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OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

The campaign so far suggests that Sweden's image as a paragon of virtue on the environment might be at risk, says David Crouch

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 
Greta Thunberg attends a demonstration in Odenplan Stockholm in June. Photo: Meli Petersson Ellafi/TT

Four years ago next month, a 15-year-old girl sat down on the cobblestones outside parliament in central Stockholm. She refused to go to school until Sweden’s general election that September, to draw attention to the climate crisis.

July 2018 had been the hottest in Sweden since records began 262 years ago, and forest fires had ravaged large parts of the countryside. Greta Thunberg’s school strike gave voice to a pent-up feeling that something must be done to curb global warming.

Within months, she had become one of the world’s best-known figures in the climate debate, leading mass protests for immediate and radical action. 

But this Friday, July 1, Thunberg was back on the cobbles outside parliament with just four supporters, repeating her message of 2018. She might be tempted to ask, after all her campaigning: why doesn’t the climate have a higher profile in this year’s Swedish elections? 

There is every reason for it to do so. According to the latest report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, the world has “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future”. Some damage was already irreversible and ecosystems were reaching the limits of their ability to cope. Their findings were an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres. 

Sweden’s self-image as a leader on green issues is undermined by recent slippage, delay and prevarication. In 2017, left and right came together to agree that the country should become “the world’s first fossil-free welfare state”, with zero carbon emissions by 2045 and negative ones thereafter. Sweden became the first nation to enshrine this target in law. However, the country is not on target to achieve this goal. In its latest assessment, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency said more measures would be necessary to prevent progress from slipping further behind on its climate transformation. 

As for other environmental targets that the country committed to achieve by 2020, 15 out of the 16 goals have not been reached. Growth, prosperity and consumption are taking precedence over the environment, researcher Katarina Eckerberg told Dagens Nyheter: “It’s the elephant in the room. No one dares to tell the truth, we are [just] trying to polish the surface a bit.” 

At the party-political level, climate policy seems to have stalled. Since Magdalena Andersson took office in the autumn, the “climate collegium” (klimatkollegium), set up in 2020 as a place for ministers to discuss essential climate initiatives, has not met. Party leaders debated energy and climate in public in early May, but the focus was on the hit to citizens’ pockets caused by rising fuel prices, with left and right united on lowering taxes. What we do for the climate in Sweden won’t bring down the temperature in India, said Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson, whose party rejects the 2045 zero-carbon target. The Green Party, who left the government in November, has seen its ratings sink steadily lower in the polls. 

Sweden’s greenhouse gas emissions actually increased by 4% in 2021 – partly because the economy bounced back after Covid, but still a worrying trend. Almost 80% of wind power projects in the country were vetoed by local municipalities, as the kommuner increasingly say no to wind power, putting a spoke in the wheels of Sweden’s green transformation.

This all adds up to climate taking a back seat so far in this year’s general election campaign. This is in sharp contrast to Norway’s “climate election” last autumn, which saw the country’s reliance on oil come in for sharp criticism and success for parties campaigning on green issues. The climate dominated the campaigning in Norway after the IPCC published a “code red” warning on the climate. For Germans also deciding whom to vote for last September, alarming events at home and abroad drove home the urgency of the climate crisis, with deadly heat waves, wildfires and devastating floods that left more the 200 dead.

More recently, the Australian election in May became essentially a climate election, with the victorious centre-left putting climate change and environmental policy firmly back on the agenda. Closer to home, a feature of elections in Denmark and Finland in 2019 was that the climate also enjoyed a profile higher than ever before.

Meanwhile, however, the world seems to be going backwards on the climate. This week, the US Supreme Court ruled that the country’s main environmental regulator has no power to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demand for coal has shot up. Just months after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, there is a backlash in business circles against so-called “woke capitalism”, with the idea of environmental investment coming under attack from populist politicians and financiers.

Swedes themselves are consistently well-informed and concerned about the environment. The environment and climate are around fifth on the list of voters’ main concerns, after crime, health, schools and inflation. Immigration and refugee issues, which have long dominated the Swedish debate, are in sixth place, while defence and security – despite the debate over Nato – are down in seventh place, according to an Ipsos poll in June.

But at the polling booth, when it comes to casting their vote, it seems that most Swedes have little faith that political parties will make much difference. Despite the fact that the climate had such a high profile in 2018, the issue did not even end up among the top 10 reasons for choosing a party to vote for, according to polling station surveys commissioned by SVT. Instead, voters feel this is a global problem rather than a Swedish one. “It wouldn’t matter if every Swede held their breath so as not to emit a single molecule more of carbon dioxide – progress would still be negative,” the head of polling company Novus told Svensk Dagbladet last month.

So Sweden seems set to continue to make slow but unspectacular – and even disappointing – progress on the climate in coming years. It would be a shame if the country, with its solid record on the environment and its fondness for grand declarations about the future, were to become a byword for greenwashing rather than a beacon for a better world. Greta and her supporters have work to do here at home.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

Member comments

  1. That’s a real shame. We all have to contribute to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, no matter where we are.

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Are Sweden’s Social Democrats ready to go as far as Denmark’s?

Prime minister Magdalena Andersson is caught between a rock and a hard place, argues David Crouch. To hold her bloc together, she must eschew the politics that brought the Social Democrats success in Denmark

Are Sweden’s Social Democrats ready to go as far as Denmark’s?

As Sweden’s election campaign trundles towards its culmination on September 11th, the country’s political gamblers are making their last throws of the dice. Recent weeks have shown clearly that the ruling Social Democrats are betting on voters who believe that immigration is to blame for violent crime.

