‘Why we marched with Greta’: Sweden’s students speak

At Sigtunaskolan Humanistiska Läroverket (SSHL), a bilingual boarding school just north of Stockholm, the lush grounds and nearby Lake Mälaren provide vivid reminders of not only the immense natural beauty of Sweden but also the need to protect it for future generations.

‘Why we marched with Greta’: Sweden’s students speak
Photo: SSHL students with Greta Thunberg (centre, in yellow coat)

For 17-year-old student Cedric Öhrn Steffens, even the simplest daily routines make him feel more connected to nature.

“The school is fantastically situated, so every day just walking from classroom to classroom or to the lunch hall, you see beautiful nature and that certainly has an impact on the way we think about the environment and the world around us,” he told The Local.

The tenth grader, who is one of around 185 boarders who live on campus, said that being at SSHL has strengthened the environmental consciousness drilled into him from an early age by his Swedish-Norwegian parents. 

READ ALSO: The ‘fairytale’ boarding school nestled in a Swedish village

Cedric Öhrn Steffens. Photo credit: Vilhelm Edgren

My parents always taught me to be mindful of the environment because we only have one planet. They’ve always been eco-conscious and made efforts to decrease their carbon footprint and I continue to be as environmentally-friendly as possible,” he said.

Born in London and raised in Norway, Steffens moved to Sweden one year ago. Because his parents travel a lot for work, they decided to enroll him at SSHL, something he says “was a very good choice”.

Like Steffens, 16-year-old Juliette Sakmar Åberg is also a fairly new arrival to SSHL. She too was completely taken by the school’s natural surroundings.

“I grew up in New York City, so I wasn’t really raised around a lot of nature. When I moved here three years ago, it was quite a shock for me,” she said. “The campus is gorgeous, and I’ve found myself being outside more and caring more about my environmental surroundings.”

Åberg said she was also immediately impressed by the school’s approach to environmental issues and its wide array of student organizations that focus on the environment.

“I’ve always been interested in environmental issues, but coming here heightened my understanding of what we as young people can do and the small steps you have to take to make things better,” Åberg said.

Photo: Juliette Sakmar Åberg Photo credit: Vilhelm Edgren

READ ALSO: The Swedish school with an international outlook

Of course, one can hardly talk about young people, Sweden and the environment without immediately thinking of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old activist who has arguably done more for the climate movement than anyone else on earth. Thunberg’s climate strikes have spread worldwide and she has spoken truth to power across Europe, including a star-making turn at the COP21 climate summit in Poland.

With SSHL’s focus on the environment, it’s little surprise that the school not only supported but actively arranged for students to attend the March 15 climate strike that drew nearly 1.5 million students from well over 100 countries.

Around 150 of SSHL’s 420 high-school-aged students, including Åberg and Steffens, took the train to Stockholm that day to join the global movement. Both said it was an incredible experience.

“I thought it was important to join because I am under 18 and can’t vote so I thought it was a great way to exercise my democratic rights and to be out there making a difference, no matter how small,” Åberg said. “It was so inspiring to see so many people out there who care about the same cause as you and are willing to fight for it.”

“One person standing alone is very weak but if you’re a community together standing together  you can make an impact,” Steffens added. “It was important for us to be there that day, because there were so many politicians coming. We stood together as a community and hopefully impacted the future.”

Find out more about life at SSHL

The need to take matters into your own hands is something Steffens said he’s felt strongly about since age 12.

“If we want a better future for ourselves, we have to create it. We can’t just rely on others to do it for us. We have to personally try to make a change for the better,” he said.

The SSHL students’ participation at the climate march was organized in part by Ian Gavin, the school’s vice principal in charge of its nearly 100 international students. Like other faculty members there, he thought that the lessons his students could learn by joining the climate march in Stockholm would be invaluable.

“To be a part of a genuine movement is a really great opportunity because these types of things don’t come around that often and they certainly don’t gain momentum like this one,” he said.

Gavin said he ran into both Åberg and Steffens on the way to the train station after the strike and he could clearly see that they had been genuinely moved by being a part of it.

“They were really inspired and nothing is as inspiring as an educator as seeing the students that you work with being inspired,” he said, adding that many of his students “were almost starstruck” after having met and exchanged email addresses with Thunberg. 

