climate change politics

Sweden joins the race for carbon neutrality

The race to be the world’s first zero carbon country kicked off a few years ago now. For a while the Maldives looked like a good bet, then there was a political coup. Costa Rica was in the lead before changes in government watered down targets, while New Zealand turned out to be all talk. Some say the smart money is on Ethiopia – their net zero by 2025 is the most ambitious national carbon plan in the world, and is entirely serious.

One local derby has emerged recently. Norway had planned to be carbon neutral by 2050, and then last year they upped their game and moved the target to 2030 instead. Meanwhile, their neighbours in Sweden have also pledged to go zero carbon, signing their 2045 target into law last week.

2045 is 15 years after Norway, so on paper it looks like Sweden come second in that particular race, but Norway are cheating in my opinion. Most of their strategy is to purchase carbon offsets in other countries so that they can continue to exploit their oil and gas reserves. Not good enough in a world where the only safe place for oil and gas is in the ground.

Sweden’s plans, on the other hand, appear to be much more robust. It’s not just aiming for carbon neutrality, but a complete phase-out of fossil fuels. Emissions will be reduced by 85%, with forestry projects and offsetting to soak up the remainder. The country has a good start on electricity already, with most of the country’s energy coming from hydroelectric and nuclear power. Biomass provides a lot of heat at the moment, and Sweden has plenty of forest to keep up supply. Transport and the steel industry will be the biggest problems.

Two things to say about all of this – first, it’s the ideal response to the Paris Agreement and the invitation to countries to ‘ratchet up’ their climate goals. This is what that looks like.

Second, it should be something we can learn from in Britain. Sweden has been able to raise its ambitions because it is building on existing success, and businesses have been able to see how emissions reductions can be delivered. They’re on board, and there’s broad agreement that this is possible. Britain signed targets into law in the Climate Act, but hasn’t come up with a proper plan to meet them. The goals almost serve as an excuse for inaction. Any time the government is challenged over the climate, it can claim that “we have one of the most ambitious targets in the world!” If those targets are going to mean anything at all, we need to stop dithering.

  • In other news from Sweden, Hans Rosling died last week. His knack for making development statistics exciting will leave a real legacy.


  1. We only ten million people; becoming carbon neutral is not such a challenge.

    Most of Gothenburg is on a district heating CHP system and with high insulation standards, it saves people a fortune in heating costs.

    Electric cars are increasingly popular. They are smooth, quiet and the low centre of gravity makes them more stable on icy roads.

  2. As the Paris Agreement exempts countries responsible for over 65 percent of global emissions from any obligation, legal or moral, to reduce those emissions it probably needs an “ideal response”. Quite how that’s going to come from a country responsible for only 0.1 percent of emissions (and getting 83 percent of its electricity from hydro and nuclear sources) is hard to see.

  3. It might not be the biggest country but it is great to see that a country can become carbon neutral. Hopefully other countries will see how Sweden is doing and and try and do that same. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Indeed, in terms of global carbon reductions it’s very small. The reason to celebrate it is the leadership, the good example. And yes, it’s easier for Sweden than for others, but we get to learn from it and apply the lessons to ourselves.

    One of those might be that it’s easier to get agreement with 10 million people than 100 million. So why not draw up transition plans at a regional or local level? Cities around the world are doing this already.

    1. Sweden would seem to provide three lessons:

      1. Be a small relatively self-contained entity – unlike cities which are part of a wider economic system.

      2.Invest heavily in nuclear power (41% of Sweden’s electricity production) – not easy in view of environmental problems and vocal opposition.

      3.Invest heavily in hydroelectric power (42% of Sweden’s electricity production) – not easy (a) without access to hills, lakes and rivers and (b) in view of environmental problems and vocal opposition.

      1. Nuclear and hydro is just the electricity supply, their solution to the best understood aspect of the transition. We’ll make different choices. A bigger lesson from Sweden is to take renewable heat seriously, and genuinely incentivise sustainable transport.

  5. It’s far easier “to take renewable heat [power?] seriously” when you already have easy and substantial access to reliable, non-intermittent sources such as hydro and nuclear. Much harder for those who have to make “different choices”.

    You’re right about electric power being the best understood aspect of the transition. With hydro and nuclear Sweden has a good (if environmentally dubious) solution to that: probably about 40% of the overall picture. But it’ll be most interesting how it deals with the far more challenging problems of providing power for transportation (goods, agriculture, shipping, aviation etc. as well as cars) and cement and steel production, heavy industry etc.

    All interesting stuff. But, as I’ve noted above and elsewhere, it isn’t remotely a response to the Paris Agreement – let alone an “ideal” one.

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