Sweden sees climate action as spur to growth, not a hindrance

Sweden’s Scandinavian Water Technology has invented a detergent-free washing machine system, which may transform the way millions wash their clothes, saving an incredible 1kg in carbon emissions for every 5kg of laundry.

Meanwhile some of the country’s hospital parking is being turned into eco-habitats for butterflies, there is a push towards air-purifying plant walls that filter air and, hold your nose, the Swedes are also looking at using sewage gas for fuel.

In June, Sweden’s government passed into law a pledge to become a net zero carbon emitter by 2045. That’s five years earlier than it had committed to under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, making it the first major country to make a significant improvement on those targets.

All this willingness to stand up and be counted comes at a crucial time for climate change, with the US recently pulling out of the Paris accords to cut global emissions. President Donald Trump said the commitments were too punishing for US business to bear.

So why does it work for Sweden and Swedish business? Many in the country argue that the cost of not taking any action will be a lot higher. It says economic growth and tough climate policies can go hand in hand.

There is considerable research to back this up. Marshall Burke, assistant professor at Stanford University, in conjunction with the University of California, Berkeley, forecasts that unchecked climate change will cut global gross domestic product by more than 20 per cent by 2100.

In Sweden, data also supports the idea that the economy does not have to be sacrificed to go green. Although the country has had the world’s highest carbon tax for more than 20 years and a strict climate policy, it has still attained growth. Since 1990, emissions have fallen by 25 per cent while GDP has jumped by 69 per cent, according to government figures.

And where the government leads, Sweden believes the private sector will follow. Truckmaker Scania has just announced a partnership with logistics company HAVI to reduce the carbon footprint of deliveries to McDonald’s across Europe, by shifting their fleet to alternative fuels. They are also developing a truck with special equipment to collect used cooking oil and other restaurant waste for recycling.

Are there reasons though why Sweden should be a special case? Possibly. It has a small population, a trade-based economy and an abundance of water to help energy supply.

There may also be limits to all this eco-driven economic growth and activity. The government plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions compared with 1990 by 40 per cent by the year 2020, and to have a vehicle fleet completely rid of fossil fuels by 2030.

To hit the 2020 target, emis­sions would need to decline by an ad­ditional 20 million tonnes, that’s 4 million more than the current estimate for where emissions will be by that date.

That’s where things get tricky, even for Sweden. The government concedes it needs to take further action, but has already cut most of the low-hanging fruit, getting the bulk of its power from hydro and nuclear energy, so it needs to find other ways to cut emissions. As a result, its climate policy is now focused on greening transport with biofuels and electricity.

Not all biofuel efforts are as cuddly as you would imagine. The Stockholm city government in 2009 decided the best way to tackle the problem of rabbits overrunning its parks was to cull them for biofuel to heat homes. But bunny burning did not go down well and Sweden is now focusing on more traditional household food waste to create fuel.

And the search for innovation of course creates further opportunities for business from waste management to renewable energy and home efficiency. As Dante Disparte, founder and CEO of the Risk Cooperative, wrote in the Harvard Business Review: “Climate change itself is bad for the economy and investing in climate resilience is not only a national security priority, but an enormous economic opportunity.”