Sweden’s environmental policy

Sweden is striving to ensure that the next generation can take over a society where the major environmental problems have been solved. The ‘generational goal’ involves 16 environmental quality objectives to be achieved by 2020.

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Photo: Viktor Gårdsäter/Folio

Environmental work for generations

Sweden was an early adopter of sustainable thinking. Back in the 1960s, it recognised that the rapid loss of natural resources had to be confronted, and took a lead in organising the first UN conference on the environment, held in Stockholm in 1972. Since then it has continued to work actively with environmental issues, both nationally and internationally.

Among other successes, Sweden’s proactive environmental policies have led to a reduction in acidification and eutrophication in bodies of water. Since 1990 the proportion of acidified lakes has been reduced from 17 to 10 per cent, and the downward trend continues.

At present, Sweden has the highest percentage of renewable energy in the EU (over 47 per cent). By 2020, at least half of the country’s energy should be renewable, a target the Government says is within reach.

Sweden has also been held up as a role model in water management. Tap water is drinkable, and in the summer you can swim in central parts of the capital, Stockholm. Although Sweden is a frontrunner in environmental policy, the Government recognises that there is plenty of room for improvement. For 2013-2016, Sweden will allocate approximately SEK 22 billion to environmental measures.

16 objectives

With its overall generational goal for 2020, Sweden’s environment policy is based on 16 environmental quality objectives (EQOs) sanctioned by the Government and Riksdag (parliament). These goals are:

  • Reduced climate impact
  • Clean air
  • Natural acidification only
  • A non-toxic environment
  • A protective ozone layer
  • A safe radiation environment
  • Zero eutrophication
  • Flourishing lakes and streams
  • Good-quality groundwater
  • A balanced marine environment, flourishing coastal areas and archipelagoes
  • Thriving wetlands
  • Sustainable forests
  • A varied agricultural landscape
  • A magnificent mountain landscape

In 2002, the Environmental Objectives Council, a special government-appointed body, was charged with co-ordinating and following up efforts to reach the EQOs. This responsibility was later taken over by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. Results on work on the 16 objectives are presented on www.miljomal.se.

Interim targets

An interim target of reduced climate impact was decided on in 2009, and 13 further interim targets were added in 2012. The new interim objectives are within the areas of air pollution, dangerous materials, waste and biological diversity.

These 14 interim targets are intended to help manage the necessary societal changes that will be critical for reaching the EQOs as well as the generational goal. The interim targets also serve as guidance for Swedish authorities.

Emissions from agriculture are declining in Sweden.

Photo: Thomas Adolfsén/Bildarkivet.se

Declining greenhouse gas emissions

Climate change caused by the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is one of the foremost global environment problems today. Traditionally, there has been a strong link between economic growth and increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but Sweden has broken that link.

Since 1990, emissions have been declining in the Swedish housing and service sector as the result of a shift from oil for heating purposes to district heating, heat pumps and biofuels. Emissions from agriculture are also on the decline, due mainly to the presence of fewer farm animals.

Sweden’s GHG emissions are now among the lowest in the EU and OECD, whether calculated per capita or as a proportion of GDP.

In 2012, Swedish GHG emissions totalled 58.3 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, compared with 72.7 million tons in 1990 – a near 20 per cent reduction.

For 2020, Sweden aims to reduce GHG emissions by 40 per cent compared with 1990. A recent study by the Swedish National Institute of Economic Research found that Sweden has strong chances of reaching that goal, thanks both to developments in the economy and to political incentives such as a CO2 tax.

Roadmap 2050

The Swedish Government has also started a long-term effort to achieve zero net emissions of greenhouse gases by the year 2050. The programme sets out a number of activities that need to be carried out in order to reach this goal. These include actions such as modernising energy and transport systems, reducing energy use and emissions, and increasing the share of renewable energy.

One important step towards the long-term 2050 goal is to achieve a fossil fuel-free transport sector by 2030.

Roadmap 2050 is an EU initiative that stems from the UN climate conference held in Cancún, Mexico, in 2010. At that conference, industrial countries pledged to bring in national measures and strategies for reducing CO2 emissions.

