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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

The campaign so far suggests that Sweden's image as a paragon of virtue on the environment might be at risk, says David Crouch

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 
Greta Thunberg attends a demonstration in Odenplan Stockholm in June. Photo: Meli Petersson Ellafi/TT

Four years ago next month, a 15-year-old girl sat down on the cobblestones outside parliament in central Stockholm. She refused to go to school until Sweden’s general election that September, to draw attention to the climate crisis.

July 2018 had been the hottest in Sweden since records began 262 years ago, and forest fires had ravaged large parts of the countryside. Greta Thunberg’s school strike gave voice to a pent-up feeling that something must be done to curb global warming.

Within months, she had become one of the world’s best-known figures in the climate debate, leading mass protests for immediate and radical action. 

But this Friday, July 1, Thunberg was back on the cobbles outside parliament with just four supporters, repeating her message of 2018. She might be tempted to ask, after all her campaigning: why doesn’t the climate have a higher profile in this year’s Swedish elections? 

There is every reason for it to do so. According to the latest report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, the world has “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future”. Some damage was already irreversible and ecosystems were reaching the limits of their ability to cope. Their findings were an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres. 

Sweden’s self-image as a leader on green issues is undermined by recent slippage, delay and prevarication. In 2017, left and right came together to agree that the country should become “the world’s first fossil-free welfare state”, with zero carbon emissions by 2045 and negative ones thereafter. Sweden became the first nation to enshrine this target in law. However, the country is not on target to achieve this goal. In its latest assessment, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency said more measures would be necessary to prevent progress from slipping further behind on its climate transformation. 

As for other environmental targets that the country committed to achieve by 2020, 15 out of the 16 goals have not been reached. Growth, prosperity and consumption are taking precedence over the environment, researcher Katarina Eckerberg told Dagens Nyheter: “It’s the elephant in the room. No one dares to tell the truth, we are [just] trying to polish the surface a bit.” 

At the party-political level, climate policy seems to have stalled. Since Magdalena Andersson took office in the autumn, the “climate collegium” (klimatkollegium), set up in 2020 as a place for ministers to discuss essential climate initiatives, has not met. Party leaders debated energy and climate in public in early May, but the focus was on the hit to citizens’ pockets caused by rising fuel prices, with left and right united on lowering taxes. What we do for the climate in Sweden won’t bring down the temperature in India, said Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson, whose party rejects the 2045 zero-carbon target. The Green Party, who left the government in November, has seen its ratings sink steadily lower in the polls. 

Sweden’s greenhouse gas emissions actually increased by 4% in 2021 – partly because the economy bounced back after Covid, but still a worrying trend. Almost 80% of wind power projects in the country were vetoed by local municipalities, as the kommuner increasingly say no to wind power, putting a spoke in the wheels of Sweden’s green transformation.

This all adds up to climate taking a back seat so far in this year’s general election campaign. This is in sharp contrast to Norway’s “climate election” last autumn, which saw the country’s reliance on oil come in for sharp criticism and success for parties campaigning on green issues. The climate dominated the campaigning in Norway after the IPCC published a “code red” warning on the climate. For Germans also deciding whom to vote for last September, alarming events at home and abroad drove home the urgency of the climate crisis, with deadly heat waves, wildfires and devastating floods that left more the 200 dead.

More recently, the Australian election in May became essentially a climate election, with the victorious centre-left putting climate change and environmental policy firmly back on the agenda. Closer to home, a feature of elections in Denmark and Finland in 2019 was that the climate also enjoyed a profile higher than ever before.

Meanwhile, however, the world seems to be going backwards on the climate. This week, the US Supreme Court ruled that the country’s main environmental regulator has no power to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demand for coal has shot up. Just months after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, there is a backlash in business circles against so-called “woke capitalism”, with the idea of environmental investment coming under attack from populist politicians and financiers.

Swedes themselves are consistently well-informed and concerned about the environment. The environment and climate are around fifth on the list of voters’ main concerns, after crime, health, schools and inflation. Immigration and refugee issues, which have long dominated the Swedish debate, are in sixth place, while defence and security – despite the debate over Nato – are down in seventh place, according to an Ipsos poll in June.

