Can Sweden really deliver on its 'carbon neutral' goal?

clock • 7 min read

With new plans to cut emissions by 85 per cent by 2045 and offset the rest abroad, the Scandinavian country is demonstrating how green ambition can be ratcheted up post-Paris

One of the main features of the Paris deal struck between nearly 200 nations in December was the so-called "ratchet mechanism", where countries agreed that targets should become more ambitious over time. The commitment was seen as critical to the success of the deal by many observers, considering national pledges as they currently stand come nowhere near delivering on the goal of keep temperature increases well below 2C. 

As the euphoria of Paris dies down and the world waits to see which countries will be the first to take the plunge and boost their emissions reductions plans, sustainability pioneer Sweden this month underlined its reputation as a green trail-blazer by announcing a more ambitious emissions target. The Scandinavian country revealed a new plan to go "carbon neutral" by 2045, with a plan to cut emissions by 85 per cent compared to 1990 levels and offset the remaining 15 per cent by investing in overseas carbon-cutting projects. Sweden had previously pledged to cut its net emissions to zero by 2050, but the new plan marks a significant step-change for the country in the way emissions reductions will be set.

"I think that now when we have done all the easy emission cuts, and now are getting into where it's more difficult, it needs a more solid framework," Leif Holmberg, acting head of the climate and air policy development unit at the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), tells BusinessGreen, adding that Sweden is taking it inspiration from the success of countries that have already implemented a climate law.

The broad support for the proposals from seven of the eight parties in parliament - it was proposed by a cross-party environmental committee comprised of these seven parties - means confidence is high the new plan will be adopted by parliament. While the exact details of what the framework and structure will look like have yet to emerge, it is likely to take a similar form to the UK's Climate Change Act - making Sweden the latest in a line of countries to adopt over-arching climate legislation.

In a country where coalitions and minority governments are the norm, Stockholm Environment Institute executive director Johan Kuylenstierna says getting parliamentary backing rather than a government policy decision is crucial. However, the level of cross-party consensus enjoyed by the proposals are still unusual. "You don't know if the government will still be there tomorrow, because they can't agree on anything, and suddenly they agree on one thing - it's the climate issue and having a common target," he says.

In a way, though, setting the long-term target was the easy bit - the committee is now tasked with laying out exactly how it will be met, including which intermediate targets should be set, how the cuts should be distributed between Sweden's various sectors, and how to integrate the goals into government policy and ensure efforts to meet them are properly funded. "Agreeing on incentives and also sectorial targets and milestones, that will be tougher," admits Nina Ekelund, programme director of the Haga Initiative, a Swedish industry network that works to reduce carbon emissions from the business sector. "Should we have a fast rate of reduction in the beginning right now, or should we have it in the end, say 2030 to 2035?" The committee will be looking at this in the coming months, and hopes to have developed intermediate targets by early June.

With the country's electricity and fuel sectors already well on their way to being carbon free - 83 per cent of electricity production currently comes from nuclear and hydroelectric power, while Sweden's extensive bioenergy resources are widely used in district heating systems - most of the emissions cuts will have to come from the more challenging areas such as transport and heavy industry. "The transport sector I think would be the sector that would be easiest to work with and to deliver a big reduction in," says Ekelund.

In contrast, Sweden's steel industry - currently the country's single biggest emitter - could find the transition especially problematic. However, Kuylenstierna argues the country's extensive bioenergy resources could actually leave Sweden well placed to pioneer the development of relatively low carbon energy-intensive industries. "Because we have the energy system that we do have in Sweden, I think there is actually potential even to further stimulate energy intensive industry in Sweden, but of course [through] fossil-free systems," he says.

The emergence of low carbon domestic industries could be crucial to Sweden's chances of meeting its ambitious emissions targets, especially if the concept of consumption-based emissions is ever adopted. "We still have a major challenge in Sweden if we are also looking at our imports," admits Kuylenstierna. "So this debate is also quite important to have if we are pushing policies which mean that even more production leaks to other parts of the world - that is of course not good from a global perspective." However, while these discussions are beginning to happen, with Holmberg saying the Swedish EPA is now looking at approaches that could help to reduce Sweden's footprint abroad, there is currently no political target to account for emissions in this way.

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