Photo: Juliette Sakmar Åberg Photo credit: Vilhelm Edgren

READ ALSO: Sigtunaskolan: ‘The best of what Sweden has to offer’

Both Åberg and Steffens said that seeing a Swedish teenager like Thunberg have such an enormous global impact was inspiring to them.

“It’s really cool to see someone from my country and from my age group create something as massive as she’s done and reach a global audience,” Åberg said.

Gavin said the students’ enthusiasm for the climate strike was just one of the many ways that being around the young minds at SSHL gives him “a lot of renewed hope” for the future.

As a transplant himself, Gavin said that he has come to appreciate just how important nature is to Swedes since moving to the country from Manchester, England nine years ago. A sense of “oneness with the environment and also those around you” is just one of the Swedish values he hopes students pick up at SSHL.

“One of the things we try to do is to promote the best of Sweden. For a country of its size, it has a huge impact on issues like climate and diplomacy. We want students to experience that and take that away with them,” he said.

This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio and sponsored by SSHL.


Germany angers EU after putting brakes on fossil fuel car ban

Berlin has upset EU partners by blocking a milestone agreement to ban new sales of fossil fuel cars from 2035, as German domestic politics take the bloc hostage.

Germany angers EU after putting brakes on fossil fuel car ban

The planned ban is key to Brussels’ push to make the bloc climate-neutral by 2050, with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Now, the German chancellor’s scramble to keep his coalition together has enraged many in the EU, since the deal had already passed through each stage of the Brussels legislative process — including approval by member states.

The bloc was due to formally nod it into law on Tuesday but, in an unprecedented manoeuvre, Berlin now says it can not give its agreement.

The European Parliament has already voted to formally approve the text of the bill, which will de facto mean that all new cars sold after 2035 will have to have electric motors.

This means the text can no longer be altered, despite Germany now insisting on further assurances from Brussels that synthetic fuels could still be used in engines after 2035.

The fuel Germany wants an exemption for is still under development and produced using low-carbon electricity. Some of the world’s biggest car manufacturers are based in Germany and synthetic fuels would make it possible to extend the use of combustion engines.

Faced with the unexpected roadblock, the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, said it would “work constructively” with Berlin to get the bill adopted “quickly”.

The commission did not say, however, exactly what commitment it could give, since the text already paves the way for the use of synthetic fuels if they are deemed to help achieve the aim of zero carbon emissions.

German ‘navel-gazing’

French MEP Pascal Canfin, who oversaw the bill’s passage though scrutiny in parliament, slammed Berlin’s “blackmail”.

He warned that if other member states follow suit on issues important for their domestic agenda it could threaten other texts that form part of the EU’s Green Deal, an ambitious push to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

READ ALSO: OPINION: The Franco-German ‘couple’ is crucial to the EU but the relationship is in trouble

“The very spirit of European construction is in danger through this incoherent position,” he told AFP.

Separately an EU diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Germany was exploiting its outsize influence in Brussels. “Only a large EU country can afford to act in such a way,” he said.

Germany is not alone in its concerns. Italy, another major car maker, already said it was opposed, and Poland and Bulgaria had been expected not to vote in favour.

Unlike Germany, however, their opposition was clear from the start, and their opposition was not enough to block the bill’s passage through the Brussels committees.

“Germany is going back on months of negotiations … this is a challenge to the EU’s decision-making process that we rarely see,” said Eric Maurice, of the Robert Schuman Foundation, a European think tank. Maurice said the situation arose from the German government’s “navel-gazing” and the dysfunction on display in the coalition of the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Liberals.

The situation hurts other countries and the EU’s “proper” functioning, he added.

Chancellor bowed to pressure

Behind the block is Germany’s liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), which is courting votes among the large part of the German population that it suspects opposes the ban on combustion engines.

The FDP wants to assert itself against the Greens by acting as the automobile sector’s defender.

In a bid to keep the coalition together, Chancellor Olaf Scholz bowed to pressure and pushed for the exemption for synthetic fuels.

Environmental groups oppose such fuels and argue they are expensive, require huge amounts of electricity to produce and are polluting since they emit nitrogen oxide, another greenhouse gas.

READ ALSO: How climate change could cost Germany almost one trillion euros by 2050

The automobile industry had largely expected European regulations and invested massively in electric vehicles.

Even if they prove to be helpful in the green transition, synthetic fuels “will not play an important role in the medium-term future of passenger cars”, Markus Duesmann, the boss of Audi, said in the weekly Der Spiegel.