But at the polling booth, when it comes to casting their vote, it seems that most Swedes have little faith that political parties will make much difference. Despite the fact that the climate had such a high profile in 2018, the issue did not even end up among the top 10 reasons for choosing a party to vote for, according to polling station surveys commissioned by SVT. Instead, voters feel this is a global problem rather than a Swedish one. “It wouldn’t matter if every Swede held their breath so as not to emit a single molecule more of carbon dioxide – progress would still be negative,” the head of polling company Novus told Svensk Dagbladet last month.

So Sweden seems set to continue to make slow but unspectacular – and even disappointing – progress on the climate in coming years. It would be a shame if the country, with its solid record on the environment and its fondness for grand declarations about the future, were to become a byword for greenwashing rather than a beacon for a better world. Greta and her supporters have work to do here at home.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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2022 SWEDISH ELECTION

What pledges have Sweden’s four largest political parties made in this year’s election?

With the 2022 Swedish parliamentary election just over a month away, The Local looks at each party's policies and pledges in the run-up to the big day on September 11th. Here's part one, covering Sweden's four largest parties.

What pledges have Sweden's four largest political parties made in this year's election?

We’ll start with Sweden’s four largest parties: the left-wing Social Democrats and the conservative Moderates, the far-right Sweden Democrats and the Centre Party, who, as you probably guessed, are in the centre of the political spectrum.

The leader of one of Sweden’s two largest parties – Magdalena Andersson for the Social Democrats and Ulf Kristersson for the Moderates – is likely to become prime minister after September’s election, depending on how well each party does, as well as how many votes the other parties in their blocs receive.

Social Democrat election posters on pensions, limiting profits for free schools, and law and order issues. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

Social Democrats

The Social Democrats focus on six different policy areas on their website, which, interestingly, don’t correspond entirely with their election campaign posters unveiled in early August.

The campaign posters cover pensions, schools (specifically, limiting profit-making free schools), crime and law and order.

On their website, however, the ruling Social Democrats highlight different issues: welfare, healthcare, elderly care, labour, the climate and law and order.

Some key issues highlighted in their campaign are more police officers, stricter punishments for criminals, better pensions and limiting profits for free schools. They also state that “everyone who can work, should work”, adding that those who work should be able to live off their salary and have good working conditions.

Some of their labour policies include creating more jobs across Sweden, including in the healthcare sector in order to shorten queues for accessing healthcare, providing better opportunities for the unemployed to retrain and introducing the family week policy they were previously unable to pass through parliament.

Moderate party leader Ulf Kristersson speaks at his party’s election kickoff in Norrköping on August 4th. Photo: Magnus Andersson/TT

Moderates

The Moderates’ main policy focus areas in their campaign, according to their website are crime, the economy and jobs, as well as energy and the climate.

The conservative opposition party’s policies criticise the reigning Social Democrats, pointing out issues it has identified as being important for voters. It does not, however, propose a set of policies to tackle these issues.

The Moderates mention the high level of shootings in Sweden (“one shooting a day, one fatal shooting a week”), mugging, fraud against the elderly and women’s “insecurity outdoors” as important election issues this year.

They also focus on the economy and “planboksfrågor”, or literally “wallet issues”, like cost of living and personal economy issues, stating that “after eight years with the Social Democrats in government, we have the EU’s lowest growth … and eighth-highest unemployment”, as well as stating that “700,000 people who have migrated to Sweden can’t support themselves financially, costing 132 billion kronor per year”.

On energy and climate, they state that energy prices have broken new records this summer, with the situation “expected to get even harder in autumn and winter”, as well as stating that “Sweden has burnt oil in the middle of summer”.

Their main argument as to why voters should vote for them is not a policy as such, rather the fact that they have “gathered four parties which agree on the political issues which are most important for voters”.

They list eleven points these four parties – the Moderates, the Christian Democrats, the Sweden Democrats and the Liberals – agree on.

