This article is part of POLITICO’s Global Policy Lab: Living Cities, a collaborative journalism project exploring the future of cities. Chapter 3 of the project is presented by Holcim.
STOCKHOLM – Sweden’s capital is betting on a combination of decades-old infrastructure and cutting-edge carbon removal technology to win the net-zero carbon race – a model EU policymakers hope can be replicated throughout the block.
The plan puts Stockholm within reach of its bid to achieve climate neutrality by 2030 and could even turn it “carbon negative,” meaning it’s removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it is producing.
The city already has a head start when it comes to reducing emissions thanks to the rapid adoption of district heating in the 1950s, a system that sends hot water from a central boiler to the city’s homes, businesses and public spaces.
The 3,000-kilometre network has enabled the city to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% from heating buildings, from around 2 million tonnes in 1990 to around 400,000 tonnes a year.
Since the closure of its last coal-fired boiler in 2020, the system increasingly runs on biofuels; ships carrying bark and sawdust from the Swedish forest industry are a regular sight from the city’s shores.
Now the Stockholm Exergi district heating company, which is half-owned by the city, is piloting a system to trap and store the CO2 released by burning biofuels.
He says the technology – known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS – will reduce Stockholm’s emissions by an additional 800,000 tonnes a year. And because the trees that supply the biofuel also absorb CO2 as they grow, the process as a whole removes more gas from the atmosphere than it releases.
City authorities say the system could be replicated elsewhere, as many EU cities aim to drastically reduce their emissions to zero by 2030.
“We strongly believe that district heating, using BECCS, can be a viable solution for cities,” said Åsa Lindhagen, a Green Party MP in charge of the city’s environmental and climate policy. “Given the significant emissions created around the world by heating cities, a shift towards fossil-free district heating solutions would lead to a dramatic cut in emissions, as Stockholm has demonstrated.”
Few EU cities have district heating systems as extensive as Stockholm’s, but many with existing infrastructure are looking at ways to expand and decarbonise them. Edinburgh and Glasgow, for example, are partnering with Swedish company Vattenfall to build their heating networks and connect them to clean energy sources.
During a visit to Stockholm’s Exergi district power plant in Värtan earlier this year, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hailed the technology as a boon for Europe’s efforts to become climate-neutral by 2050.
“This is the future we see right now here,” he said. “Power generation that absorbs carbon instead of putting it into the atmosphere”.
Stockholm-based Exergi, which has received €180 million in EU funding, expects the BECCS operation at its Värtan facility to be fully operational by 2026.
On a recent visit to the Värtan plant, Fabian Levihn, Exergi Stockholm R&D Manager, checked out the CCS test unit. Housed in a small metal annex next to the factory’s gigantic boilers, it is a nest of insulated pipes, dials, taps and tanks; large posters promoting the program hang on the walls.
Although the science behind carbon capture and storage (CCS) has been known for decades, it has never been used in a combined heat and power plant, Levihn explained.
“This test facility was created to verify that it is possible to use this particular technology on a plant like this,” he said. “We are now in the process of procuring a full-scale system and are talking to suppliers about how to improve the technology and integrate it with the plant as effectively as possible.”
Stockholm’s Exergi also hopes to implement the technology in its heating systems that work by incinerating waste, which would take the amount of CO2 captured from 800,000 to 1.5 million tonnes a year.
The company’s implementation of CCS marks something of a comeback for the idea.
Norway was an early proponent of the technology in 2007, likening its carbon capture plans at an industrial site on the country’s west coast to a “moon landing.” But cost overruns and slower-than-expected technological progress forced it to shelve those ambitions in 2013, casting doubt on the viability of CCS.
As technology improves and the climate crisis worsens, experts and lawmakers are increasingly touting its potential and need.
The United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change, made up of the world’s leading climate scientists, has repeatedly stressed that removing CO2 from the atmosphere will be essential if global temperature rise is to be kept close to the agreement’s target. of Paris by 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The European Commission estimates that the bloc will need to capture and use or store between 300 million and 640 million tonnes of CO2 each year by 2050 to meet its climate goals. Next year it will present a “strategic vision” to clarify the rules governing the sector and “give certainty to investors,” EU energy chief Kadri Simson said at a conference in Norway last month.
Some environmentalists argue that pouring money into CCS development is a distraction from implementing the kinds of policy changes needed to radically reduce emissions. They warn that technology is a distraction from moves to curb high-carbon consumption habits.
Fern, an NGO focused on forest protection, specifically criticizes BECCS, pointing out that the process of harvesting and transporting wood also produces emissions, and that allowing trees to grow longer promotes biodiversity.
However, Lindhagen, Stockholm’s green city lawmaker, said BECCS complements the city’s broader climate efforts, particularly in areas like transport that are harder to fully decarbonise.
“We believe district heating with BECCS could be a viable way to offset the remaining emissions,” he said.
This article is part of the POLITICO Global Policy Lab: Living Cities. Chapter 3 of the project is presented by Holcim. The article is produced in full editorial independence by the journalists and editors of POLITICO. Learn more about editorial content submitted by external advertisers. You can join Living Cities here.