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Greta Thunberg. Photo/Getty Images

Why Swedes didn’t need to be told about environmentalism by Greta Thunberg

Sweden can lay claim to kick-starting global green politics, when it hosted the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, which placed sustainability on the agenda for the first time.

In 1991, it became one of the first countries to tax carbon, an initiative that helped cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 25% as the economy grew by 60%.

Following the UN’s Paris climate-change conference in 2015, Sweden legislated to be carbon neutral by 2045 – five years ahead of New Zealand – and the capital, Stockholm, aims to reach the target by 2040. The country is helped by the fact that it generates more than half of its electricity from renewable sources, mostly hydroelectric. Energy-intensive industries such as data centres use the low air temperature as free cooling. Attracted by the cold, cheap power and tax breaks, Facebook announced plans last year to double the size of its data centres in the northern city of Luleå. Power is also generated from burning waste, with power companies boasting that their only emissions are water vapour.

Read more: What New Zealand can learn from Sweden's successes and struggles

There is a strong awareness of the environment, partly because, like New Zealand, the sea and large areas of unspoilt countryside surround the major cities. This green consciousness has led recently to a trend for “plogging” – picking up litter while jogging.

Swedes also talk about flygskam, or flight shame, and it isn’t just a pretence at dinner parties. Flying numbers are down by 5%, and the Swede who has been most effective in exporting that message to the world is teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg. She began her protests outside the Swedish Parliament in August last year, when she was just 15.

Yet, if Thunberg has become an international phenomenon, not everyone in Sweden appreciates her methods. “Some feel they do enough for the environment already,” says David Crouch, a British journalist who lives in Gothenburg. “They follow rigorous recycling protocols in their homes, while the country is committed to carbon neutrality by 2045. They dislike Greta’s hectoring, moralistic tone.”

In many respects, measures to lower carbon emissions and improve the environment are helped by Sweden’s distinctive economic features. As Crouch writes in his recent book on the country: “A history of taking bold political initiatives, a consensus culture, a long-term outlook and suspicion of short-termism, centrally planned housing construction, municipal intervention and partnerships with the private sector have all combined to create conditions in which Sweden could commit to going carbon neutral by 2045, and have a chance of actually doing so.”

This article was first published in the December 7, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.