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Is the green transition going too fast?

Is the green transition going too fast?

| Text: Björn Lindahl

All the Nordic countries agree that a green transition is needed in order to stop a climate catastrophe. But should the transition also do more than reduce CO2 emissions?

The political message could have been: In order to stop a climate catastrophe we must accept a lower living standard. We must accelerate the political processes to avoid various stakeholders dragging their feet over the necessary investments. 

But when Nordic gender equality ministers held a hybrid meeting in New York – some online, many in person – they quickly agreed that the green transition should be more than green:

  • It must also be socially fair
  • New jobs must be decent
  • Women, gays and other genders must be heard
  • Indigenous people must also be taken into consideration 

Within the EU, the first point is the top priority. Eastern European countries are particularly sceptical. Coal is still a major employer and many remember the 2008 financial crisis well when workers were left with the bill, as you can read in our report from the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

Environment and gender

Linking gender equality issues to the green transition is an exercise that so far mainly has been promoted in the Nordic region. The motivation given goes like this: 

Since a majority of those who have graduated in science, technology and mathematics are men, they also dominate the most important sectors in the green economy.

"This means that the new solutions, jobs and investments demanded by the transition to a low-carbon society risk favouring men, missing out on the vital perspectives and competencies of women, who have a comparatively greater interest in sustainability" is the message in How climate policies impact gender and vice versa in the Nordic countries.

It is easy to agree that better decisions are made if more groups of people are allowed to take part in the process. If not you might end up like Norway, where the supreme court decided that Europe’s largest onshore wind power plant, on the Fosen peninsula north of Trondheim, had been constructed illegally. Indigenous Sami reindeer herders are now demanding the turbines be dismantled. We describe what has happened here.  

As long as the politicians’ main aim was economic growth, it was easy to motivate voters. Increased growth leads to higher living standards. When the aim is a fossil-free society, the best-case scenario is that we avoid climate change, natural catastrophes and disease spreading because of a warmer climate. But the transition does not come without cost.

Energy needed to produce energy

The energy industry sometimes tries to measure how much energy you must use in relation to how much energy you get – known as Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI).

The concept is controversial since it is almost impossible to include all aspects, but there is no doubt that the extraction of oil and natural gas, and especially nuclear power, produces a lot of energy in relation to what is used.

Photo: Mathias Kjellsson, Statkraft

Stamåsen wind farm lies between Jämtland and Övernorrland. It is owned by Norwegian Statkraft. It was inaugurated in 2013 and consists of 26 wind turbines, each with an installed capacity of 2.3 MW. Photo: Mathias Kjellsson, Statkraft

It is easy to understand that wind power is energy hungry if you know that one 1.5 MW capacity wind turbine uses a foundation made from 40 tonnes of steel and 600 tonnes of concrete.  The tower needs another 150 tonnes of steel.

The generator needs nine tonnes of copper and is surrounded by 45 tonnes of steel, while the rotor blades are made from 15 tonnes of carbon fibre. All this must be transported and installed in areas that are as far away from people as possible – or out at sea.

Despite all this, the cost of wind and solar has fallen dramatically. It has fallen by 80% for solar – from 40 cents per kWh in 2010 to seven cents in 2019. The cost of wind power has fallen by 40% in the same period, from 9 cents per kWh to 5 cents.

“Most investors believe this is due to the fact that the learning curve has been so positive, which has made costs fall as the quantity of installed capacity increases and technology improves,” writes energy consultancy firm Goehring & Rozencwajg, from whom we also got the above calculations. 

According to the consultancy firm’s own analysis, there are two other important reasons behind the fall in costs – oil prices have fallen and interest rates have been at a record low. 

As oil has reached more than 100 USD a barrel and natural gas is worth 300 USD in barrels of oil equivalents, the price of fossil energy will also drive up the price of wind and solar energy. At the same time, central banks have started increasing their base rates to fight inflation, which is beginning to be an acute problem.

The war's impact

One of the reasons is that Russia and Ukraine are among the world’s largest wheat producers. Because of the war, the wheat price is already at an all-time high on the commodity exchanges.

In the early days of the Russian invasion, there were fears Russia would stop the flow of natural gas to Europe. Russian gas represents 35% of EU natural gas imports.

As Nato coordinates the West’s reaction to the war in Ukraine and the EU coordinates politics, the International Energy Agency, IEA, coordinates the energy policy. The IEA was founded in reaction to the first oil crisis in 1973. All the 31 member states have pledged to have strategic oil reserves and refined products enough for 90 days’ consumption. 

The IEA already has a ten-point plan for how a sudden loss (2.7 million barrels of oil a day) should be handled. Reading this now gives you a sense of déjà vu after two years of a pandemic:

  • When possible, work from home three days a week
  • Avoid business travel
  • Car-fee Sundays in major cities
  • Lower motorway speeds by 10 km/h
  • Reduce the price of public transport, promote bicycle use and other micro transport 

One of the main takeaways from the first oil crisis was that petrol rationing did not work well. Rather than having millions of cars driving around on half a tank, people topped up their cars which led to a big demand for petrol. 

Perhaps the war in Ukraine will have as large consequences as the first oil crisis. This meant new North Sea and Alaska discoveries were developed at a breakneck speed, often at the expense of safety and the environment.  

Photo: Björn Lindahl


Neste's biorefinery outside Rotterdam produces a fuel called NExBTL, which can be blended in or used directly as jetfuel. Photo: Björn Lindahl

Before I became editor-in-chief for the Nordic Labour Journal, I covered oil and energy for many years for several Nordic media. In 2012 I travelled to Rotterdam, and later wrote: 

“After attending a conference on biofuels in Rotterdam and visiting Neste Oil’s bio-refinery outside of the city, it struck me: Nothing is going to change. The green society will look just like the one that is based on fossil energy. There will be the same large refineries and power lines, and cars will look the same even if they run on electricity.

“High above us, the planes will keep flying, only now running on aviation fuel made from algae. Many who had hoped energy issues would lead to a softer, greener and less consumer-driven society, might feel let down.” 

Ten years later and a lot of this has turned out to be true. The environmental policies are based on the assumption that we will be able to continue to increase our energy consumption and that green targets can be met with technical solutions. 

Instead of NExBTL, as Neste called their product when I visited Rotterdam, a new green fuel is now being launched in Denmark using so-called power-to-X-technology (you can read about it here).  But the cost of the new fuels is still much higher than for fossil fuels.

If we are moving towards a time of higher inflation, like after the first oil crisis in the 70s, the enormous transformation of our energy systems from fossil to green energy risks an upwards spiralling of costs, as everyone is chasing the same solutions.

Instead of relying on building ever higher and larger wind turbines (this autumn Vesta will construct a wind turbine that is as tall as the Eiffel tower), we should pay more attention to how we can cut our consumption. 

Men consume more

According to The State of the Nordic Region 2022, 62% of all the GHG emissions in Denmark can be attributed to household consumption. As the aforementioned study on climate policies explains:

“Sex-disaggregated data show that men generally have a larger carbon footprint than women. Male consumption in mobility and food, for example, tends toward car-based transport and a meat-based diet, while women tend toward public transport and walking, and vegetarian or low-meat diets.”

It is high time that we also focus on how we can change our societies so that they really become greener and becomes less consumer-driven. Like the Finnish city Lahti shows, it is also important to continue the work also after moving on from having the title Green Capital of Europe.


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