Sweden works actively to improve the Baltic marine environment.

Photo: Ola Torkelsson/Scanpix

A challenge without borders

Environmental problems often cross national boundaries.
Acidifying and eutrophying air pollutants and marine discharges are a case in point.

For Sweden, the most important international environmental treaties are the Oslo (1972) and Paris (1974) conventions, established to protect neighbouring seas, and the Helsinki Convention (1974). The Stockholm Convention (2001), aimed at phasing out the production and use of persistent organic pollutants, was largely a Swedish initiative.

Sweden is also active in the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, which oversees the implementation of worldwide environmental action plans adopted in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and in Johannesburg in 2002.

Saving the Baltic Sea

One environmental problem for which many different countries bear responsibility is pollution of the Baltic Sea. The drainage basin of the Baltic is populated by around 80 million people and the Swedish marine environment is affected by the actions of countries in Central Europe.

Environmental problems in the Baltic Sea are particularly serious and some researchers warn of an ecological collapse. There are several reasons for this. Emissions from agriculture are leading to marine eutrophication, and both industry and waste treatment plants are polluting the sea with heavy metals, chemicals, household waste and environmental toxins. International co-operation focusing on the Baltic Sea is under way on several different fronts.

Sweden works actively to persuade the EU and individual countries in the Baltic Sea region to improve the Baltic marine environment. Like most environmental threats, the problems in the Baltic Sea, and in Skagerrak and Kattegat in the North Sea, are transnational in character. All the countries on the Baltic Sea rim are now EU members, with the exception of Russia. During Sweden’s EU presidency in the second half of 2009, the member states agreed to adopt a common strategy for the Baltic Sea region. The strategy is a pilot project heralding a new joint approach by the EU.

New government agency

For 2013, the Swedish Government has allocated SEK 503 million for water and marine issues.

A new government agency, the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management, was formed in 2011. The Gothenburg-based agency is responsible for a budget used to fund activities that enhance, preserve and protect oceans, lakes and rivers. Measures include water management and fish conservation projects, and other specific measures to improve the marine and aquatic environment.

Swedish environmental legislation

Legislation plays an important part in Swedish environmental efforts and an Environmental Code entered into force in 1999.

This legislative framework aims to promote sustainable development that will assure a healthy and sound environment for present and future generations. To achieve this, the code shall be applied so that:

  • Human health and the environment are protected against damage and detriment, whether caused by pollutants or other impacts
  • Valuable natural and cultural environments are protected and preserved
  • Biological diversity is preserved
  • The use of land, water and the physical environment in general is managed well in the long term in regards to ecological, social, cultural and economic values
  • Reuse and recycling, as well as other management of materials, raw materials and energy, are encouraged so that natural cycles are established and maintained.

The Swedish Environmental Code also requires that an environmental impact assessment be carried out before permission can be given for an environmentally hazardous activity. This assessment takes into account the impact on people, animals, soil, water, air, the landscape and the cultural environment.

Photo: Fredik Broman/imagebank.sweden.se

The Right of Public Access

The Right of Public Access (Allemansrätten) gives everyone the right to enjoy Sweden’s outdoors. It allows the public to roam freely, even on private land, to camp overnight and to pick mushrooms and berries. The right also brings responsibilities – to treat flora and fauna and other people’s property with care. It can be summed up in the phrase ‘don’t disturb, don’t destroy’.

The Right of Public Access is written into the Swedish constitution. But it is not a law as such, rather a custom or part of the cultural heritage that has evolved and become accepted over the years. The Right of Public Access is constrained by other laws that set limits for what is allowed.

Useful links

Albeco  An independent organisation that spreads topical environmental news from the latest inter-disciplinary research
Baltic Sea 2020  A private foundation with the overarching goal of reversing negative environmental developments in the Baltic Sea
The Swedish Energy Agency
The Baltic Sea Region Programme
Government and the Government Offices of Sweden
The Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management
The Swedish Environmental Research Institute
The Swedish Environmental Management Council (SEMCo)

Last updated: 25 March 2014