Energy has been at the core of human existence since the dawn of civilization. More often than not, however, it has remained invisible to most of us. While Skåne has had its own geography and culture shaped by energy production, it has also played an important role on the international stage. This is the story of the Åhus Treaty.
Think back to the 2020s: there are wars raging in Ukraine and the South China Sea; global fossil fuel markets are frequently halted in a game of geo-political chess; European states are scrambling to heat and power their nations, as the gas on which they are dependent has become scarce and expensive. Populist movements are blaming climate policy for their expensive petrol; at a time when emissions need to plummet, politicians are reversing bans on coal and lowering taxes on petrol while increasing trade with non-Russian-Chinese petro-states. European energy is in dire straits. In a move of pure desperation, energy ministers representing the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea were dispatched to a cottage outside of Åhus with an ultimatum: they could only leave once they have drafted an agreement that secures energy security, equity, and emissions reduction.
What exactly happened in that cottage, we will never know. (There have long been stories of aides being sent to the nearby Absolut Vodka distillery in the dead of night… but it bears noting that the company was at that time keen to market their no-sugar, no-emissions Vodka Zero product.) The contents of the Åhus treaty, however, have shaped Skåne and the Baltic region as we know it.
It covered three major areas: decreased use, distributed supply and increased production. Firstly, countries committed to a rapid reduction in electricity use, vowing to decrease non-essential consumption through electricity quotas for households and companies. This was clearly the treaty’s most controversial proposal—any restriction on energy use was berated as a socialist intrusion on the principles of the free society. However, many municipalities had come under increasing pressure to decrease energy usage thanks to the Homo Colossus movement, which made this proposal a political possibility. However, that very same movement would go on to criticize the treaty for limiting the quotas to electricity, thus allowing states to continue importing energy-intensive goods from abroad.
Few liked the quota system. In the beginning, many households spent their budget early in the month only to experience crippling cold which forced them to spend their free time at the local library. Those with access to a wood-fired stove could be seen purchasing firewood in bulk or, in some cases, illegally chopping down trees during the night. However, the system did have a marked impact on electricity-use. Heated swimming pools all but disappeared; thermostats were lowered or turned off; property owners invested heavily in insulation and ventilation systems; trees were strategically planted to lower temperatures in the summer and protect from the chilling wind in the winter. Cleverly, the system incentivised electricity use during off-peak hours by offering quota-rebates; hence many industries switched to nightly production schedules to lower costs. Laundry machines, robot vacuum cleaners and electric car chargers were likewise programmed to run when electricity use was at its lowest.
The treaty also mandated that countries incentivise energy communes: independent cooperatives formed with the sole purpose of producing renewable energy for the community. This would increase local energy production, lower the bills of participating house owners (a very vocal and powerful group in the energy debate) and, so the proponents argued, increase social cohesion. It is thanks to this mandate that Skåne is so well provided with energy communes, of which the village of Simris was arguably the first.
Finally, the treaty mandated that permitting processes needed to be simplified. In reality, this meant that the municipalities and civil society would have less to say about windpower, solar and nuclear expansion. This greatly accelerated the expansion of energy production in Skåne, as elsewhere, but also allowed some quite controversial projects, such as the notorious Bärsebeck nuclear facility.
If you visit Åhus today, the only obvious sign of its importance for energy politics is the plaque outside that tiny cottage, now privately owned. However, it played a crucial role in highlighting that which used to be invisible: the energy that powers our lives.