Of Bootlegged Liquor and Heavy Cars

What Sweden Will and Won’t Sacrifice for the Environment

Forget France, the U.K., Germany, and Italy. They may be G8 members, but Sweden is the country out to make or break reductions in Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions.

An article in The New York Times business section yesterday profiled the Scandinavian nation’s love affair with big automobiles, especially the Saabs and Volvos that “make up a crucial part of the Swedish economy.” Sixteen percent of new cars sold in the country now run on ethanol, according to the Times. But in 2004, the most recent year for which statistics are available, Sweden had the “highest pollution-emitting cars in Western Europe.” Most of those were high-horsepower-and tax-sheltered-Saabs and Volvos that produce climate-warming carbon dioxide at a rate that is well above average for the European Union.

There’s a flipside to this story, however. Swedish cars may have been spewing pollutants like no other in 2004, but that same year more than a quarter of the country’s energy came from renewable sources, according to National Geographic. In June, the magazine published a piece about a curious biofuels operation outside of Stockholm that turns alcohol, feces, and animal carcasses into ethanol. Sweden’s government has a monopoly on the sale of booze, upon which it levies a hefty tax, so many Swedes smuggle cheaper bottles home from neighboring countries. They don’t always get away with it, however. National Geographic reports that last year Swedish customs officials confiscated 200,000 gallons of illegally imported hooch. The beer, wine, and spirits go to the biofuels plant where, mixed with animal byproducts, they help produce 250 million cubic feet of ethanol a year.

Brilliant, but sad. I don’t know if Swedes grasp the liquor-for-cars sacrifice, but it seems like their government has things backwards. The European Commission recently proposed limiting emissions for new cars, forcing Sweden to reconsider the subsidies it gives to its “cherished automakers,” as the Times has it. But automobiles are not the only things that Scandinavians cherish. While development of renewable fuels is a step toward reducing vehicle pollution, ethanol can be made from many organic materials besides moonshine. If Sweden would make a binding commitment to cut emissions, it might find a way to do so that does not involve pouring all that liquor down the drain.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.