Sweden has a long history of tackling environmental problems, stretching from the 1960s to today. Through legislation, technological innovation, climate contracts and putting responsibility on the polluters, Sweden has come a long way in the environmental work, even though more still needs to be done.

Environmental awareness in Sweden increased dramatically in the mid-1960s when researchers began to raise concerns that fish and birds were dying. Toxins such as DDT and PCB, as well as heavy metals like mercury, had spread from industry and agriculture, causing environmental problems.

Businesses held responsible for their environmental impact

This led to businesses beginning to be held responsible for the impact they had on the environment. In 1966, IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute was founded. In 1967, Sweden became the first country with an environmental protection agency and, in 1969, Sweden was the first country to legislate that nature constitutes a national asset that must be protected and cared for. It also established the Swedish Right to Public Access.

At the same time, the state launched a range of incentives to kick-start investment in green technology and began financing industrial investments that would lead to new ways of dealing with environmental problems. The result, by the end of the 1970s, was that Sweden had become world-leading in filter technology for substances such as sulphur, DDT and heavy metals.  

In 1975, Sweden implemented a new law on waste and recycling, resulting in less than one per cent of Sweden’s household waste now going to landfill. The majority is either recycled or incinerated for energy such as electricity and heating.

The oil crisis of the 1970s and the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986 led to Sweden developing a biofuel strategy. This accelerated after the introduction of a carbon tax in 1991 and biofuel currently represents 30 percent of Sweden’s energy provision.

Great effects from emissions trading

Allan Larsson was a Swedish politician and minister of finance during the 1990s, and director-general of the European Commission 1995-2000. He has also chaired the national research programme Viable Cities and has been vice-chair of the EUs Mission Board for Climate Neutral and Smart Cities.

He says that the EU’s emissions trading system (ETS) has had the greatest impact on Swedish business in terms of the environment, despite progressive environmental action dating back to the 1960s.

– Initially, the ETS was a fairly weak tool, but after being reformed it has become more powerful. Fossil fuels have gotten more expensive and are now being phased out. Emissions trading has influenced national legislation and is pushing businesses towards better solutions. It’s responsible for the industrial transition we’re now witnessing, says Larsson.

He points out that the ETS was changed due to a Swedish initiative. In 2021, one of the amendments that was introduced was a mechanism for removing excess emissions allowances from the system so they cannot be used. This mechanism resulted from a proposal by Swedish politicians and has significantly reduced the volume of emissions allowances in the system. Greenhouse gas emissions have become more expensive, leading to the closure of multiple coal-fired power plants in Europe.

Cities are carbon criminals

However, the European transition demands more than emissions trading, according to Allan Larsson.

– Cities are bad guys when it comes to carbon, so it is important that cities, municipalities and the people who live there also make changes. In many places, people are focusing on climate-neutral construction, which is good. But 99 per cent of cities have already been constructed, and existing problems need fixing, such as our homes, transportation, and recycling systems. One problem is that there is currently no obvious body that takes responsibility for the city as a whole, says Larsson, and continues:  

– Municipalities are liable for their activities, but their biggest challenge is also taking action to bring together business and housing companies. This is where the climate contract created by Viable Cities is important.

As the chair of Viable Cities and a vice-chair in the EU, Larsson has been involved in producing the climate contracts. These are agreements between municipalities, public agencies and Viable Cities, in which each party commits to tangibly increasing the rate of the climate transition. It is a long-term obligation that guarantees cooperation between cities, the government and the citizens.

– Governance, the idea and method for governing and leading, is a Swedish invention that has been upscaled and is now an EU system, says Larsson.

Climate contracts were first signed in December 2020 by the political leadership for the nine cities in the initiative and the directors-general of various Swedish authorities. Twenty-three Swedish municipalities are now participating in the programme for climate-neutral cities by 2030.

– Reading the 23 contracts makes me happy about all this activity that is going on. If we disregard a few urban areas where ambitious construction projects are underway, this is the biggest thing to happen in the future environmental history of Sweden’s urban areas, Larsson concludes.

My Visit Plan Favorite star