Last weekend, prime minister Magdalena Andersson announced new punishments for gang-related offences, including much longer prison terms and a free hand for police to ransack people’s homes and cars in search of weapons and drugs, even if they themselves were not suspects. She linked the moves explicitly to ethnicity: “Too much migration and too little integration has led to parallel societies where criminal gangs could take root and grow,” she said.

The next day, integration and migration minister Anders Ygeman declared that municipalities would be forced to ensure that the three-year-old children of recent immigrants go to kindergarten, to tackle the segregation that is “tearing apart our country”. Earlier, Ygeman made headlines with by suggesting that no area should have more than fifty percent “non-Nordic” population.

These proposals from the Social Democrats are designed to appeal to voters averse to immigration. There is stiff competition for this demographic. There has been a chorus of “dog whistle” politics from Sweden’s centre-right parties, floating ostensibly rational (if harebrained) proposals that also “whistle” to this section of voters with a message that immigrants are the problem.

When Swedes go against their reputation for cuddly liberalism and get tough on immigration, the example of Denmark is never far away. “In the past, Denmark’s treatment of immigrants was an object of horror for Swedish political parties,” wrote political observer Ewa Stenberg in the liberal daily Dagens Nyheter last week. “Now it is an inspiration.”

For Sweden’s Social Democrats, Denmark’s radical approach to immigration seems particularly attractive, because for the past three years it has been championed by their Danish party namesake and its leader, prime minister Mette Frederiksen. By adopting the anti-immigrant demands of the far right – and adding some of her own – Frederiksen succeeded in winning back some of the Social Democrats’ traditional working class voters and engineered a collapse in the far-right vote. Could the same tactic work on this side of the Øresund Bridge?

Ygeman’s proposal to cap the number of “non-Nordic” people in Sweden’s problem areas is borrowed straight from the Danish playbook. Frederiksen’s government has made the proportion of “non-Westerners” the main criterion for whether a residential area should end up on the country’s list of vulnerable areas, often called the “ghetto list”. By 2030, no such area should have more than 30 percent of residents with a non-Western background. This also involves demolishing homes in these areas and building new, more expensive ones, to attract a better class of resident.

The policy has gone hand in hand with slamming the door shut on asylum seekers, so that Denmark received only 600 last year – the lowest number since 1992. Parliament last year passed a law allowing the processing of asylum seekers to be outsourced altogether to a third country, likely in Africa.

Whether or not one agrees with the Danish Social Democrats, there are some substantial reasons to suggest that their approach would not work in Sweden.

First, the Danish approach wasn’t an unqualified electoral success for the Social Democrats. Although they took votes from the far-right Danish People’s Party (DF), their 2019 total actually went down a little as they lost the support of voters unhappy with the new stance on immigration. However, these votes went to the Social Democrats’ coalition partners, enabling Frederiksen to lead the new government.

Second, there were specifically Danish circumstances that were favourable to the Social Democrats. The Danish People’s Party had been propping up an unpopular Liberal minority government, denting its own popularity, while it was also being undermined by rival right-wing populist parties.

Within Denmark’s Social Democrats themselves the ground had been prepared for a rightward lurch on immigration, which is unlikely to be the case in Sweden. Some Swedish opinion formers, such as Payam Moula, editor-in-chief of the periodical Tiden, have tried to claim that Denmark is the way forward for Social Democracy, but they have encountered stubborn opposition.

Third, Frederiksen’s coalition partners had a long history of governing in coalition with the Social Democrats, they were accustomed to it. This is far from the case in Sweden, where two parties that currently constitute the fragile centre-left “bloc” – the Centre Party and the Left Party – have little or no history of governing together with the Social Democrats. Indeed, there is considerable animosity between them; the Centre Party says flatly that it won’t support a Social Democrat-led coalition government with Left Party ministers.

This brings us to a key difference between Denmark and Sweden. Frederiksen’s Social Democrats recognised that polarisation was taking place at both ends of the political spectrum, and they lured Danish People’s Party voters with major investment in welfare, especially pensions. In other words, Frederiksen didn’t only shift to the right on immigration, she shifted left on welfare. It was the political equivalent of doing the splits.

In Sweden, left-wing welfare policies would be anathema to the Centre Party, upon whose support any chances of a centre-let coalition victory depend. The Centre Party’s leader, Annie Lööf, is implacably opposed to the far-right Sweden Democrats, but economically and socially liberal. Indeed, she caused a government crisis in November because the Social Democrats did a deal with the Left to raise pensions.

Finally, there is the question in Sweden of whether stealing the far right’s clothes makes any difference anyway. Whenever the Social Democrats try to out-do the far right with anti-immigrant bluster, it only seems to embolden them. “Every time the Social Democrats get nearer to the Sweden Democrats, the Sweden Democrats just take a step even further to the right,” says political scientist Ulf Bjereld, an outspoken critic of the Danish approach.

In apparent confirmation of Bjereld’s analysis, Magdalena Andersson’s tub-thumping speech on gang crime at the weekend was swiftly overshadowed by the storm around a Sweden Democrat tweet inviting immigrants to board “the repatriation express” (återvandringståget) – a metro train covered in the party’s logo. Suddenly the debate was no longer about harder penalties, but about sending immigrants back home – a central Sweden Democrat demand.

Magdalena Andersson is caught between a rock and a hard place. To hold her flimsy bloc together and have any chance of victory on September 11, she must eschew the politics that brought the Social Democrats success in Denmark.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.