Sweden is amazing, it's incredible. The people are beautiful, they have no trash, nothing bad ever happens there.
James Corden – actor, TV comedian, and one of the many who believe Sweden is a clean, green, ecological paradise.
Here he is on The Late Show: “Guys, this is going to blow your mind. In Sweden, they burn waste in gigantic, state-of-the-art recycling plants and use that energy for heat.
"It's really cool but there's one problem. They've run out of trash and they're having to import it from other countries.”
Corden picked up on a popular meme that Sweden is so clean that it even does garbage disposal for the rest of the world. Here’s his conclusion:
“Sweden is amazing, it's incredible. The people are beautiful, they have no trash, nothing bad ever happens there.”
Sweden talks a good talk on the environment. In its latest green initiative to make the headlines, it enacted “the most ambitious climate law in the world”, aiming to make the country carbon neutral by 2045.
So what can the rest of the world learn from Sweden? There are some distinct features of the “Swedish model” – the way Sweden organises its economy – that facilitate climate-friendly reforms.
1. It pays to be green
First, let’s look at why got James Corden so excited. About 15 years go, Sweden banned dumping waste in landfill sites. As a result, the amount of waste sent to incinerators grew four times. In fact, Swedish incinerators developed overcapacity – so they started to import waste.
Huge investment has gone into making this a clean process, but the power companies still manage to make a profit. How?
In the 1960s, district heating – where a central boiler supplies heat to many homes – spread rapidly in Sweden, thanks to a basic acceptance of centralised, community-wide solutions to social issues.
So about half Sweden’s homes are heated by district heating systems. The plants are also used to generate electricity – so-called combined heat and power.
When concerns began to grow about greenhouse gas emissions, it was relatively easy to switch the district heating boilers from oil to garbage. The revenue from selling both heat and power meant operators could still make a profit, despite the high costs.
“This is one of the main reasons that Sweden performs so well on the environment,” says Per-Oscar Hedman of Fortum, a Finnish company that owns power stations together with the Stockholm city administration.
2. The public sector is strong
Stockholm city’s stake in power plants means it can prioritise climate goals.
“If you have a system you control, you can take measures to phase out greenhouse gas emissions,” says Björn Hugosson, head Stockholm city’s climate unit. “When power stations are [solely] in the hands of private owners, you can’t.”
Partnerships between the public and private sectors are necessary when large and risky investments are needed for the climate, says Oskar Larsson of the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency.
“If we want that to happen, government has to team up with industry – it will cost tax payers’ money at the beginning,” Larsson says.
He points to a three-way collaboration developing a zero-emissions method for making steel. Called Hybrit, this project – if successful – could revolutionise steel production. Hybrit involves private Swedish steel company SSAB, publicly owned miner LKAB, and public utility Vattenfall, all backed by the Swedish Energy Agency.
“It is important to raise your sights and change perspective," says Mårten Görnerup, boss of the joint venture formed by the three companies.
3. A tradition of consensus
Stockholm is investing about €2 billion over 25 years in a large-scale experiment in green living. This area – called the Royal Stockholm Seaport – has a strict limit on energy consumption, scoring all its buildings on a range of sustainability measures.
The better a company scores, the more chance it has of winning tenders to build. In return, companies get to work with universities to experiment with green design.
“By learning how to build low energy buildings they are ahead of the competition, it is an investment for them,” says Bo Hallqvist of the city development administration.
Since the project began, the city administration has changed hands twice from left to right, and back again. But this has not affected progress, pointing to another feature of the Swedish model – it takes consensus seriously, which is good for big, long-term projects demanded by climate change.
“We don’t start major projects until all the major parties agree – we cannot afford for changes in political leadership to affect them,” Hallqvist says.
4. Long-term focus
When Stockholm was trying to persuade private companies to run cars on ethanol, they encountered surprisingly little resistance.
“Companies said: we want long term rules,” Hugosson says. “If you provide us with the rules and strategy and tell us this will last for 20 years, then we can adapt.”
The city has also converted a quarter of its buses to biogas, a byproduct of human sewage. In 2006 the administration agreed to buy all the biogas produced by the municipal water company for the next 20 years.
This long-term agreement between two public bodies created the stability of demand necessary for private companies to step in and make fuel for buses.
A long-term outlook is also built into the Swedish economy through its unusual system of company ownership. Unlike shareholders in the UK or the US, who largely focus on short-term gains, most of Swedish business is still owned by “active” shareholders committed to the long term.
“Sweden has been extremely lucky to have the ownership model combined with responsible families that own companies for the long term,” says Mats Andersson, a senior Swedish financier. “It is a pretty unique system, and it has served us extremely well.”
5. It is easier to close dirty industries
A little known feature of the Swedish economy is its “transition system”, which helps workers move to new jobs when their employers make redundancies.
Each year, companies pay a percentage of their turnover into “job security agencies”, run jointly with the unions, who provide months of specialist training and counselling to prepare workers to re-enter the labour market.
As a result, around 80 per cent of laid-off workers are back in a job within a year. Sweden’s transition system therefore makes the country better equipped than most to cope with closing down parts of the economy that are an obstacle to achieving climate objectives.
Not everything in Sweden is as green as it could be. Use of private cars is soaring. The zero carbon target excludes the vast amounts of carbon generated by manufacturing goods abroad and transporting them to Sweden. Many specialists say Sweden needs to be going twice as fast on cutting its emissions.
But these features of the Swedish model have enabled the country to commit to carbon neutrality by 2045 – and have a decent chance of actually getting there.
David Crouch is the author of a new book, Bumblebee Nation: The Hidden Story of the New Swedish Model (Bonnier, 2018). He is also a former journalist at the Financial Times.