.
T

he United States' commitment to the environment has seemingly ebbed and flowed depending on who has been in office. President Jimmy Carter famously placed solar panels on the White House in 1979, only to have President Ronald Reagan remove them in 1981. President George W. Bush added solar systems to the grounds in 2003, and President Barack Obama replaced the roof panels in 2010.

On the global stage, that fickleness has had much broader ramifications. Obama committed to the Paris Agreement in 2015, only to have President Donald Trump withdraw the country in 2020. President Joe Biden announced on his first day in office that the U.S. would rejoin the climate commitment. While the science of a warming world has evolved, scientists and activists have been warning for decades about the perils of inaction, and generation after generation have handed responsibility off to their children.

In the absence of reliable, global leadership from world powers, smaller countries are left to create solutions to problems created by their Brobdingnagian counterparts. To see what can be achieved when a nation has consistent, sustainable policies enacted across generations, one only has to look to Sweden.

In 1967, Sweden became the first country in the world to pass an environmental protection act. In 1972, the Nordic country was host to the world's first conference on the environment, during which participants adopted the Stockholm Declaration and Action Plan for the Human Environment and several resolutions. That event, the United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm, made the case that environmental issues should be of global, multilateral concern. It began the dialogue between industrialized and developing countries on the impact of the clean air, water, and oceans, on economic performance, and the well-being of people around the world.

More recently, the Swedish government has committed to going fossil-free by 2045, and achieving 100 percent renewable energy. Because these initiatives are widely adopted by 450 Swedish companies, many of whom also operate in the United States and around the world, these changes, if achieved, will have a ripple effect worldwide. The Swedish Climate Policy Framework requires, among other things, the government to present a climate action report in conjunction with its annual budget bill, ensuring that climate policy goals, and budgetary policy goals, are in sync.

Despite its global status as an environmental trendsetter, Swedish ambassador Karin Olofsdotter says the country is far from perfect, and two exhibits at the House of Sweden in Washington showcase both the country's sustainable innovations and its natural destruction.

Diplomatic Courier sat down with Ambassador Olofsdotter at her residence to discuss Sweden's environmental legacy, ambitious goals, and how Sweden's tactics can be adopted by larger countries, even if on a smaller or local scale.

Swedish Ambassador to the United States Karin Olofsdotter poses at the House of Sweden. Photo credit: Swedish Embassy.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

DC: Sweden's history of hosting the first UN environmental conference, and having the world's first environmental policy, means that for your entire life, and entire political career, environmental integrity has been mainstreamed in Sweden. One of the reasons that's succeeded is because of industry. In the United States, industry is one of the largest adversaries of environmental protection. How has that worked in Sweden?

KO: We didn't call it climate issues in the old days, then it was called environmental issues. When I grew up, there were campaigns all over - keep Sweden clean. We have something called Right of Public Access. So even if you own a big forest and have a farm there, I'm allowed to walk your forest and pick your berries, and mushrooms that grow in your forest, as long as it's not something you've cultivated. I can also put up my tent in your forest as long as I'm not in visible sight of your home. So nature in Sweden belongs to everyone. We've always been outdoorsy people, so I think this has been ingrained in us since we were little kids, how we view the outdoors, and how we view nature, and how we view the environment.

We've had a carbon tax since 1991, and have gradually increased it. At the same time we have cut our emissions 27%, we have grown our economy by 85%. So adding these fees hasn't hampered economic growth.

It's really a market economy issue. The consumers want to buy green, which means that industry is also changing. Plus, we have put a lot of resources into innovation, both from government and industry realizing this is where we need to go. For instance, we now have the first fossil-free steel production plant. It will be up and running by 2025, but the technology is already there, so we will be able to produce carbon-free steel, which will be a huge thing.

DC: For the past twenty or thirty years, each generation has been told that the one after will save us, that it falls to the youth to fix the environmental crisis. What has it been like to have consistent environmental leadership?

