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Let’s save the climate

Together, we can still save the climate. Sweden combines low carbon emissions with economic growth, which is quite rare. Climate-smart, sustainable solutions contribute.

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Let's save the climate

Safeguarding the future

We all want to save the climate, but face different challenges. Sweden is known for its undeveloped wilderness and archipelagoes, stretching from the European mainland to the Arctic. Meeting the environmental challenges of the future is not just about protecting landscapes though, and Sweden is making big strides towards safeguarding the future as well as conserving the past.

The first country in the world to pass an environmental protection act, Sweden also hosted the first UN conference on the global environment in 1972. Since then, Sweden has not looked back, managing to grow its economy substantially while reducing carbon emissions and limiting pollution, as shown in the chart above.

A gif file showing the Arctic ice melting.

For more than a decade, Sweden has been in the top ten of the globally respected Environmental Performance Index produced by Columbia and Yale universities, with exceptionally clean air and clean water alongside its low emissions. There is still much to be done, though, and being one of the world’s wealthiest countries increases Sweden’s overall environmental footprint. It might seem an impossible struggle, but previous successes on everything from tackling acid rain to recycling show that environment and development can go hand in hand.

Ambitious goals for sustainability

Since 2014, Sweden has had a joint Social Democrat and Green government, which has set ambitious goals for sustainability, including the previous government’s target of a fossil-free vehicle fleet by 2030 and 100 per cent renewable energy. Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven recently unveiled plans to make Sweden one of the world’s first ‘fossil-free welfare states’. The government has also created the world’s first Minister for the Future (see video below), tasked with mapping out social and environmental challenges and coming up with ways to meet them.

‘Emissions need to be reduced at a speed to ensure sustainable global growth. Transition needs to be effective and establish long-term rules,’ Löfven has said about the challenges ahead.

The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency offers a breakdown of Sweden’s overall greenhouse gas emissions (webpage in Swedish, can be translated).

A hub for environmental research

The last few decades have seen Sweden become a focus for leading environmental research. Stockholm now boasts the Stockholm Environment Institute, the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the groundbreaking Environmental Humanities Laboratory at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

‘We can show the world that you can build a modern welfare state within nature’s limits.’

Professor Johan Rockström, the head of Stockholm Resilience Centre, thinks that Sweden can go even further and be a model for other countries to follow.

Professor Johan RockströmProfessor Johan Rockström always carries a tiny marble in his pocket to remind himself of the earth’s limitations. Photo: Maja Suslin/TT

‘Sweden can develop a vision for transition to sustainable welfare, where we put down goals of being the world’s first fossil-free nation by 2030,’ Rockström says. ‘We can show the world that you can build a modern welfare state within nature’s limits.’

Sustainability and development hand in hand

The Swedish green model means integrating business and sustainability. Together with its Nordic neighbours, Sweden has emphasised that green growth can drive transition through technical innovation rather than pose a risk. This involves adapting society to cope with environmental changes already underway. Man-made global warming means temperatures are predicted to rise by at least 2 degrees centigrade over the next century, and issues such as food security, extreme weather and economic upheaval could be felt by countries all over the world.

The fight for sustainability is global, and in 2015 the world agreed on 17 sustainable development goals. Sweden still has some way to go, but the innovations being made now show that safeguarding our environment and developing society are part of the same challenge.

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Climate-smart cities

Sweden has the fastest rate of urbanisation in Europe, and Stockholm is growing so quickly that all kinds of challenges need to be met. Its 1950s motorways are overcrowded and millions of people need to be supplied with clean water, clean heat and clean energy.

In the developing world, the solution has often been to build more homes on forest and farmland, but in 1995 the city of Stockholm decided instead to found the world’s first urban national park and protect its green spaces. Old industrial areas have been and are being redeveloped as efficient low-energy housing, and the city recently finished an extension to its tram routes. In 2016, a brand new commuter railway is due to open, connecting different parts of Stockholm cleanly and efficiently. National rail operator SJ even uses hydroelectric and wind power for its trains.

Sustainable housing

On the edge of Stockholm’s urban park, the new ‘eco-quarter’ of Norra Djurgårdsstaden, Stockholm Royal Seaport, is using an old gasworks to build thousands of eco-friendly homes complete with biogas produced from food waste, as well as providing electric car chargers and planning a new tram line. But the real innovation is behind the walls and under the ground.

‘Swedes use three times as much energy as the global average’

Swedes use three times as much energy as the global average to combat the cold climate and power their high-tech society, but living in cities is potentially more energy-efficient too. Stockholm Royal Seaport is a test bed for a globally innovative smart energy grid in partnership with energy companies, universities and homebuilders.

Stockholm Royal SeaportStockholm from above. Stockholm Royal Seaport is to the right in the image, above the bridge. Photo: Lennart Johansson.

Future transport

In other parts of Sweden, urban innovation is making waves too. In Umeå, near the Arctic Circle, locally engineered electric buses are now an everyday sight. Using patented fast-charge technology they can service an entire city without wires, and will soon be standard.

The city of the future could look a lot like a Swedish city. The real challenge is building these state-of-the-art solutions quickly enough to keep up with the rapid growth of both Sweden’s and Europe’s urban populations.

