Air pollution has been one of Europe’s and Sweden’s main political concerns since the late 1970s. Ambient air pollution increases the risk of heart and lung diseases and can reduce life expectancy. The pollutants that are most harmful to health are inhalable particulate matter, ground-level ozone, nitrogen dioxide and certain hydrocarbons.
On average, the air quality in Sweden is good, however during the cold winter periods, higher pollution levels do occur. NOx and PM levels rise due to the combustion during the winter and resuspension due to the use of studded tires in the springtime. Air pollution in Sweden is mainly driven by traffic, energy production and industry, especially in urban areas.
In Sweden, the air quality work is in line with the European National Air Quality Standards. Two directives adopted by the EU include rules on how the Member States should monitor, assess and manage ambient quality air. This is a legally binding system for every member state. Sweden has, however, more ambitious targets when it comes to minimising air pollution. According to the Swedish National Environmental Quality Objectives “Clean Air”, the air should be clean enough not to represent a risk to human health or animals, plants or cultural assets. Sweden is carrying out this work mainly through the municipalities.
Every municipality in Sweden has to assess the air quality by measurements, modeling or objective estimation to make sure that the environmental quality standards (EQS) are met. If a municipality is exceeding an EQS, an air quality plan must be established. The EQS is legally binding for a municipality, county administrative boards and governmental agencies. But they do not fully protect human health, which is why Sweden has adopted the vision of so-called “Swedish National Environmental Quality Objectives”. The vision covers different areas – from unpolluted air and lakes free from eutrophication and acidification to functioning forest and farmland ecosystems. For each objective, there are several ‘specifications’, clarifying the state of the environment to be attained. The target of “Clean Air” aims to ensure that concentrations of air pollutants do not exceed low-risk levels for cancer or target values for protection against diseases or impacts on plants, animals, materials, and cultural objects.
Many policy instruments helped to improve air quality in Sweden:
- 1991: Sulphur taxation. The sulfur tax is applied to emissions where these are measured, or the sulfur content of oil used.
- 1992: Sweden introduced a charge on emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from large stationary combustion plants. A strong incentive for emission reduction was attained by setting a high charge level and combining it with mandatory continuous monitoring of emissions. High monitoring costs made it economically feasible only to include large combustion plants. To avoid serious distortions in competitiveness, the charge was made refundable to the collective of regulated plants based on plant output as a fraction of total useful energy produced by regulated plants. NOx charge has turned out to be an effective instrument for reducing NOx emissions per unit of energy produced from stationary combustion plants in Sweden. Emission intensities have been cut by half, which can be considered a substantial reduction for a pollutant like NOx that is usually technically difficult to reduce.
- 1996: Environmental zones for heavy traffic from 1996 and private vehicles from 2020
- 2009: Bann for studded tires for certain areas to diminish the high level of particles in the air.
- 2018: Bonus–malus system for new vehicles
- District heating since the 1970s and district cooling since 2000s
- Congestion taxes: In Sweden, there is a system of congestion taxes in Stockholm and Gothenburg. The tax applies to vehicles registered in Sweden and outside Sweden. The payment system is completely automatic. When you drive past a tolling station, this is registered, and a payment slip is sent to the owner of the vehicle.