Greens join Swedish government with radical environmental agenda

| 8th October 2014
Sweden's Greens celebrate six ministerial positions in the new Social Democrat-led government. Photo: Miljöpartiet de gröna via Flickr.
Sweden's Greens celebrate six ministerial positions in the new Social Democrat-led government. Photo: Miljöpartiet de gröna via Flickr.
Sweden's Greens are in government for the first time, wriites Dominic Hinde, with six ministerial posts in the new Social Democrat / Green coalition. After eight years of Conservative-led government, the country is determined to resume its former role as a green pioneer, but many challenges lie ahead.
The new government has vowed to make Sweden a global leader again in tackling environmental degradation and inequality.

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven heralded a return for the green and progressive values for which Sweden is internationally known as he welcomed the Green party into government for the first time last Friday.

Feminism, environmental responsibility and social security were all at the forefront of the government program in the unveiling of a new Social Democrat / Green coalition after eight years of centre-right rule.

As Löfven strolled to meet the press he was flanked by two smiling faces - Green Party co-spokespeople Åsa Romson (the new Minister for Climate and Environment and Vice Prime Minister) and Gustav Fridolin (Minister for Education).

Government posts are also going to Mehmet Kaplan (Minister for Housing and Urban Development and IT), Per Bolund (Minister for the Financial Market and Consumer Affairs), Alice Bah Kuhnke (Minister for Culture and Democracy) and Isabella Lövin (Minister for Development Assistance).

The new government has vowed to make Sweden a global leader again in tackling environmental degradation and inequality.

With 25 seats in the Riksdag (parliament) and three ministries, as well as important portfolios in the finance and business departments, the coalition marks a milepost on a long journey for Green politics in Sweden.

Rising from the ashes of the 1980s anti-nuclear movement, the Greens have spent the last decade readying themselves for government, and now find themselves a powerful voice in Scandinavia's largest country as junior partners to Löfven's Social Democrats.

Putting Green politics on the map

From his office window on Stockholm's South Island, Green Party chairman Anders Wallner can see the Swedish parliament across the weir where the freshwater of Sweden's inland lakes meets the Baltic Sea.

Wallner himself is typical of the new face of Green politics in Sweden. Like co-convenor Fridolin he is in his early 30s and has attempted to profile the party as a young and dynamic alternative to the older, more dogmatic politics of the Social Democrats and Left Party.

Unfortunately for Wallner and his colleagues, the left bloc failed to command the full majority it had expected from some opinion polls. The Greens even saw their vote fractionally decrease, by 0.45% to 6.89% - but still enough for them to retain their entire 25-seat bloc in Parliament.

And despite failing to match the record 15% achieved by the Greens in the European elections, Wallner is positive about the movement's direction.

"If you had to choose between 7.3% as an opposition party or 6.9% in government", he says, the choice is clear. "You can see we now have a chance to introduce more of a Green angle to government and then hopefully grow in light of what we will be able to show has changed."

The new government has vowed to make Sweden a global leader again in tackling environmental degradation and inequality.

Hard fought gains

The coalition agreement took almost two weeks to hammer out, but it contains several key concessions to Green policy, points out Wallner. The holy grail of accelerated nuclear decommissioning is now within reach, as is a change of tack in other key areas of green policy.

"If you look at that declaration it is pretty clear this is a government that will put the climate first. We will introduce a framework that means the current government and its successors have to implement measures at the rate required to bring emissions down.

"We have also opened up the discussion toward big investments in rail and public transport, completely renewable energy and more funding for biodiversity."

Åsa Romson the new Green Environment Minister, has plenty on her plate - including a lot of environmental ground to be made up following eight bleak years.

Under former Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt's liberal-conservative coalition, in charge from 2006 until last week, 14 of an ambitious 16 environmental goals for 2020 were timetabled to fail according to the country's own environmental protection agency.

Sweden also suffers from being one of Europe's most consumer driven societies. A recent ranking by the WWF placed Sweden just behind the US and Gulf states in terms of its global environmental impact.

The nation's wealth has created an insatiable appetite for consumer goods, meat and long distance travel. Less affected by the global economic downturn than the Eurozone or the UK, it has carried on spending in the globalised marketplace.

Its middle class regularly winter in Thailand, and central Stockholm is filled with large jeeps and estate cars belonging it wealthy suburban commuters.

Struggling with self-image

Across the city, in the middle of a busy shopping centre, stands former Green leader Maria Wetterstrand. What might not seem fertile territory for Green politics in other countries is illustrative of Sweden's particular brand of mainstream environmentalism.

Wired up with a radio miccrophone, Wetterstrand and fellow Green Gabriel Liljenström talk at the shoppers diving in and out of chain stores and sipping coffees at American style mall cafes. They are there to sell a book, but also to sell Green politics.