KO: Of course we are not perfect, but we are on the right track. Across the board, all political parties in Sweden have the same view that we must do something, although we don't always agree on what. Some believe we should increase the nuclear power plants in Sweden, some believe we shouldn't. But every year the parties in government have to give a climate report to Parliament and discuss the climate policy action plan that they give at the beginning of each parliamentary cycle, and then they have to report back how they're fulfilling it. I think it's just something that's become part of our political life and how people think.

DC: Globally, we've all known these issues for decades, and Sweden seems to have some common sense solutions. Why do you think climate change is such a polarizing topic around the world?

KO: I think it has to do with globalization. Take, for example, shoes. In the 1950s, Sweden was full of shoe factories, now there is only one. So as the world has changed and production has become easier to put in another country where you can do it cheaper. With that, a lot of jobs were lost in a lot of places. As long as we are not good at creating the new jobs, people want to hold onto the old jobs and are upset that the old jobs are no longer there. And many of those jobs that have been lost were in relations to climate change.

So I can really understand the frustration in the population, where it is seen as very negative. But of course then it's up to each country to create the new jobs, what are the new future jobs, how do we steer our young people into the educational programs that make them fit for tomorrow's jobs. We haven't always been so good at transforming our education to cater to that. Like everyone else, we don't have enough plumbers and electricians. And these are great jobs!

DC: In the absence of blanket policy at the federal level, not only of the U.S. but also some of the larger countries both in terms of population and polluters, are there things that you can recommend that could be implemented at the local and state levels, that could help solve some of these issues? Or are we just too far gone unless we have U.S., China, Russia, India and others immediately take drastic action?

KO: It's hard for me to talk about other countries because I haven't experienced them but in Sweden, we have these systems called waste-to-energy systems. When you construct a suburb, all the waste in the suburb or in the area goes into a local energy producing plant so it becomes energy for that area. We only now put 1% of our waste into landfills. The rest is put into energy. It's good for the climate, it's good for business, and there's no waste. That can be done at the local level.

Since I was a child, you got money back when you handed back in the bottles. When I was kid, it was glass bottles, it's the same today for plastic bottles and cans. Most supermarkets in Sweden have recycling centers at the supermarkets, where you get either cash back or donate it to the Red Cross. It's fantastic. So most of the bottles in Sweden are re-used. It's really a no-no in Sweden to not recycle bottles and cans. Society and your neighbors will really look down on you if you don't take this seriously.

DC: It seems the tools are there, the technology is there. We are advanced countries with amazing access to resources, with electric cars back in the 1990s that were cheap, mass-produced and readily available, and yet to our own peril we have fought these things in the us every step in the way. Can we change our thinking? 

KO: It really starts locally. It comes from how we teach our kids, and what the kids expect from the parents, and what we have learned through the ages, and that people are seeing that it is working. It's everything from how people sort their garbage to what industry is doing.

DC: Where are some places people can go to see Swedish solutions and innovations in action?

KO: If you go down to South Carolina, the Volvo plant is now producing cars that are much more environmentally friendly. Of course, Ikea. H&M has a really interesting program in Stockholm, called Looop, where they will take your old clothes and make recycled fabric out of it.

DC: Years ago, DC Water tried to get reusable water bottles to everyone in Congress to encourage them to drink tap water, and it failed. If members of Congress asked you what they can do today, what would you tell them?

KO: Better waste management. It's an upfront investment but it makes the money back quickly. Stress education for children on environmental issues, so you really get into the DNA of people as they grow up that it's important. Fossil-free programs that bring industries together to push for greener production. Our experience shows that it's both a push from the political pressure but also voluntary, pushed from the consumers.

About
Molly McCluskey
:
Molly McCluskey is an international investigative journalist and creator of Diplomatica. Follow her on Twitter @MollyEMcCluskey.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

Modeling Global Climate Leadership

Photo via Pixabay.

