Sweden takes the global battle against climate change seriously. More than half of Sweden’s national energy supply comes from renewables and a thorough legislation aims at further reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Sweden’s reputation as an environmental pioneer began with a number of proactive moves in the 1960s and 1970s. Recognising a loss of limited natural resources, Sweden was the first country to establish an environmental protection agency, in 1967.
In 1972 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 also one of the first nations to sign and ratify the international climate change treaty Kyoto Protocol, in 1998 and 2002 respectively.
The Stockholm Convention (2001), a global treaty aimed at phasing out the production and use of persistent organic pollutants, was largely a Swedish initiative. Waste management, acid rain prevention, sustainable city planning and recycling are other environmental areas in which Sweden have made progressive headway and challenged the status quo.
Sweden continues to create momentum and is looking to intensify negotiations at international settings such as the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference. Sweden’s stance is that a sustainable and secure energy supply is best achieved by focusing on long-term energy efficiency and a greater supply of renewable energy.
Perhaps what sets Sweden apart is a combination of citizen engagement, high ambition levels and international solidarity. Even when ranked as one of the most sustainable countries in a number of international indices, the focus is not on what has been accomplished but rather on what remains to be done.
Largely this comes from a public that is keenly aware of and concerned with environmental issues and used to stand up for its own clean water and air. Air pollution (PM10) in urban areas of Sweden is at 10.2 micrograms per cubic metre compared with the OECD average of 20.1. In the 2015 Standard Eurobarometer survey, 26 per cent of Swedes note environment and climate change as a main concern, compared with 6 per cent at EU level.
Climate change caused by the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is one of the foremost global environment problems today. Since Sweden accounts for less than 0.2 per cent of total global emissions, the country could easily have gone unnoticed in the climate debate. Instead, Sweden has chosen to do more than many other countries on issues regarding energy and the climate.
Recognising that scientific research has become more uniform in its message about climate change resulting from human activity, the government is continuing to set clear domestic goals for the future regarding pollution, clean air, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and energy efficiency.
Sweden’s goal to reduce GHG emissions compared with 1990 by 40 per cent by the year 2020, and to have a vehicle fleet completely rid of fossil fuels by 2030 are stepping stones to the overarching goal of a society with no net GHG emissions by the year 2050.
That is Sweden’s commitment under Roadmap 2050, an EU initiative whose objective is to reduce GHG emissions by at least 80 per cent below 1990 levels for all of EU.
To accomplish the 40 per cent reduction in GHG emissions by 2020, emissions would need to decline by an additional 20 million tonnes. According to current projections, emissions will have decreased by about 16 million tonnes in 2020, so in order to speed up the reduction the government has to come up with more drastic measures.
Looking further ahead, however, a recent study by the Swedish National Institute of Economic Research found that Sweden has strong chances of reaching the 2050 goal, thanks both to developments in the economy and to political incentives.
Besides moving to less carbon-intensive means of producing energy, efficiency has been a major focus in Sweden. By 2020 the government goal is to make energy use 20 per cent more effective compared with 2008.
One move first introduced in 2005 has been to offer tax reliefs to power-intensive industries in exchange for their drawing up energy plans and taking steps to reduce energy use.
For households, government information on how to save energy is widely available. Each municipality – there are 290 in Sweden – has an energy adviser to whom people can turn for help and guidance. Advice is available on topics such as replacing windows, using low-energy lights and switching to different heating systems.
Another way in which Sweden is trying to lead the way to a more sustainable planet is through innovative sustainable solutions. Expenditure on R&D (research and development) represented 3.3 per cent of GDP in 2013, the fourth highest percentage in the OECD.
According to the OECD Environmental Performance Review 2014, Sweden is one of the most innovative countries when it comes to environment-related technology. Investments in environmental R&D have made Sweden an innovation leader for several clean energy technologies, including biofuels, smart grids and carbon capture and storage.
As a result of these investments, Sweden has developed a competitive advantage in technologies related to sustainability. In 2014, Sweden ranked fourth in the Global Cleantech Innovation Index.
One neighbourhood at a time
By 2050 two thirds of the world’s population will live in cities, according to the UN. The global challenge of expanding cities is one where Sweden could inspire, as sustainability has been pivotal in the planning of many Swedish cities.
In the mid-1990s, Stockholm decided to turn former industrial area Hammarby into a forerunner of sustainable city planning. Sustainability was incorporated into all aspects of the new neighbourhood Hammarby Sjöstad, from smart electric grids to public transport, bike friendliness and waste management.
The regeneration of a similar depreciating area in Malmö called Västra hamnen (Western Harbour) began in 2001.
Today, it is a carbon-neutral neighbourhood. Taking city planning to new green heights, the district uses an aquifer thermal energy storage system to store water collected during the summer and pump it up with wind energy to heat the homes during the winter. The chilled water is then reused to cool buildings in the summer.
Sweden has maintained growth while reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.
Photo: Thomas Adolfsén/Bildarkivet.se
Growing while sustaining
Since the mid-1990s, Sweden is one of few industrialised countries that have managed an absolute decoupling between economic growth and GHG emissions: a rising economy paired with falling emission levels.
Sweden’s GHG emissions are among the lowest in the EU and OECD, whether calculated per capita or as a proportion of GDP.
In 2013, Swedish GHG emissions totalled 55.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents, compared with 71.8 million tonnes in 1990 – a 22 per cent reduction. Meanwhile, Sweden’s GDP grew 58 per cent during this time period.
This can be seen in light of many nations struggling to achieve even a relative decoupling, which means that emissions continue to increase, but not as quickly as growth.
Sweden’s reduced emissions have been accomplished in spite of a relatively large domestic process industry, a substantial need for heating during cold winters and long-distance transportation in a large, sparsely populated country.
Since the 1990s, a shift from oil for heating purposes to district heating, heat pumps and biofuels have drastically reduced the housing and service sectors contribution to GHG emissions.
In 1995, Sweden became one of the first countries in the work to introduce a carbon tax. This excise tax placed on carbon-intense fuels such as oil and natural gas has helped actively reduce dependency on fossil fuels. It is considered one of the least expensive means of reducing CO2 emissions.
In 2012 Sweden’s environmentally related tax revenue was 2.52 per cent of GDP compared with the OECD average of 1.54.
The government has also introduced a number of incentives to help the Swedish economy grow sustainably. The electricity certificate system initiated in 2003 is a market-based support system to increase the production of renewable electricity and make the production more cost-efficient.
Other incentives include public funds available for local climate investments. Both county councils and private actors can apply for funds to finance measures such as a switch to district heating or the use of biofuels. The programmes are meant to add local focus to green decisions.
The new climate economy
It is possible to strengthen economic performance while reducing the risk of climate change. The report ‘Better Growth, Better Climate: the New Climate Economy’ provides an international action plan for sustainable growth.
The 2014 report is the product of a global partnership of research institutes and world-leading economists.
Commissioned by seven countries – one of them Sweden – and overseen by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, the report is aimed at influencing both governmental policies and investment decisions in the private sector.
The message? The next 15 years of investment will determine the future of the world’s climate – which should in fact be viewed as a financial opportunity rather than a burden.
The report – www.newclimateeconomy.report – entails ten global action points for governments and businesses to grow while switching to a low-carbon economy.
Stockholm Environment Institute
One of the initiators behind the report is the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI). The research institute, formally established in 1989 by the Swedish government, sets out to accomplish sustainable development by bridging science and policy.
Over the years SEI has been central in the establishment of many important panels and international agreements.
The Swedish Environmental Code
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.