Sweden and sustainability
Lowering emissions is key to saving the climate. Find out how Sweden does it.
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.
An environmental pioneer
The first country in the world to pass an environmental protection act in 1967, 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. Around 60 per cent of Sweden’s national energy supply comes from renewables, and a thorough legislation aims at further reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
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
Climate change caused by the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is one of the foremost global environment problems today. The Swedish government has set ambitious goals for sustainability, including going fossil-free by 2045 and 100 per cent renewable energy.
Statistics Sweden offers a breakdown of emissions of air pollutants in Sweden over time.
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 and the Stockholm Resilience Centre at the Stockholm University.
Professor Johan Rockström, co-founder of Stockholm Resilience Centre, thinks that Sweden could be a model for other countries to follow.
'Sweden has a disproportionate influence in this field and therefore also a large responsibility,' Rockström has said. 'Sweden, both in science and in action, should be able to show that combining sustainability with human well-being is a path for success and development.'
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, aimed at creating a better and fairer world by 2030. 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.
Seeing that Sweden has such a long history of speaking up for the climate, it's interesting to see that it took a teenager to make the world listen. Greta Thunberg started striking for the climate in 2018. A year later, millions of schoolchildren around the world were protesting against climate change, and by the end of 2019 Time magazine named Thunberg 'Person of the Year'.
By 2050 two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities, according to the UN, and Sweden has one of the fastest rates of urbanisation in Europe.
The capital of 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.
Several old industrial areas have been and are being redeveloped as efficient low-energy housing, and the city has extended its tram routes.
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 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.
Urban innovation is making waves in other parts of Sweden too. In Karlshamn in the south, the council now uses electric cargo bikes for some of its deliveries, rather than lorries. It's a solution with two-fold benefits: it's more environmentally friendly and safer for school children and people living in the area.
In Stockholm around 850,000 people use public transport on a normal day. The entire underground system runs on green electricity, and since 2017 all buses have been running on renewable fuels, which was actually the target for 2025.
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.
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.
‘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.
‘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.
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.’
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, most 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
Sustainable textile fibres are no longer a distant dream. Research projects are turning trees into textile – and old textile into paper.
In the Gothenburg suburb of Mölndal, research institute RISE has a test bed for textile fibre development, where researchers are exploring methods and materials to produce fibres, yarns and nonwoven fabrics from bio-based and synthetic raw materials. In the future we might wear jeans made of Swedish cellulose, activewear made of bioplastics and T-shirts made of recycled fabrics.
TreeToTextile – owned by H&M Group, Inter IKEA Group, Stora Enso and LSCS Invest – is focused on developing the use of cellulose. The company aims to commercialise a new sustainable textile fibre, making it more widely available. Using a new technology, TreeToTextile produces bio-based textile fibres with a low environmental footprint, i.e. wood. In other words, the Swedish forest provides the raw material – the rest is clever technology.
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 country's woodland bioeconomy has an export value of SEK 164 billion billion (EUR 16.4 billion) a year (2021) 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.
Swedish environmental milestones
Sweden’s reputation as an environmental pioneer began more than half a century ago. Here are some milestones, past and future.
Sweden was the first country to establish an environmental protection agency, Naturvårdsverket.
Sweden hosted the first UN conference on the environment, which led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the leading global environmental authority to this day.
Sweden was one of the first countries to introduce a carbon tax, which has helped reduce dependency on fossil fuels.
1998 and 2002
Sweden was one of the first nations to sign and ratify the international climate change treaty Kyoto Protocol.
The Stockholm Convention, largely a Swedish initiative, was a global treaty aimed at phasing out the production and use of persistent organic pollutants.
Sweden ranked third in the Global Cleantech Innovation Index.
More than 60 per cent of Sweden's electricity comes from renewable sources.
Sweden ranked second in the Global Innovation Index.
Goal: The Swedish transport sector is fossil-free.
Goal: Sweden is fossil-free and, thus, climate-neutral.