June 9, 2021

To see what can be achieved when a nation has consistent, sustainable policies enacted across generations, one only has to look to Sweden.

T

he United States' commitment to the environment has seemingly ebbed and flowed depending on who has been in office. President Jimmy Carter famously placed solar panels on the White House in 1979, only to have President Ronald Reagan remove them in 1981. President George W. Bush added solar systems to the grounds in 2003, and President Barack Obama replaced the roof panels in 2010.

On the global stage, that fickleness has had much broader ramifications. Obama committed to the Paris Agreement in 2015, only to have President Donald Trump withdraw the country in 2020. President Joe Biden announced on his first day in office that the U.S. would rejoin the climate commitment. While the science of a warming world has evolved, scientists and activists have been warning for decades about the perils of inaction, and generation after generation have handed responsibility off to their children.

In the absence of reliable, global leadership from world powers, smaller countries are left to create solutions to problems created by their Brobdingnagian counterparts. To see what can be achieved when a nation has consistent, sustainable policies enacted across generations, one only has to look to Sweden.

In 1967, Sweden became the first country in the world to pass an environmental protection act. In 1972, the Nordic country was host to the world's first conference on the environment, during which participants adopted the Stockholm Declaration and Action Plan for the Human Environment and several resolutions. That event, the United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm, made the case that environmental issues should be of global, multilateral concern. It began the dialogue between industrialized and developing countries on the impact of the clean air, water, and oceans, on economic performance, and the well-being of people around the world.

More recently, the Swedish government has committed to going fossil-free by 2045, and achieving 100 percent renewable energy. Because these initiatives are widely adopted by 450 Swedish companies, many of whom also operate in the United States and around the world, these changes, if achieved, will have a ripple effect worldwide. The Swedish Climate Policy Framework requires, among other things, the government to present a climate action report in conjunction with its annual budget bill, ensuring that climate policy goals, and budgetary policy goals, are in sync.

Despite its global status as an environmental trendsetter, Swedish ambassador Karin Olofsdotter says the country is far from perfect, and two exhibits at the House of Sweden in Washington showcase both the country's sustainable innovations and its natural destruction.

Diplomatic Courier sat down with Ambassador Olofsdotter at her residence to discuss Sweden's environmental legacy, ambitious goals, and how Sweden's tactics can be adopted by larger countries, even if on a smaller or local scale.

Swedish Ambassador to the United States Karin Olofsdotter poses at the House of Sweden. Photo credit: Swedish Embassy.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

DC: Sweden's history of hosting the first UN environmental conference, and having the world's first environmental policy, means that for your entire life, and entire political career, environmental integrity has been mainstreamed in Sweden. One of the reasons that's succeeded is because of industry. In the United States, industry is one of the largest adversaries of environmental protection. How has that worked in Sweden?

KO: We didn't call it climate issues in the old days, then it was called environmental issues. When I grew up, there were campaigns all over - keep Sweden clean. We have something called Right of Public Access. So even if you own a big forest and have a farm there, I'm allowed to walk your forest and pick your berries, and mushrooms that grow in your forest, as long as it's not something you've cultivated. I can also put up my tent in your forest as long as I'm not in visible sight of your home. So nature in Sweden belongs to everyone. We've always been outdoorsy people, so I think this has been ingrained in us since we were little kids, how we view the outdoors, and how we view nature, and how we view the environment.

We've had a carbon tax since 1991, and have gradually increased it. At the same time we have cut our emissions 27%, we have grown our economy by 85%. So adding these fees hasn't hampered economic growth.

It's really a market economy issue. The consumers want to buy green, which means that industry is also changing. Plus, we have put a lot of resources into innovation, both from government and industry realizing this is where we need to go. For instance, we now have the first fossil-free steel production plant. It will be up and running by 2025, but the technology is already there, so we will be able to produce carbon-free steel, which will be a huge thing.

