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A Sustainable Future: What Can We Learn From Sweden?

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Engaging business and industry to help tackle climate change, whilst also supporting their growth is an essential part of the Swedish government’s industrial strategy. As we push on to meet our Net Zero Carbon 2050 targets and the pace of change quickens, as a nation we must overcome our fear of the unknown.

In this week’s blog, Procure Partnership’s Lauren Banks takes a look at the lessons we can learn from Sweden, often seen as the ‘environmental pioneers’, and explore how they have embraced the climate change agenda, whilst also maintaining a vibrant and thriving economy.

Linking sustainability and development

As the evidence mounts on the catastrophic impact a 2oC temperature rise would have on our delicate eco systems, global leaders have been forced to pay attention. Despite the growing consensus that something must be done, many are still concerned that the level of change required to meet targets will destroy businesses and industry. This has stifled change in many countries. With the more recent warning that if temperatures were to go beyond the 1.5oC threshold climate change could become irreversible by 2030, the situation is becoming much harder to ignore. Governments should recognise the human and financial costs of climate-related natural disasters which are becoming more frequent and more destructive.

Safeguarding economic development and protecting businesses, whilst not jeopardising the health and prosperity of future generations, is a tough balancing act and some countries are way ahead of the game. Sweden has long been hailed as an ‘environmental pioneer’. It was the first country in the world to pass an environmental protection act in 1967 and hosted the first UN conference on the global environment in 1972. Sweden has successfully grown its economy substantially, whilst also reducing their carbon emissions and limiting pollution. Currently, more than half of Sweden’s national energy supply comes from renewable sources and their legislation leads the way in comprehensively reducing carbon emissions.

Sweden has applied a multifaceted approach to bringing down it’s carbon levels, including economic methods such as a carbon tax and penalties, legislative methods, renewable energy subsidies, continuous investment in R&D, and discussion and communication between the state and business enterprise to encourage voluntary commitments. Another important strategy is a programme of public participation and engagement, which has helped raise the level of knowledge concerning climate issues to encourage public support of new sustainable public policies.

Sweden’s low carbon emissions have been achieved whilst still maintaining a strong free-market economy that fosters innovation and entrepreneurship. Sweden consistently ranks in the top 10 of the World Economic Forum competitiveness rankings, beating the United States in several years. The success of Swedish free enterprise is demonstrated by some of their major multinational corporations such as Volvo and IKEA, and more recently, tech innovation companies Spotify and Skype, all of which have their roots in Sweden.

This demonstrates that having a sustainable economy does not have to stifle industry and can provide opportunities for businesses which will ‘stand the test of time’. As we move to the future, the companies who have the technologies to develop efficient renewable energy sources and develop carbon neutral ways of manufacturing, will be the ones who will attract the most investment, helping to boost the economy and provide sustainable job opportunities.

Inspiring a generation of climate change activists

Over the last few years as the urgency of the climate crisis has increased. It is the younger generation who are often shouting the loudest and demanding change, perhaps because they have the most to lose. Again, it is Sweden who are leading the way. Climate activist Greta Thunberg has become a hugely publicised voice across the world, demanding that political leaders are held accountable and find solutions to the climate crisis. It is highly unusual for a child to speak on complex issues with such passion and understanding, however in Sweden, Greta is not viewed as particularly unusual.

Sustainability has been woven into the fabric of the Swedish education system via decades of government educational policies. This has culminated in a generation who believe that protecting the environment is a basic human behaviour. In Sweden, sustainability is delivered across a range of subjects rather than being compressed into a single topic, and is taught to students of all ages, even pre-school.

The Higher Education Act introduced in 2006, means that Swedish universities are also obliged by law to integrate sustainable development into their curriculum across all subjects. By not ‘pigeonholing’ the topic as purely scientific or ecological, ‘climate justice’ and the associated ethical, political and social issues is taught across a wide range of subjects. Looking at the question more broadly allows important issues around equality and human rights to surface. It encourages students to develop a social conscious. It is those who are least responsible for climate change who will suffer its gravest consequences.

Given the breadth and depth of education, it is hardly surprising that Swedish school children and students in higher education are starting to fight for the same level of understanding and attention across the rest of the world.

Greta is inspiring children and young people to speak out and demand Climate Change action. In 2019, Children and young people across the globe campaigned for action on climate change. Pupils participated in strikes from school in more than 60 UK towns and cities, with an estimated 15,000 taking part. A key demand of the strikes was for the UK’s national curriculum to include a broader representation of “the ecological crisis”. Whilst the strikes received much support, many leaders were sceptical of the intention, accusing children of using the strikes as an excuse to truant. Whether you agree with the strikes or not, it was a bold move and a clear sign of a growing movement for change.

Sustainability is not a step backwards

Sustainable changes do not have to come at the expense of our children’s economic future. Sweden has demonstrated that though a selection of carefully crafted public policies, private ingenuity and by ingraining sustainability in the educational curriculum, it is possible to build an economy which is both low-carbon and prosperous.

Whilst each country is unique and needs to find its own way; as an island, the UK has an advantage in harnessing power from the wind and Boris Johnson announced in early October that as part of the efforts to ’build back greener’, every home will be powered by wind farms by 2030, a significant step forward in our vision to be carbon neutral by 2050. Whilst many are still afraid of change and concerned about the requirement to adjust lifestyles and business, perhaps their trepidation is unfounded.

Sweden has shown that a sustainable, low carbon nation does not mean going backwards to live in the cold and dark, nor does it require a drastic overhaul of our economic order. Much of what we need to do requires implementing some simple and largely routine engineering and construction work and working closely with businesses to find a way forward. Perhaps we can take a leaf from the young climate protesters and be bold as we look to the future…

Ann Cousins, Associate Director, Consulting West at Arup added:

“An important aspect of Arup’s work with our clients is giving them access to examples of good practice from around the world, to help them make the right decisions in their own context and create a sustainable future for all. Nearly ten years ago, we published a report looking at what we could learn from eight Nordic cities, and we’ve continued to learn from Sweden and other partners since then. For example, district heating and heat pumps provide over 75% of the heat demand for households in Sweden. As we tackle the challenge of decarbonising heat in the UK, there is a lot that we can learn from this experience.”