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November 18, 2015

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Swedish example shows carbon reduction and economic growth can go hand-in-hand

MANY associate Sweden with high social welfare, verdant landscapes and a pristine environment. Indeed, this wealthy Nordic country is arguably a poster child of sustainable development.

But even Sweden is facing a multi-faceted threat to its vision of sustainable development, said Kristina Persson, Sweden’s Minister for Strategic Development and Nordic Cooperation.

Speaking at a recent forum hosted by the Shanghai Federation of Social Science Associations, Persson deviated from the conventional narrative that Sweden has a small carbon footprint.

She cited a 2010 study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund, which found that “if everybody uses natural resources as we do in Sweden, we will need 3.7 planets.”

Persson explained that before Sweden embarked on industrialization, it was even poorer than India. Later, when its economy took off, pollution and emissions also grew in tandem.

By 1990, the country had per capita carbon emissions of 8.5 tons, but thanks to an environmental movement and new types of environment-friendly technologies, per capita emissions decreased to 6.1 tons by 2012. Over the same period, China’s carbon emissions per capita soared from 2.1 tons to 7.2 tons. Meanwhile, the world average edged up from 4.3 tons to 4.9 tons.

From these figures it’s clear that Sweden does have a smaller carbon footprint than some nations, but its footprint isn’t nearly as small as expected in absolute terms.

Great achievement

What’s so remarkable about Sweden is that it manages to keep its economy growing at about 2 percent annually — to the envy of much of Europe — while also reducing its carbon footprint. In Persson’s words, “this is a great achievement,” indicating that the Swedish economy has weaned itself off high-carbon growth.

She went on to say that economic growth and environmental protection aren’t trade-offs, but are processes that can complement one another. Her message hits home in a nation like China which — as usual — is seeing an upsurge in seasonal smog and air-borne pollution.

Fortunately, thanks to China’s plans for green development and its massive closure of polluting factories, Persson has high hopes that “China will be able to rein in fast growth in carbon emissions.”

A well informed urbanization strategy is also something that has done Sweden proud. Hammarby Sjostad, an eco-town within Stockholm, is an emerging showcase of ecological urban planning described by the Economist magazine as “one of the world’s highest profile examples of sustainable city development.”

The eco-town has been successful in its aim to cut its environmental footprint by 35 to 40 percent.

Besides, in so far that total displacement of cars is unlikely at the moment, much of the traffic within its boundaries has been effectively de-motorized, with walking, cycling and car pooling now becoming increasingly popular among local inhabitants, said Persson.

Hammarby Sjostad is also leading the rest of Sweden in reducing water use and recycling waste with higher efficiency, she added.

Persson claimed that political leadership and a strong vision are behind all these significant changes, and the eco-town’s experience has spawned a new integrated planning and construction concept that she referred to as “eco-governance.”

However, both this concept and the lessons of Hammarby Sjostad are probably too far removed from Chinese circumstances to be replicable.

But Persson’s argument for what she called a “strong implementation capacity” surely resonates within the Chinese context.

It is a well-known fact that many of China’s polluters often receive a slap on the wrist when they are caught violating environmental laws.

In many cases, the financial penalties slapped on them are ridiculously small compared to their profits.

Therefore, investing watchdogs with the capacity, say, to exact heavier fines on polluters, will be the very first step toward realizing “eco-governance.”


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