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The green innovation generation

Stina Behrens is a graduate of the Beckmans College of Design in Stockholm. A few years ago, she and her classmates were frustrated about the lack of sustainability in industry, so they set about changing it.

After graduating, Behrens joined the board of Cradle Net, a national multidisciplinary network working to implement and spread information about the circular economy. At the time of writing she was employed by the design agency Transformator as a service designer. Through service design, the agency helps companies change the way they work from traditional to innovative new methods. In the last few years, Transformator and its contemporaries have seen a growing number of major companies interested in sustainability.

Stina Behrens, service designer, in conversation with two other people.Service designer Stina Behrens to the left. Photo: Transformator

‘We see a great amount of potential in helping large companies move towards a circular economy,’ Behrens says. ‘We can help by moving to completely new consumption models. Right now, some really big companies are rethinking how they do business.’

Changing consumer behaviour

This approach focuses on service as much as on the products themselves. If things have to be scrapped they can be recycled, but it is also a question of consumer behaviour; the key to a sustainable economy is changing how people meet their consumer needs. This means that every product has a mapped life cycle, and that customers become users rather than owners. In 2015, the Swedish Government even made the circular economy part of its annual address to parliament.

The key to a sustainable economy is changing how people meet their consumer needs

‘When I came to design, I was very interested in the world around me and in ideas of social sustainability, and that guided me,’ Behrens says.

Several of her classmates are now working in similar roles, and one has started an environmental design consultancy to help green the economy, Beteendelabbet, ‘the behaviour lab’, changing how people consume products.

Renewable energy

Towards a circular economy

Behrens belongs to a generation of young people who have made sustainability their professional work. Swedish universities are now even obliged by law to integrate sustainable development into their curriculum, from literature to finance.

‘This is an area where Sweden can take a leading role in moving to a more sustainable circular economy,’ Behrens says. ‘We’re ready.’

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From resource economy to bioeconomy

An important part of Sweden’s economic transition strategy – apart from reducing emissions – is about actively trying to use natural processes to produce energy, industrial products and much else. This so-called bioeconomy involves much more than making things more environmentally friendly – Sweden is pioneering ways to use natural materials that are 100 per cent recyclable and can be part of the ‘cradle-to-grave’ process.

Sweden has a wealth of sustainable natural resources to work with. Already, 52 per cent of the energy consumed comes from renewables, and its managed forests already provide the main supply of wood products to the EU.

Turning wood into textiles

In the Gothenburg suburb of Mölndal, a pioneering project is underway to develop these raw materials to produce fabrics. At present, many high-street products use either cheap plastics or intensively farmed cotton, both of which are bad for the environment. In a consumer economy like Sweden’s, this means a lot of waste and ethical problems from cheaply made overseas fabrics. They often pollute their local environment during production, and cannot always be recycled when they are worn out.

Fabric productionSustainable fabric production. Photo: SWEREA

One kilo of cotton can require as much as 20,000 litres of water to grow, often in countries where water is in short supply. Domestically produced Swedish wood fibre is not irrigated and pesticides are strictly controlled, and it opens up the possibility of a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ process. That means mapping the product from first beginnings to final recycling to guarantee 100 per cent sustainability.

One kilo of cotton can require as much as 20,000 litres of water to grow

In the Mölndal project, Swedish researchers are using cellulose from trees to spin textile fibres on an industrial scale under the eye of Pernilla Walkenström, Professor of Textiles at the University of Borås.

‘The aim of the project is to develop locally produced textiles in Sweden,’ she says. ‘Using domestic Swedish materials, we want to create sustainable production.’

Bioeconomy – a game changer

The challenge is to gain a competitive edge by investing in green technology, by both using domestic resources and developing methods that other countries could use to become more sustainable. According to the Swedish Forest Industries Federation, the woodland bioeconomy has an export value of SEK 123 billion (EUR 13 billion) a year (2012) and is a high-tech industry employing thousands of people.

This bioeconomy is crucial not only to Sweden’s economic future, but also to changing the way the world produces and uses its raw materials.

These texts were written by Dominic Hinde.

Read more about Sweden and sustainability in other stories and fact sheets on

*How the chart was made:
The ‘How climate-smart is your country?’ chart is based on data provided by the World Bank. Indexed figures allow carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions, metric tonnes per capita, to be compared with gross national income (GNI) per capita, Atlas method. The chart runs from 1990, the index year, to 2011, the latest available year for emission data. Sweden’s graphs can be compared with another country’s using a drop-down menu – but please note that it is the change that is shown, not the absolute figures. Countries for which data are missing altogether do not appear in the drop-down menu. For countries that only have data for some of the years, an incomplete graph is shown. Please note that measuring the CO₂ emissions within a country may provide a different picture than measuring the overall environmental footprint of a country’s population. In Sweden’s case, for instance, emissions in other countries caused by Swedish consumption (webpage in Swedish, can be translated) have increased by 50 per cent over the last 20 years.
Sources: CO₂/capita: Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Environmental Sciences Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee, United States; GNI/capita: World Bank national accounts data and OECD National Accounts data files

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