Winding road to being fossil-free

“Having a fossil-free fleet of vehicles by 2030 means we have to find solutions to a range of problems that could lead to new problems. The decision-making structures we have today are ill-suited to this type of transformation,” explains Linda Olsson in her doctoral thesis.

Linda OlssonIf we seriously want to do something about carbon dioxide emissions, there has to be collaboration between the country’s bodies in charge of transport, energy production and the environment. The decision-making structures and policies currently in place can actually counteract effective change. To make achieving the target of a fossil-free fleet of vehicles by 2030 possible, there is a great need for investment in many different fuels and many different types of vehicle.

These are some of the conclusions in Linda Olsson’s doctoral thesis at the Division of Energy Systems, Linköping University.

 “We have, for example, studied the Stockholm Region, where energy and traffic work in isolated bubbles. They all say they have a problem with CO2 emissions, but they set up different goals and choose to implement different measures. Then, when the measures are implemented it may even be the case that emissions increase,” she explains

Even if Ms Olsson is in a technological department, she points out this is in no way a technical problem but a social and organisational one. She even calls it a “wicked problem”, meaning a problem whose solution can lead to another, or several other problems.

If we want to reduce CO2 emissions we have to reduce the use of fossil fuels. To do that we need to see radical policy decisions within several sectors – perhaps even new structures.

Trends changes 

In an interview study which is also part of her thesis, several of the civil authorities interviewed stated that they see the trends, but are not able to keep hold of their efforts when a new trend does arrive. This despite the fact that it is well known that you have to act over the long term if you want to make any difference.

“First there was ethanol, then biogas and now everyone is going for electric cars,” Ms Olsson says.

She also studied EU strategic transport policy in an article she wrote together with Anneli Carlson of the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute, and Magdalena Fallde, Department of Thematic Studies - Technology and Social Change. There it is stipulated that the Union wants, above all, to have increased mobility and increased economic development. Electric cars are seen as the way to growth, and the motor industry will continue to be a strong player.

“No one mentions where the electricity that the cars will use will come from, but it is clearly very important whether it comes from Swedish hydroelectric power or Polish coal,” Ms Olsson says.

If we in Sweden make a rapid change to electricity to run our vehicles on now, the electric cars might cause CO2 emissions that are 25% higher than from today’s cars.

Important system boundaries

This is not a simple problem; all types of fossil-free fuels will be needed and many different types of vehicle. What Ms Olsson can see from her research is that everything has to do with system boundaries – being aware of where you set the boundaries for how big the system you study is. If the system is too small – looking only at electric cars and not taking into account where the electricity comes from – you can work against your overall objective, whereas system boundaries set too wide can make the problem too complex and difficult to understand. 

Ms Olsson’s research is interdisciplinary. In her thesis she treads the line between technology and social science. Her head supervisor is Mats Söderström of the Division of Energy Systems, aided by co-supervisors Magdalena Fallde of the Department of Thematic Studies - Technology and Social Change, and Elisabeth Wetterlund of the Division of Energy Science at Luleå University of Technology. Her research has also been carried out within the framework of the interdisciplinary Energy Systems Programme graduate school.

Ms Olsson will shortly be taking up her post as programme coordinator at the Biogas Research Center.