation, meaning that new goods and products must contain a higher proportion of recycled material, and eco-design, meaning that products from the very beginning are designed and manufactured so that they can be recycled. There are now proposals on the table for quota obligations on both EU and Swedish levels and it will be exciting to see how they go.
The recycling industry also emphasized the need for large volumes of cleaner – meaning better separated or sorted – material flows. This led to some refreshing discussions about where the responsibility for sorting and emissions lies, and just how much work, time, energy and technology should be spent separating materials before it ends up costing us more than what we gain from it.
All in all, I see how Stockholm Exergi’s future role in the circular economy can develop into something more than recovered and reusable energy. Our position has the potential to be such that, through carbon capture, we can create “circular carbon” of that which has not been sorted out for efficient material recycling. We can play an important role in the new circular economy where sustainable and circular carbon flows are a crucial component. Much remains to be done. Actors are currently formulating and rapidly creating business models where the costs of negative emissions or fossil-free materials can be neutralized by the end products. We must enter these ecosystems!
Finally, moving on to energy policy. It is an election year, and it shows. The willingness for truly constructive conversations seems low and I do not believe we will see a broad agreement on energy until, at best, the late autumn. Much of the debate is about nuclear power or wind power and I sense some irritation about this from my colleagues in the industry. One can of course argue that we must build out wind power sustainably and in such a way that better handles local conflicts, invest in energy storage technology, hydrogen and advanced balance services and nurture nuclear power by continuing to invest in and develop new nuclear technology so that it is a real option when we need it. All at the same time. One positive shift that I have seen is that district heating and combined heat and power are regarded in a completely different way today, regardless of what camp you’re in. Even when we talk about electrification. I am predicting that the waste incineration tax is about to become something that no one really wants to defend anymore, but I am longing for a clear statement from all parliamentary parties that it should be abolished.
To conclude I would be remiss to not mention the tragic news that will forever characterize this year’s Almedalen. On July 6, a terrible event took place, a stabbing in the heart of this open meeting place. A person has died – was murdered – in plain sight. My thoughts are of course with the victim’s family who had to receive this incomprehensible and dreadful message. But I am also thinking about what this may mean for Almedalen, built on the principles of openness and closeness, which is precisely why it is so sensitive for those who want to spread fear, and whether real and valuable meeetings will be replaced with silence or, even worse, the polarizing machine that is Twitter.