Sweden’s deputy prime minister, Åsa Romson, hit the front pages when she broke down in tears at a press conference announcing reductions in the number of refugees the country would take. She had been forced into a corner by her Social Democratic coalition partners, opposition parties, and other EU states which had failed to match Sweden’s welcoming refugee policy. It was a bitter defeat for a governing party that makes much of its progressive credentials.
Tanking in the polls, Romson’s Green Party has looked weak in government since becoming the minority coalition partner after last year’s election. The Paris climate negotiations could yet become its greatest victory, however. Romson, who is also the environment minister and lead Swedish negotiator in Paris, recently authored an editorial in The Guardian boasting about her country’s green achievements. By 2030 Sweden aims to have an entirely fossil-free road system and a completely decarbonised energy system. It is also targeting a circular economy – the buzz term for a low-waste system that keeps resources in circulation for as long as possible.
Her country’s approach is a win-win for rich and poor, she claimed, and needs to be followed elsewhere. She wrote:
We believe there is still time to act. If the world phases out the use of fossil energy quickly in favour of renewables, considerable ground will be gained, not only in terms of the climate.
It all sounds extremely impressive, and is part of the much bigger progressive story that has long helped Sweden inspire other nations. In different ways, the Nordic countries have all achieved an unusually peaceful transition from unequal early 20th-century economies to technologically advanced welfare-based societies with high standards of living.
Sweden is now hoping to achieve something comparable with the environment in Paris. It believes its domestic policies are breaking the apparently inextricable link between two key features of the last 200 years of global development – carbon emissions and economic growth. The Swedes speak from experience: since the mid-1990s domestic emissions in Sweden and its Nordic neighbours have declined 17% against a 45% rate of economic growth. As Romson explained:
For many years we have used effective policy levers that put a price on carbon, using a carbon dioxide tax accompanied by political leadership that supports the emergence of climate-smart innovations.
Sweden is also at the apex of rapid global demographic change, with people flocking towards its cities and abandoning its huge interior. This makes the country a testbed for social and environmental innovation. If things work out as promised, future Sweden will be made up of high-tech energy-efficient cities that will serve as a gold standard for the rest of the world.
The Swedish manifesto for Paris was eagerly spread around social media without much of a critical response. The strategy has three pillars. It wants a treaty that is dynamic so that countries can increase their binding targets as they make progress. It wants to encourage willing countries to achieve the most ambitious outcomes possible, while engaging with countries suffering the most from climate change. And it wants to be a facilitator in negotiations and a model of best-practice. The Swedes promise to help developing countries to jump from semi-industrialised to post-carbon economies, presenting a rosy picture of what is possible.
Yet Sweden’s negotiating potential is somewhat undermined by the fact that its own environmental numbers don’t yet add up. Wealthy Swedes have a taste for meat, luxury goods and foreign holidays they are loathe to part with. This has resulted in sizeable carbon exports to poorer countries where manufacturing takes place. Swedish companies and the government also have a worldwide web of invesments, not all of them ethical. State utility Vattenfall owns overseas coal plants and former foreign minister Carl Bildt was even a board member of Lundin Oil, a prospecting company that has been heavily criticised by human rights campaigners.
The Swedes are well aware that they still have much to do. The head of the respected Stockholm Environment Institute, Johan Rockström, who has become an important voice in climate debates, has said:
We need a new narrative for Sweden too. This is of global importance, because we are such an important example for the rest of the world.
This doesn’t mean the Swedish way cannot work. The future needs to be a place not of catastrophe and collapse but of progress towards something better. Sweden’s environmental approach offers one of the best opportunities of realising that. Sweden understands the importance of telling a convincing story, and with such a powerful vision it could well inspire progress in Paris. If it really can achieve its own aims for sustainability, it will be a story worth listening to.