29 October 2018

“We could be using fossil-free cars, freight and air travel, but so far there’s been a lot of talk and very little action. And most people have completely unrealistic expectations for how rapidly we can achieve a transition.” These are the words of Mats Eklund, seasoned LiU professor.

Mats Eklund in a patch of reeds.
Mats Eklund. Malin Hoelstad
People have always travelled, and will continue to do so, over ever-increasing distances. Until now, this intense travel has also led to increasing emissions of carbon dioxide, even though we have become increasingly aware of the effects.

“During the past 50 years, we’ve always been discussing new possibilities: one day it’s ethanol and the next it’s hydrogen. The focus at the moment is on electricity and liquefied gas. We are occupied wondering about which is the best alternative, rather than acting and getting rid of the unsustainable choices”, says Mats Eklund, professor in environmental technology and management. He is also director of the Biogas Research Center and a dedicated supporter of biogas, but it’s possible to hear a touch of despair when he discusses transport.

Global goals

“One big change within the transport sector since 2016 has been an increase in the use of biodiesel, but here it’s a case of imported HVO fuel. The increase hasn’t led to an increase in production in Sweden, and this means that we haven’t seen any of the regional benefits associated with an increased production of biofuels such as biogas, ethanol and biodiesel”, he points out.

Mats Eklund is quick to emphasise again a result that his doctoral students have shown: the production and use of biogas contribute not only to major regional benefits, but also to all the sustainable development goals of the UN.

Another area in which he sees no willingness to change is in cars and personal transport.
“The producers want to sell what they have, not what the customer wants. Things are a bit different in Germany and Italy, where gas-powered cars are manufactured, but these manufacturers do not give Sweden a high priority as a market. You can place an order for a Tesla and pay a deposit, without knowing when the car will be delivered. And it’s nearly impossible to order a biogas car in Sweden at the moment, even though there’s a shortage of such cars”, he concludes.

He believes that it’s not possible to say how long biofuels will last, and suggests that focusing on the fact that such fuels will not last is just another attempt to do nothing and extend the fossil era.

Mats Eklund professor i industriell miljöteknik, föreståndare Biogas Research Center 2018Mats Eklund Photo credit Malin HoelstadHe is, however, more optimistic when it comes to road transport, because things are starting to happen in this field. One example is a law introduced by the Swedish parliament requiring all suppliers of fuel to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases from petrol and diesel by 40% before 2030, which will require a gradual transition to using a larger fraction of biofuels.

Consumer power

“The greatest expansion, however, will probably come from the use of liquefied biogas in goods transport, where both Volvo and Scania have developed such vehicles.
Axfood is a pioneer here: several filling stations have been established, and Gasum has undertaken to build a further 26 stations for liquefied biogas”, he says.

Another force that is pushing in the right direction is the desire of increasing numbers of companies to become fossil-free. They see this as a way to strengthen their brand.

“Consumer power is more important here than political power. Maybe what’s needed is more market and less politics”, he says.

Some macrotrends counteract the move away from fossil fuels.
We want to be global citizens and fly around the world, and we want to order goods over the internet that arrive the next day.

“A Swedish government enquiry, Fossilfri fordonsflotta (‘A Fossil-free Vehicle Fleet’), was published in 2013, which took an overall perspective and involved the most prominent experts in the field. This is still the best we have. It recommended that the amount of fuel used for transport be halved, and that electricity and biofuels be used for the remaining half. It led to very little in the way of political results. We’ll have to see what happens now when it’s not just biofuel that is to be labelled with its origin, and we see Russian flags on the petrol pumps.”

In Finland, Sitra, a government agency for innovation and development, has put more emphasis into the transition to a more sustainable, circular and fossil-free society. The agency is promoting unified work, and has taken a more active role. Finland is showing us the way”, he claims.

Unrealistic expectations

Mats Eklund is convinced that using biofuels for air transport is completely unrealistic in the foreseeable future,
despite the fact that researchers at the Luleå University of Technology, working in a project known as “Green Fuels”, believe that biofuel from forests could easily satisfy Swedish fuel requirements for both domestic and international flights.

“Air transport can certainly become fossil-free from a purely technical point of view, but we tend to have unrealistic expectations about the speed of change.”

Imported biofuel is already used for some domestic flights, but Mats Eklund has not seen any signs of a large-scale increase in the capacity to manufacture such aviation fuel.

“The air transport industry depends totally on international collaboration, and I can’t see that there is sufficient money or sufficient control.”

“It’s possible that security of supply may be a factor for success. The defence forces and other critical national functions currently depend completely on imported fossil fuel. Biofuel from forests and biogas from waste could play a strategically important role in a crisis. This aspect is receiving increasing attention, and has been discussed in seminars in the Swedish week of political and social deliberations in Almedalen in recent years. If national security is a factor, they can usually find money for development.”

Do you travel by air?
“I do, a few times a year. My scientific credibility requires me to participate in some of the most important conferences. My dream scenario, however, would be to travel by fast and comfortable trains within a continent, and only use air travel for intercontinental travel.”

Mats Eklund would like to see a powerful governmental inquiry into the future of air travel, with all the best experts.
“While it is true that air travel only accounts for a small part of the global carbon dioxide emissions, if every sector similarly claims that it only accounts for a small part, nothing will change”, Mats Eklund says.

Translation George Farrants

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