Some of these points tackle specific law and order issues, such as introducing double sentences for gang criminals and imprisoning young people who carry out “humiliation robberies” – robberies where the perpetrator humiliates their victim.

Other points tackle money issues, like “work should pay” and less red tape for owners of small businesses, as well as energy and climate issues, such as lower fuel prices and more nuclear power to provide “cheaper and greener electricity”.

Finally, some points tackle integration and migration: “tightened immigration for integration to succeed”, and “no to forced bussing of students”, a policy which does not currently exist and has not been proposed, where students would be bussed from areas with a high immigrant population to areas with a lower level of immigrants, in order to aid integration.

Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson kicks off his party’s election tour in Söderköping. Photo: Magnus Andersson/TT

Sweden Democrats

The Sweden Democrats’ key focus areas for the upcoming election are migration, security, cheaper fuel and welfare.

Their election campaign is also markedly negative, describing the country as “a divided Sweden where gangs have been allowed to grow, exclusion has taken root and the cost of living for people has drastically increased”.

They argue that “those who created this society”, which they state is a product of “decades of social liberal politics”, are incompetent when it comes to solving the problems it faces.

They also state that they are “not like other parties” blaming the other parties for “making Sweden how it is today”.

Their main argument for voting for them in September is to “create a cohesive Sweden where people can feel secure, a sense of community and have a good standard of living”, as well as stating that the Sweden Democrats are “the party which warned of these developments in society and saw it coming”.

On migration, they state that “mass migration to Sweden from illegal immigrants, economic migrants and asylum seekers has changed Sweden for the worse and has caused many societal problems that we now need to fix”.

To do this, the Sweden Democrats want to stop all refugees from countries which “are not close to us” and tighten migration policy to the “strictest possible level according to EU law”. They also want the number of migrants who do not have the right to be in Sweden leaving to be higher than the number of migrants arriving in Sweden.

On welfare, they accuse the Social Democrats of “letting Sweden’s welfare fall into ruin”, stating that they will solve the issue by “financing large-scale investments through lowering aid and a sustainable migration policy”. They further state that Sweden’s welfare “should not be available for the whole world’s population” and that it should only be fully available to Swedish citizens and those who contribute to the welfare state.

On security, they state that there needs to be more police with better working conditions. They also want to increase sentences for criminals.

On fuel, the Sweden Democrats are critical of higher fuel taxes, suggesting that they would lower tax on fuel if elected.

Annie Lööf holds a speech at the Centre Party election kick-off on August 5th. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

Centre Party

The Centre Party’s election manifesto focuses on a number of priorities: “how the whole country should live, how we can save the environment and the climate, create an equal Sweden, increase the potential of small businesses and strengthen the economy, improve healthcare, protect liberal democracy and strengthen the social contract”.

It also makes a point of the fact that it is Sweden’s only conservative or borgerlig party which refuses to work with the Sweden Democrats, describing them as a “xenophobic party with authoritarian leaders as its role models”.

In terms of climate, the Centre Party states that Sweden must “take advantage of the possibilities of technology and the innovative power of companies to overcome the climate threat”. The Centre Party also wants “increased freedom, security and accessibility” across Sweden, and it wants to “increase women’s security and independence” through preventative measures against male violence against women.

On the economy and small businesses, it wants lower tax and less red tape, and more stability in state finances.

On healthcare, it – like most of the other parties – also wants to shorten healthcare waiting times. The Centre Party will do that by providing better working conditions for healthcare workers and providing better access to those in need across the country.

On law and order, it calls for a better prepared totalförsvar or “total defence”, Sweden’s defence tactic in which the entire country must be prepared to defend in the case of an attack, as well as preventative measures to tackle crime.

Finally, the Centre Party calls for, unsurprisingly, central politics. Green, liberal politics and a fight against division and polarisation. “Sweden does not need xenophobic right-wing nationalism or socialist left-wing politics,” it says.

On Monday we will continue our appraisal of party election pledges, looking at the pledges of the Christian Democrats, Left Party, Liberal Party, and Green Party. 

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