I went to school with Olaf Palme. Not literally. He was a few years ahead of me. But, I was there, ten years later, when he was invited to give a commencement address. This was in the late 50s or early 60s, I can’t quite remember. Wow, what a day that was. State police, FBI, and unions marching and beating garbage can tops. It was unrelenting and, surely, I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t hear his address. The unions were protesting Palme’s positions and views on pacifism, his belief that the super powers lacked leadership, and his views on the need for environmental changes that would improve the world. The unions marched with American flags and the usual shouts and chants of “America is best” and “Palme go home.” I was, I think, about 20. I may not remember the exact date but I won’t ever forget the commotion, the demonstrations, the noise and disruption, the entire scheme. The protesters, the violent minority, at least that’s how I saw it, pounded their chests with, “We are the best, we make steel, we make paper, everything in America is good.” (All of this, mind you, at about the time Japan was flooding America with cars that were better made, ran better, and in general outperformed American manufacturing across the board.) The protesters talked about American might and power...power...power, and energy – which is what this column is about.
Palme did go home to Sweden. Olaf was shot and killed about 24 years later by a still unknown assassin while walking home from a movie with his wife. He couldn’t stand security and as life will have it, paid the ultimate price. How sad, because Olaf, while a polarizing figure, was a true visionary. He was not only a pacifist and critical of America’s role in Vietnam, but supported the less fortunate. His socialistic views demanded equality for all. He was against apartheid (one of the first in the world to express indignation of this practice) and any country that used their might to have things their way; hence his love/hate relationship with America, Russia and the other super powers of the day. As prime minister of Sweden, Palme was staunchly pushing his country to become a world environmental power before his assassination in 1986. You might say that Olaf Palme was the Father of Green, although I’m sure he wouldn’t like that. Today, 25 years after his assassination, Sweden is 95% fossil fuel free. The story is an extraordinary commitment to renewable energy and a belief that moving from fossil fuel to a renewable energy standard (RES) would ultimately improve the standard of living by reducing carbon footprint and greenhouse gas. Olaf Palme’s quest 25 years ago changed consumptive habits in Sweden. The Swedish population today has a completely different focus than the rest of the world thanks in great part to Palme. Let me give you an example.
When I visited Sweden several years ago I stopped at a Max Burger, the Swedish McDonald’s. Each menu item not only listed the price but also the carbon footprint. Think of that: they actually calculated the carbon footprint of French fries, Cokes and hamburgers from the field and pasture all the way to the food tray. Max Burger is less concerned about calories and sugar than the impact of the production of food supply on the environment. Sweden is a leader in climate change performance. From food to energy, Sweden is ranked number one by Green Watch, one of the premier watchdogs of environmental leadership in Europe. The US ranks number 52 and China is 54. The Max Burger example is the tip of the iceberg, not a bad pun if you think about Sweden’s geography. The point I’m trying to make is Sweden has made a commitment to change culture, regardless of cost, to become a better global citizen. This didn’t happen overnight. However, it did happen because Swedish leaders wanted change.
The move away from fossil fuels in Sweden began in the mid-1970s, actually before Palme became prime minister. During his tenure, and in 1991 with the implementation of a carbon tax, the real substantive transformation began. There is a very informative article by William Strauss, the president of Future Metrics, in the latest issue of Biomass. He says, “the current tax on carbon emissions (in Sweden) falls on petroleum-derived products, natural gas and coal. The cost of wood pellets delivered to Europe is about $185 per ton for cost, insurance and freight, which is less than the carbon penalty. Note also that the cost of a ton of coal in Rotterdam is about $120 per ton.
“One might think that these sorts of prices in energy and transportation fuels would cripple an economy. In fact, the Swedish economy did undergo a period of transition after the carbon tax was promulgated. As the use of alternative and renewable energy sources increased, however, the new infrastructure and jobs associated with creating energy from what was once waste, and other renewable resources, complemented by efficiency gains, drove the Swedish gross domestic product (GDP) per capita to become equal to or greater than the US’s by the mid-2000s.”
Sweden is a microcosm of America. If change can occur there it can occur here as well. I know, the argument will be that Sweden is much smaller, therefore change is easier. Its population is 5 million versus ours, which is 300 million. I think this misses the point. Sweden’s leaders wanted change and they moved forward. We have a political quagmire in Washington and in most states, certainly mine, here in Illinois, where we can’t pass anything much less pension reform for our politicians. Where have all the leaders gone?
My passion has and will continue to be driving energy policy change. The reason is that I view RES’s as an opportunity to solve the biggest problem we have in our industry, waste. With RES we have a chance. Without it we will continue to landfill our waste. Right now we are part of an ongoing fire drill. First coal, then oil, now natural gas, harvested at an environmental cost still to be determined. What’s next? What else can we do that will punish our earth because of unsound policy and the drive to profit? Palme had it right. Sweden has it right.
America needs a leader, from our industry, not Washington, to make a bold commitment and create a take-back program for waste matrix and spent liners. It is a wonderful opportunity, and to the first go the riches and rewards.
That’s my view.
Another Letter from the Earth.
Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is