Published 2017-10-31

Engineer working for a climate-neutral Sweden

Sweden is to be climate-neutral by 2045. This objective was adopted by the Riksdag (Swedish parliament) before the summer. At present, however, no one knows how this can be achieved. Among those seeking to influence society’s choices is Lars Zetterberg, head of the newly launched research programme Mistra Carbon Exit.

‘It’s time to roll up our sleeves! We can’t keep making incremental changes. We need to redesign whole public systems to achieve the goals of the new Climate Act.’

Lars Zetterberg, a researcher for nearly three decades at IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute, is an international expert in issues of climate change and climate policy. His understanding of both technical measures and policy instruments gives him a unique position both in the research community and among policy makers.

Early in his career, Lars Zetterberg already grasped that researchers, too, can influence the development of society Many of his friends in engineering physics began developing radar facilities or building cars after graduation. Zetterberg wanted to work on environmental issues, and joined the IVL research institute in 1990. He was one of the first people in Sweden to compile an inventory of greenhouse-gas emissions. In the same year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its first report, and he was later brought into the Swedish Government Offices’ work to develop the basis of Swedish climate policy.

‘It became clear to me that, as a researcher, one could produce results and influence Swedish climate policy. And so it remains. Every so often, what I say one day becomes implemented as policy a little later. It’s fantastic!’

Since the New Year, Lars Zetterberg has headed some 50 researchers in Mistra Carbon Exit. Behind the programme is an international consortium of universities, research institutes, agencies and some 20 companies including Volvo, Skanska and Danske Bank.

Over the next four years, solutions will be identified for Sweden to achieve zero net greenhouse-gas emissions by 2045. (The target is at least an 85% decrease in national emissions, while remaining emissions are to be offset by either forest sinks or measures abroad.) It may seem like a huge challenge, but Lars Zetterberg is convinced that the goal is realistic.

‘The technology required is largely known, and among companies there’s a willingness to change that didn’t exist a few years ago. But it won’t happen by itself. Political steering is needed.’

Cement and steel — two industries with high carbon emissions — are represented in the consortium, as are several large construction companies. Zetterberg cites cement production as an example of the requisite technology already being largely available. The company Cementa has claimed that it will be able to produce climate-neutral cement within five years, by separating the carbon dioxide from the flue gases at the works and pumping it into the seabed. But this cement will cost more to produce than the traditional kind, Zetterberg says.

‘And the cement companies won’t produce it if nobody buys the cement. Builders choose the cheapest options. So there has to be a price tag on “dirty” cement, and this calls for policy instruments,’ says Zetterberg, pointing out that similar opportunities exist in steel manufacturing.

‘Climate-friendly steel could soon be produced too, if the buyers of steel are willing to pay extra.’

One central part of the work in Mistra Carbon Exit will be developing a roadmap for how society could become climate-neutral by 2045. Particular emphasis will be laid on buildings, transport and transport infrastructure — three supply chains that together account for at least 75% of total Swedish carbon dioxide emissions. The scientists will develop various future scenarios and study the effects both of technical measures and of such policy instruments as taxes, subsidies and emission allowances. Zetterberg mentions fossil-free vehicles driven by, for example, electricity, biodiesel and hydrogen gas, as an important piece of the puzzle. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is another technical measure, partly questioned but fully feasible, that the researchers will study.

‘We’ll try to assemble these various pieces of the puzzle into a comprehensive, workable solution. I usually compare it to building worlds in Minecraft or Sim City.’

Piecing together practicable future scenarios is a challenge in itself. Putting them into practice — the ultimate goal of the research programme — will require close dialogue with politicians, as well as decision makers in companies and public agencies. Zetterberg, who previously held key positions in two of Mistra’s completed climate research programmes, describes how he and his colleagues in the Mistra Clipore programme (2004–11) worked closely with the then Environment Minister Lena Ek.

‘We met her regularly and provided her with documentation. Some of our results were used ahead of Sweden joining the EU Emissions Trading System in 2005.’

Mistra Indigo (2012–15) had a close dialogue with the Swedish climate delegation on various issues, including ahead of the 2015 Paris agreement, since the delegation’s chief negotiator Anna Lindstedt was a member of the programme board.

‘We’re expecting to get this proximity to policy makers in Mistra Carbon Exit too. The programme board will be used in the daily work, but we also want to create a reference group that meets regularly,’ says Zetterberg.

Besides the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency and the Swedish Transport Administration, already in the consortium, he hopes that the Swedish Energy Agency and the Government Offices of Sweden will participate in the reference group too.

What impact Mistra Carbon Exit will have on tomorrow’s climate policy remains to be seen. Work has only just begun. In June, a first kick-off was held in Gothenburg, attended by more than 50 people including consortium participants from Germany and Belgium. The programme has already taken part, with the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, in a workshop on how Sweden’s new Climate Act can be combined with participation in the EU Emissions Trading System. This is an important issue, Zetterberg thinks, but not originally part of the programme plan.

‘The Environmental Protection Agency considers it important, so we allocate resources for it. It probably touched a consultant nerve in me,’ he says.

‘Traditionally, long-term research work and publishing scientific articles are important. But getting applicable results throughout the programme is just as vital.

‘We can’t just sit in our corner and write articles that appear in three or four years’ time. We want to influence public development, so we must get our products out quickly. Communicating our results has to start straightaway.’


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FACTS on Lars Zetterberg


Current: Director, Business Development and Marketing, at IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute; Programme Director of Mistra Carbon Exit climate research programme (started spring 2017)

Age: 55

Home: House in Älta, south of Stockholm

Family: Two children and cohabitant

Leisure: Climbing and cross-country skiing

Other: Cycles to work twice a week — 16 kilometres each way (‘It’s actually a bit faster than public transport’)