When the going gets tough in UK politics, it’s tempting to look to Scandinavia for inspiration. Those ex-vikings seem to have mellowed into a peaceful, consensual bunch, quietly doing the right thing on social policy and environmental protection. Or so we believe. But what’s the truth behind the stereotype? I recently spent a month in Sweden, and while I’m still no expert, I had a lot of interesting conversations about Swedish politics – so here are my reflections.
First, the famed Swedish social contract is still very much in evidence, though it’s under some strain. Sweden has managed to sustain consensus for quality public services funded through high taxes, and the results are tangible: good transport networks, functioning education and health systems and clean, calm streets. This all stems from the concept of the ‘Folkhemmet’, or ‘people’s home’, which guided Swedish political thinking through much of the twentieth century. The foundation of the Folkhemmet is a sense of collective responsibility shared between citizens, the state, business and unions, cutting across class or other divides and striving for consensus. (this article is an interesting description & comparison with the UK) While this approach has arguably started to break down, it is still an important influence.
So where does the environment fit in? Many people I talked to saw the environment as an aspect of the Folkhemmet. A certain level of environmental protection is built in to the model. In fact, Social Democrat prime minister Göran Persson made this explicit in 1996, launching the ‘Gröna Folkhemmet’ (you guessed it: ‘green people’s home’). So Sweden has seen a consensual, gradualist and broadly progressive approach to environmental policy.
It shows in climate legislation. Much policy is managed at arms-length from government by the Environmental Protection Agency, which was the first Agency of its kind in the world, established in 1967. Sweden has a long-standing carbon tax, together with relatively high levels of renewable energy, strong energy efficiency standards and low levels of fuel poverty. It hs a new climate framework, is almost on track to meet its target of 40% GHG reduction by 2020, and aims to be have no net GHG emissions by 2050, though this goal is not well-defined. (for more on the detail, see this official site and this useful brief from the Grantham Institute)
So far, so pragmatic. But therein lies the sting in the tail of the Swedish approach. It’s, well, maybe a bit too consensual. This first struck me when I talked to Kaj Török, head of Futerra Stockholm, who work with companies on sustainability strategies. He said that most Swedish companies tend to meet environmental standards without really thinking about it, just as part of their ‘license to operate’. This is great, but limiting –they don’t see it as a differentiator, don’t communicate what they’re doing, and don’t think of radical changes, tending to concentrate on meeting run-of-the-mill environmental management standards. Meanwhile, the green NGOs are more likely to be found inside the Environmental Protection Agency providing technical support than outside the Agency protesting with placards. In politics, too, pragmatic acceptance of climate measures seems to be the approach of the main parties to the left and right. Even the greens, according to some, have sacrificed radicalism since becoming part of the governing coalition since 2014.
So the key question for me is, what are the limits of consensus in climate policy? If Sweden is serious about achieving net zero GHG emissions by 2050, will gradualism hit the buffers?
My own view (but maybe this is my anglo-saxon cynicism talking) is that a radical climate target entails significant social and economic change, which in turn requires robust debate. Though such changes can be positive, they may require upheaval, and faultlines may well emerge. One issue, flagged up by a few people I talked to, takes us straight back to the Folkhemmet. If Sweden continues its reliance on the price mechanism in climate policy, what will the distributional implications be? Could climate policy contribute to greater inequality and an unravelling of the social consensus? Is there an alternative path of a socially-just, low carbon transition? This is an idea now being explored by some on the left.
There are lessons here for the UK. The consensus on the 2008 Climate Change Act has endured, and cross-party support is still strong. The value of this consensus is clear, if you compare with the US and Australia, who are still arguing about the basics. But there is a yawning policy gap if we are to meet these targets, as the Committee on Climate Change has made clear. And as I argued earlier this year, there’s a danger that the targets themselves become a figleaf hiding inadequate policy.
For all the differences between our two countries, I think a similar challenge for climate politics is emerging in both Sweden and the UK. How can we keep the much-needed consensus, enshrined in long-term carbon targets, whilst at the same time encouraging proper political debate about how we meet those goals, and about the resulting social and economic change? As both countries navigate these uncharted waters, I’ll certainly be knocking on the door of the Folkhemmet once again, to see how they’re getting on.
Huge thanks to everyone who took the time to share a chat and a coffee (a national pastime for sure, at an impressive eight kilos per person per year) with me during my visit. Any mistakes are most certainly mine, and please let me know what I’ve got wrong. Thanks, as well, to the ESRC NWDTC for their support for the visit; more on the delights of study visits in this blog.