"The environment is quite mainstream in Sweden", says Liljenström. "All the parties try and profile themselves as green. In that sense we have achieved a breakthrough for the environment, and the environment is a big issue for Swedes.

"It always features in the top three concerns in polls, but then Swedes have an outdated picture of themselves. We were among the most progressive countries in the world in the nineties, but today we're on the climate blacklist. Sometimes if you criticise our environmental record people think you are trying to talk the country down."

Retaking the initiative

Despite being small in population terms, Sweden has always been a big hitter in environmental circles. The 1972 United Nations conference on the human environment, held in Stockholm, was a turning point in mobilizing politicians globally and at home.

With its seemingly endless forests and pristine lake systems the country is also a paradise for people wishing to escape the big cities. Yet thirty years on, the impacts of environmental degradation are still clearly visible in Sweden, from the bare hillsides of industrial forestry to increasing urban sprawl.

Neither is it safe from the impacts of climate change: last summer a forest fire tore through the region of Västmanland west of Stockholm, forcing people from their homes. The outgoing government was generally perceived to have responded badly, and an inquiry was launched to improve readiness for natural disasters.

The new government has also for the first time appointed a Minister for the Future, tasked with developing long term understanding of Sweden's economic, environmental and social challenges.

There is another challenge lurking in the forests beyond the cities too. In the recent elections the far-right Sweden Democrats, whose policies include 'balance' in the science of climate change and increasing reliance on nuclear energy, cemented their support in large parts of rural Sweden.

They are one of the reasons the Greens and Social Democrats lack a full majority, and getting ambitious changes to the green agenda through parliament will be difficult.

"If you look at the negotiations between the Greens and Social Democrats they have gone pretty well ... the danger is that we don't then achieve the consensus to implement that policy", says Liljeström, who was partly responsible for running the recent election campaign.

Breaking the deadlock

However there are things that can be done without parliament. The Greens were successful in pushing MEP Isabella Lövin, known in Brussels for her work in fishing reform, as aid minister in the Swedish Foreign Office.

And with Social Democrat former EU environment commissioner Margot Wallström as Foreign Minister, major foreign policy changes are on the way.

Under the last Government, Sweden moved radically to the right, as set out in a thundering article on CounterPunch by Jan Oberg: 'Sweden, No Longer a Force for Good?', which alleged:

"There is no closer ally than US / NATO. It has stopped developing policies of its own and basically positions itself in the EU and NATO framework. It no longer produces important new thinking - the last was Olof Palme's Commission on Common Security (1982).

"It has no disarmament ambassador and does not consider the UN important; it does not have a single Swede among the UN Blue Helmets. None of its top-level politicians make themselves available as mediators in international conflicts. Nuclear abolition is far down the agenda, problematic as a NATO-aspiring country."

Now Sweden's foreign policy is expected to take on an explicitly ethical outlook, according to Sofia Tuvestad of the Swedish peace and equality lobbying group IKFF:

"We've already seen some positive signs from the Foreign Office. Wallström has come out and declared that Sweden's foreign policy will be more feminist, with nuclear disarmament at the centre of what they are trying to do."

Another indicator of changes to come is that Mehmet Kaplan, City Planning and Environment Minister, was on board the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara in 2010 as it sought to break Israel's naval blockade of the Palestinian Gaza Strip.

And in 2003 Education Minister Gustav Fridolin was arrested by Israeli security forces in the Palestinian West Bank as he protested with against the 'apartheid wall' alongside the International Solidarity Movement.

Indeed foreign policy hopes are already being borne out: Sweden's new Prime Minister, Stefan Lofven, has announced that his nation will be the first of the European Union to grant official recognition to Palestine.

Can Sweden transition to genuine sustainability?

The big question of whether Sweden can transition to sustainability will, for the time being, remain unanswered according to Jonas Hinnfors, Professor of Political Science at Gothenburg university and a close watcher of the Swedish Social Democrats.

"I think it will be hard for the Greens to make any impact at all in terms of getting away from the growth economy. It will be in the details that they will no doubt be able to make a difference, and that means they can use it as a symbolic marker that the party is on the way to changing people's views on growth."

If the Swedish model is to be made sustainable enough to last, it means voters being prepared to abandon some of the consumer prosperity they have grown used to in order to make it work.

Even if the Greens can put Sweden at the forefront of global environmentalism once again, the country is not out of the woods yet.


Dominic Hinde is a freelance journalist specialising in the Nordic countries. He has written a PhD on contemporary environmental politics in Sweden and also works as a translator of literary and journalistic texts. He tweets at @dominicmhinde.


More from this author


The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate now.