Sweden runs on biofuels en route to cleaner cars
A European conference on environmentally-friendly vehicles and fuels opened Tuesday in Sweden with the first day dedicated to the host country, seen at the forefront in the field of clean energy.
"We are very ahead ... compared with other countries when it comes to the use of environmentally-friendly cars that can run on ethanol or biogas," Martin Larsson, a Swedish environment ministry secretary, told AFP on the sidelines of the meeting.
"When it comes to production and imports of biofuels, we are ahead" in Europe, he said. Only Brazil and some states in the US are ahead of us," he boasted.
The European Union has issued a directive urging governments to promote biofuels and other renewable energy sources for transportation as replacements for petrol and diesel.
The EU has set a 2005 consumption target of two percent, but Sweden has decided to take the bull by the horns and set a goal of three percent.
"Sweden has the EU's most ambitious target," Larsson said.
The three-day meeting in Stockholm, called "Clean Vehicles and Fuels", is focusing on global warming and efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, according to Hans Pohl, project leader for the conference.
"Interest in clean cars and the new biofuels is now surging at the same pace as the price of oil," Pohl said.
According to the industrial automobile organisation Bil Sweden, the Scandinavian country of nine million people is expected to sell 12,000 clean cars this year compared to 7,000 in 2003, and as many as 20,000 in 2006.
In September this year, 10 percent of newly purchased cars in Sweden were run on biogas, ethanol or electricity, compared to just three or four percent a year earlier.
Overall, about 98 percent of cars in Sweden run on gas and diesel. About two percent run on ethanol, an alcohol made of wheat, red beets, corn or sugarcane, and 0.5 percent on biogas, an energy source made up of organic waste.
And when it comes to heat and electricity, renewable energies such as wind and hydro power account for 40 percent of Swedish production.
In October, the world's first train to run on biogas went into daily traffic in Sweden. The train links the city of Linkoeping, just south of Stockholm, to the east coast town of Vaestervik some 80 kilometers (50 miles) away.
Sweden's leading role in clean energy is entirely in line with its longstanding emphasis on environmental issues.
"Sweden has always been an environmentally-friendly country. We put environment high on the agenda. We also have the luxury to think about those questions because we have quite a good economy and no big social problems," Larsson said.
The country produces 25 percent of its ethanol consumption at three plants, while the remaining 75 percent is imported mainly from Brazil.
Larsson stressed that Europe needed to redefine ethanol as an energy product if it was to become more widespread as a clean fuel. Currently it is considered an agricultural product, and therefore subject to higher import tariffs.
"Because we are substituting gasoline with ethanol they have to be on the same level when it comes to import taxes," he said.
Some southern European countries, such as France, "want to have these high customs barriers to protect their own farmers".
"It's a question of protectionism," he said.
The conference in Stockholm is scheduled to continue until Wednesday, with the final two days dedicated to international issues. Experts and specialists in the fields of transport, energy, biofuels, and the environment are to give seminars.
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