Stefan Nyström: Follow Sweden’s example on climate change

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Climate change is becoming an increasingly pressing challenge. The effects are literally knocking on our doors on a daily basis. The past summer’s extreme weather here in Europe seems to have increased public awareness and created a new openness for discussions on both individual and political mitigation action.

In my country, Sweden, a combination of a cold winter with abundant precipitation followed by droughts and an unprecedented number of forest fires made many of us think twice. We now also know that agricultural harvests in many cases were halved, and the question to be asked is what our response would be if harvests were halved across the whole of Europe – or the world – at the same time?

Two years ago, the leaders of 187 nations stood up as one in Paris, declaring that climate change is the most severe challenge mankind has ever faced. Promises were made and the Paris Agreement was signed.

However, greenhouse gases have continued to rise to an all-time high. If a de-carbonisation of our economies does not happen quickly, scientists warn us that we are looking at a global warming of 3-5 degrees Celsius during this century.

There is some positive work being done around the world with countries like mine, New Zealand and others setting ambitious goals for eliminating our contribution to climate change and developing pathways for others to follow.

In Sweden, political discussions were intense ahead of the Paris Agreement. An inter-governmental investigation was set up with representation from all political parties. After two years of thorough analytical work, a new climate policy framework came into effect on 1 January. This rests on three pillars:

1. An overarching goal of becoming a climate-neutral country by 2045.

2. A Climate Act, which requires every government to present an action-plan, including an evaluation of Sweden’s performance in relation to the long-term goal and, if needed, launching complementary mitigation measures.

3. The appointment of an independent Climate Change Committee with the task of evaluating the government’s performance and suggesting alternative measures to meet the long term goal.

It’s too early to know how this is working, but it’s obvious that already the “zero-signal” has become a driver both for business and local governments. We now see a very large number of local governments setting up at least as ambitious goals as the national government, and already during 2018 more than 15 industrial sectors will have presented action plans to become fossil-free. Among them are economic giants such as iron and steel, cement and the forestry industry.

The reasons behind this massive and rapid response to the new framework are multiple and difficult to assess exhaustively. Nevertheless, the following circumstances stand out:

1. The climate framework was supported by an overwhelming majority in the Riksdag (our parliament): Seven out of eight political parties, representing 87 per cent of MPs, voted in favour. For markets, this means that political uncertainty and risk has been minimised since the framework will continue to constitute the basis for Swedish climate policy-making – independent of the outcome of future elections.

2. Recent developments in the energy sector have substantially lowered prices on renewables (solar, wind), facilitating decarbonisation within the important electricity sector.

3. A faith in the possibilities of new, smart, digitised technologies combined with specific technological developments such as the possibility of producing steel without CO2 emissions.

4 The outcome of the Paris Agreement, which spread a fundamental understanding of the fact that there is no business on a dead planet.

In its 2017 assessment on global risks, The World Economic Forum pointed to the effects of climate change as being equal to those of a nuclear war. The stakes are high, and from Paris we also remember the words of President Barack Obama: “We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it”.

Now it’s time for countries around the world to join us in aiming to eliminate our collective contribution to climate change.

Stefan Nyström is director of the Department for Climate Change and Air Quality at the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency