How Sweden tackles environmental challenges

05. July 2018

by Kawthar Karout

The world’s greenest country (6)

In September 2015, the world’s countries gathered in New York at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit and agreed on 17 goals and 169 sub-goals as part of the new global agenda on sustainable development. These objectives cover the three dimensions of sustainable development: social, economic and environmental. At that time, Sweden was already a step ahead. Back in 1999, Sweden had adopted 16 environmental goals that covered different aspects of environmental protection, with the aim of achieving them by 2020. The most relevant goals were:

  • Reduce Climate Impact

In both Sweden and all over the world, the largest contributor to climate change is the burning of fossil fuels e.g. oil, coal and natural gas. This is mostly done in order to generate heat and electricity for transport and industrial processes. The Swedish Parliament therefore decided on a climate policy framework to reach zero net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2045. (7)

  • Sustainable forests

Forests cover about half of Sweden territory. But today, they are heavily affected by intensive forestry. The Swedish forests offer a variety of products that are intensively used by Swedish people as for instance wood which is used as a raw material in bio fossil production and in the paper industry. Wanting to preserve the forests, nature reserves have been created in different parts of Sweden. However, the adaption of forestry practices that conserve the natural and cultural values of the forest environment is still a challenge. (8)

  • Natural acidification only

Lakes and streams are often naturally acidic, but the atmospheric deposition of acidifying pollutants has accelerated their acidification.  This has affected the plant and animal life in the acidified areas and also led to an increase of soil corrosion. The recovery is a slow process, despite the sharp fall in the total emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide in both Europe and Sweden. Today, one in ten lakes is still acidified as a result of human activities. In order to decrease this acidification and to return to natural levels, about 4,500 lakes have been limed in the hope of protecting the nature in the affected areas.
A further environmental threat is the acidification also of its groundwater and lakes, caused by the rapid growth of urban areas. Despite the Swedish efforts to reduce acidity in the lakes, fish still cannot breed in more than 16,000 lakes. (4) Groundwater levels have also been affected by climate change: during the summer of 2017, a severe drought caused a serious water shortage across the country. (1) In order to avoid a similar event in the future and in order to decrease the acidification of groundwater and lakes, information campaigns should be conducted, and irrigation bans should be introduced to ensure that all households have guaranteed access to drinking water.

Why Sweden struggles to achieve all its environmental goals?

According to the Swedish government, their environmental goals of ‘safe radiation environment’ and ‘protective ozone layer’ will be achieved by 2020. The other 14 objectives will, despite the progresses, most likely not be achieved.The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency explains why the Swedish environmental state is not advancing as quickly as it had hoped, giving two main reasons: (3)

The delay in nature’s response to external changes is the first reason, according to the agency. Because of the high concentration of pollutants in the environment, it takes more time than anticipated before natural levels are reached again; the same is true for the return of displaced plants and animals. Nature needs time to heal and human activities continue to slow down the healing process, that is why I believe that developing the policies taken and increase the measures in some areas is needed.

The second reason stated by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency is that the Swedish environment is highly affected by transboundary pollution; pollution which spreads from country to country and causes damage far from where it is originated. I believe that transboundary pollution is a major issue and it will only be solved through the combination of countries’ efforts to decrease the emissions of greenhouse gases and the concentration of acidifying chemicals.

Sweden’s environmental issues and suggestions for solutions

One of the major remaining environmental issues in Sweden is the pollution of the Baltic Sea coming from agriculture and waste treatment facilities. In 2010, Sweden was responsible for 12 per cent of the 1 million tons of nitrogen and 9 per cent of the 43,000 tons of phosphorus dumped into the Baltic Sea, according to the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission’s Helsinki Commission. (2)

The reduction of biodiversity is also a major problem, in inland waters, forest and farming areas as well as marine environments . This decline is not only due to pollution but also because of intensive farming, forestry and fishing as well as hydroelectric schemes and other forms of development. (3) In order to stop the reduction of biodiversity, the action pace must be increased. Biodiversity hotspots should be identified as biogeographic regions with significant levels of biodiversity that is threatened with destruction. By doing this, it will be easier to decrease the risk of the extinction and allow some species to increase in numbers.

Sweden is expected to be the first country to reach all of the sustainable development goals(5). The country has already achieved 8 objectives and is on its way to achieve 7 more. But 2 goals in particular still need a lot of work: SDG13 (Climate Action) and SDG15 (Life on land)(5). These objectives are dominated by the sustainable development aspect. Despite Sweden’s efforts, many environmental problems persist as they are global issues that go beyond borders; everyone is affected by their consequences. I believe that the climate issue cannot be solved by one country alone. We are all living on the same Earth, breathing the same air and drinking the same water. In order to preserve our environmental habitat and in order to keep the Earth livable, I believe that all countries should work together.

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