The Sweden Files: day two

The first official day of the programme, and I get up to speed with European and Swedish politics.

The first official day of the programme, and I get up to speed with European and Swedish politics.

Parliament buildings, Stockholm

The environment is political in every country—but this year and next, it is absolutely central to the Swedish Government.

That’s because Sweden will hold the EU Presidency in the second half of 2009; and the second half of 2009 is when a new global climate agreement will be adopted, to come into force when the commitments contained in the Kyoto Protocol expire in 2012.

Sweden will lead negotiations for the EU at the UN’s climate change conference in Copenhagen, known as the Conference of the Parties (COP 15). And that is a Very Big Deal.

The EU is a powerful voice in climate negotiations. Apart from being an important, respected and very large union of countries, it is leading the world in actually putting all the Kyoto talk into practice. The EU’s Energy and Climate Package is currently being negotiated in Brussels, which will put forward concrete goals for emissions reduction for its member states—and give it extra credibility in the international negotiations. And within the EU, Sweden is leading with its actions.

Sweden’s official climate policy won’t be announced until December. It will probably aim for emissions reductions of 30 to 40 percent below 1990 levels, by 2050. Sweden’s emissions have already dropped almost 9% between 1990 and 2006. Over the same period, economic growth reached 44%.

Between 1990 and 2006, New Zealand has increased its emissions by a whopping 26%. Our goal under Kyoto was not even to decrease our emissions, but to keep them stable. We have failed miserably.

Why has Sweden been so successful? Partly, it’s because it started early. The Swedish government has been investing in the development of biofuel for 20 years, in the form of ‘biogas’ used as vehicle fuel. The country has a more than 50-year history of producing biogas at its wastewater treatment plants. Because of this early transition away from fossil fuels, its greenhouse gas emissions had already dropped by more than 40% since the mid-70s.

But mostly, it’s through clear, determined leadership, and a conviction right from the top that decreasing emissions—and helping other countries decrease theirs—is the right, and only, thing to do.

Today I met the head of the secretariat for the Commission on Sustainable Development, Joakim Sonnegard. The Commission is a committee of 15 political, business, academic and NGO leaders, chaired by the Prime Minister himself, and co-chaired by the Minister for the Environment. It’s a cross-party group that meets six times a year for analysis and discussion on climate policy, both for Sweden itself and in preparation for the COP 15 discussions. It works because members don’t have the negotiation mindset that dominates politics turned on, says Joakim. By taking party politics out of the discussion, members of the Commission speak freely.

The group doesn’t require consensus, but it has been successful in making joint recommendations to the Ministry for the Environment, forming a policy stance and strategising Sweden’s approach for the COP 15 meeting. It’s also preparing some official material that will make interesting reading early next year: a report on the approach the new US administration is expected to take on climate discussions, and another analysis of China’s constantly shifting stance on its climate obligations.

The Ministry of the Environment itself deals with all this, and more. The Swedish Parliament has adopted 16 environmental objectives, with the goal that one generation from now, all the major environmental problems facing Sweden will have been solved. It’s an ambitious but achievable goal, and one that brings to mind the 11 recommendations in WWF’s recent Be a Good Ancestor Today report on New Zealand politics.

Also mentioned in the WWF report are our obligations on international aid under the Millennium Development Goals. Meeting these goals are a priority for the Swedish environment ministry. Why? Sweden is one of few countries that exceeds its target of giving 0.7% of GDP in development assistance. That’s about SEK$4 billion in international aid. And mostly, it’s given to help at-risk countries adapt to climate change.

This, too, puts Sweden in a very good position for climate negotiations. Only rich countries who have put their money on the table are likely to be taken seriously by the countries who will be most affected by climate change—and the participation of those countries in the next phase of climate agreement negotiations is vital.

New Zealand is very far away from the action on climate change, and we are a very small player, in every way. But Sweden is also a small, isolated country. By walking the talk and putting money where its mouth is, Sweden has risen to become one of the most important negotiating parties in next year’s COP 15 discussions—discussions that will shape New Zealand’s future economy, politics and maybe even our weather.

By showing strategic leadership, Sweden will get results that are an advantage to its economy. New Zealand, by following so painfully slowly, will take the cards we are dealt. I can’t help thinking it could have been another way.

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