DC: For the past twenty or thirty years, each generation has been told that the one after will save us, that it falls to the youth to fix the environmental crisis. What has it been like to have consistent environmental leadership?

KO: Of course we are not perfect, but we are on the right track. Across the board, all political parties in Sweden have the same view that we must do something, although we don't always agree on what. Some believe we should increase the nuclear power plants in Sweden, some believe we shouldn't. But every year the parties in government have to give a climate report to Parliament and discuss the climate policy action plan that they give at the beginning of each parliamentary cycle, and then they have to report back how they're fulfilling it. I think it's just something that's become part of our political life and how people think.

DC: Globally, we've all known these issues for decades, and Sweden seems to have some common sense solutions. Why do you think climate change is such a polarizing topic around the world?

KO: I think it has to do with globalization. Take, for example, shoes. In the 1950s, Sweden was full of shoe factories, now there is only one. So as the world has changed and production has become easier to put in another country where you can do it cheaper. With that, a lot of jobs were lost in a lot of places. As long as we are not good at creating the new jobs, people want to hold onto the old jobs and are upset that the old jobs are no longer there. And many of those jobs that have been lost were in relations to climate change.

So I can really understand the frustration in the population, where it is seen as very negative. But of course then it's up to each country to create the new jobs, what are the new future jobs, how do we steer our young people into the educational programs that make them fit for tomorrow's jobs. We haven't always been so good at transforming our education to cater to that. Like everyone else, we don't have enough plumbers and electricians. And these are great jobs!

DC: In the absence of blanket policy at the federal level, not only of the U.S. but also some of the larger countries both in terms of population and polluters, are there things that you can recommend that could be implemented at the local and state levels, that could help solve some of these issues? Or are we just too far gone unless we have U.S., China, Russia, India and others immediately take drastic action?

KO: It's hard for me to talk about other countries because I haven't experienced them but in Sweden, we have these systems called waste-to-energy systems. When you construct a suburb, all the waste in the suburb or in the area goes into a local energy producing plant so it becomes energy for that area. We only now put 1% of our waste into landfills. The rest is put into energy. It's good for the climate, it's good for business, and there's no waste. That can be done at the local level.

Since I was a child, you got money back when you handed back in the bottles. When I was kid, it was glass bottles, it's the same today for plastic bottles and cans. Most supermarkets in Sweden have recycling centers at the supermarkets, where you get either cash back or donate it to the Red Cross. It's fantastic. So most of the bottles in Sweden are re-used. It's really a no-no in Sweden to not recycle bottles and cans. Society and your neighbors will really look down on you if you don't take this seriously.

DC: It seems the tools are there, the technology is there. We are advanced countries with amazing access to resources, with electric cars back in the 1990s that were cheap, mass-produced and readily available, and yet to our own peril we have fought these things in the us every step in the way. Can we change our thinking? 

KO: It really starts locally. It comes from how we teach our kids, and what the kids expect from the parents, and what we have learned through the ages, and that people are seeing that it is working. It's everything from how people sort their garbage to what industry is doing.

DC: Where are some places people can go to see Swedish solutions and innovations in action?

KO: If you go down to South Carolina, the Volvo plant is now producing cars that are much more environmentally friendly. Of course, Ikea. H&M has a really interesting program in Stockholm, called Looop, where they will take your old clothes and make recycled fabric out of it.

DC: Years ago, DC Water tried to get reusable water bottles to everyone in Congress to encourage them to drink tap water, and it failed. If members of Congress asked you what they can do today, what would you tell them?

KO: Better waste management. It's an upfront investment but it makes the money back quickly. Stress education for children on environmental issues, so you really get into the DNA of people as they grow up that it's important. Fossil-free programs that bring industries together to push for greener production. Our experience shows that it's both a push from the political pressure but also voluntary, pushed from the consumers.

About
Molly McCluskey
:
Molly McCluskey is an international investigative journalist and creator of Diplomatica. Follow her on Twitter @MollyEMcCluskey.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.