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Evergreener lands: tough Nordic emissions reductions

The Nordic countries are trying to eke out more fuel efficiencies, but it won’t be easy

The Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden are keen to be regarded as proving grounds for clean technology and the implementation of tough emission reductions policies – the region has ambitions to achieve a carbon-neutral energy system by 2050.

Doing this is possible, but will be tough, the International Energy Agency (IEA) concluded in a recent report on the region. In terms of land transport, it will require a dramatic increase in the use of electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrids using clean power, a switch to public transport by bus and rail and the use of biofuels-powered vehicles for long-haul and freight transport. Vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells could also play a greater role in the longer term, depending on technological advances. Hydrogen could provide a convenient way to store energy from renewables, such as the region’s copious hydropower resources and also wind power under development.

Nordic Energy Research, an inter-governmental body, says that, given the region’s power sector is now more than 80% decarbonised, a similar move in the transport sector would be the next logical step, adding that Nordic countries make the ideal testing ground for EVs. However, this process is only just getting under way. As in other European regions, sales of EVs have so far been modest, despite subsidies.

The share of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions contributed by road transport in the Nordic region rose from 53% in 1960 to 70% in 2009, while total CO2 emissions from transport increased more than threefold. The share of passenger-kilometres travelled by car and plane in Nordic countries is nearly double the global average, according to the IEA. In Norway and Denmark, 90% of land freight travels by road, rather than rail; the global average is about 50%. Sweden (55% by rail) and Finland (25% by rail) fare slightly better in this regard. It seems that even in countries that pride themselves on green credentials, there is work to be done.

However, Nordic governments hope that clean energy technologies being pioneered in the region today will enter the mainstream in the future.

As a country with a small population and large quantities of cheap hydro and geothermal power, Iceland has a long cherished ambition to become a “hydrogen economy”, where fuel cells could make a significant contribution to the transport sector. The country has a small fleet of hydrogen vehicles and has been a leader in research into the technology, but the global downturn, which hit the Icelandic economy particularly hard, has slowed development.   

Given the importance of sea transport and gas production to Norway, it is no surprise that this country is helping to develop technology that involves both – liquefied natural gas (LNG) fuel.

Fjord1, a company whose boats ply the fjords, was the first company to commission a gas-powered ferry in 2000. At the end of 2011, it commissioned the world’s largest LNG-fuelled ferry, the MF Boknafjord.  Capable of holding 242 passenger cars and 600 people, the Boknafjord – the company’s 12th gas-fuelled ferry – produces 90% less emissions of nitrogen oxides (Nox) than one using conventionally fuelled engines; produces negligible sulphur oxide (Sox) emissions; and produces around a fifth less greenhouse gas emissions, according to Rolls-Royce, which makes the engines.

Rolls-Royce says the Norwegian fjords make the perfect testing environment for the technology, given the stresses of repeatedly starting and stopping on short-haul ferry routes. There are practical, as well as environmental benefits, as these engines enable vessels to be used in maritime areas where emissions controls are tightest, notably around Europe. 

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