In the fall of 2015, I attended The Newman Institute in Uppsala, Sweden. The students studying abroad in this program - myself included - had the pleasure of being instructed by Sweden's former Minister of the Environment, Andreas Carlgren. We covered everything from distinctly Swedish policies to the mindsets behind the "environmental consciousness" that's found across the country and looked at the history of international climate agreements. I sat down with Carlgren for an interview to learn more. Here's what he shared:
Q: Tell me about your role as Sweden’s former Minister of the Environment. Were you drafting legislation, representing Sweden at conferences, working with the U.N.?
A: I was appointed as minister in 2006-2011, and during those years Sweden had the responsibility of being the presidency of the EU, while in the end of 2009, so a lot of my time was really set aside for preparing that great task of leading EU in international negotiations on climate change. But, domestically, my main agenda was to work on proposals to reduce Sweden’s climate emissions and establish emissions targets for Sweden. I was in Parliament a lot to discuss with different parties and answer questions. I also traveled around the world to meet with other ministers, including EU ministers quite often.
Q: How did you see Sweden’s environmental politics, domestic and internationally, evolve as you were minister?
A: Well first of all, domestically, the most important aspect was climate change, we set new national targets for Sweden’s climate emissions and it meant that we are supposed to have net zero emissions by 2050, and that is still the Swedish national target. Another important target was to make Swedish vehicles fossil independent by 2030, and again that is still the target, and Sweden is working very hard on achieving that. Added to that, we also work on the Baltic Sea, the planet’s largest body of brackish water. The Baltic is one of the most intensely used seas on the planet with heavy environmental challenges, so that I think we worked hard on. Finally, another domestic thing was really to make stakeholders — local communities — involved in keeping biodiversity in Sweden.
Q: Sweden is clearly one of the most environmentally progressive nations in the world – how has Sweden made that happen?
A: I think it’s very much in the Swedish tradition, that’s one part of it. I mean Swedish people, they are usually very close to nature, either we live close to nature or being close to nature by heart. But another aspect was that I think we learned early on first of all from Rachel Carson, the person who really introduced environmental issues also in Sweden. Another aspect of that was American scientists working closely together with Swedish scientists in those years was absolutely essential. In the 1960s as environmental policy was introduced in Sweden, we continued to establish these institutions to work further on science to motivate people to really make it part of everyday life for ordinary people. And I think now it’s not very controversial, it’s quite natural for people to be involved in sorting or separating waste in households or to use cars that don’t emit too much, which is also good for private economy. People save money by having less waste and by having, paying less for fuels that are not necessary.
Q: Would you also say that Sweden’s decoupling of GDP and emissions played a large role?
A: I think that the thing is, in people’s ordinary lives, you experience that you reduce your energy consumption thereby you save money, you reduce your waste and thereby you save money, you reduce your emissions from cars which also means less gasoline, and you save money. Meanwhile, economy is still blooming in Sweden, and it’s, of course, not just because of (the) environment, but those things usually go hand in hand. People really have to in their ordinary life experience that the economy is getting better. But yes, also on the statistical level, the overall national level, you can see that we have had really one of the best opportunities for economic growth in Europe, meanwhile we have also seen our emissions being reduced in Sweden.
Q: What do you think the biggest challenge Sweden faces in furthering its sustainability efforts?
A: There are many things to be improved and there are two great challenges for Sweden. On one hand, the transport sector needs to change. Sweden has a small population on a very large area of land, which makes it a sparsely populated country with need for a lot of transport. We must change the transportation sector to be independent of fossil fuels. The second challenge is changing consumption. Even if we reduced our emissions here in Sweden, we import so many things that require emissions in countries where they produce these things that we buy. That’s the other great challenge.
Q: What can the U.S. learn from Sweden?
A: First of all, it should be said that Sweden learned from the United States in the beginning. But I think one different thing is that Sweden has been moving forward, based on a growing extent, broad shared values. It’s not that the U.S. should use Swedish values, but it’s important to inquire and explore the national values of (the) United States and based on those values, you can conserve nature and promote (an) environmentally friendly lifestyle by nurturing your own national culture. Actions are defined in the roots of motivation and the commitment inside a country. That’s what we’ve done, and I think that’s why Sweden has been so successful, even if there are still many things to improve.
Q: With the U.S. expressing intent to back out of the Paris Agreement, has another country stepped in as a global environmental leader? How might America’s inaction affect the paradigm of global environmental politics?
A: Well, that is difficult to answer. I think it’s quite unlikely, but it is sometimes speculated that China will step in and be the leader instead of the United States. I’m sure the Chinese would be happy to do that and I think that Americans should really be aware of that. For America to leave this to the Chinese, is a great opportunity for China. But there are many reasons for I’m not sure that really will happen. First of all, China still has a large dependence on fossil fuels, even if their renewable energies are growing enormously. Secondly, I think there is a need for a different kind of international cooperation, one based on the ideas of the Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom, the first female to receive the prize in economic science. Her idea was not just one global agreement, but rather using that as a basis and added to global agreement are local level agreements and coalitions between cities and states. All of this could still be possible within the Paris Agreement – which was really from the beginning an American idea. The genius within the agreement is that it is not just built top down, but also from the bottom up. That possibility should be used more extensively, but I think it’s great that so many Americans are really still “in.” It means really that there are so many states, communities, businesses, and others who are still part of the Paris Agreement by heart and are working toward the goals. This might be the great chance to mobilize people all around the United States to come out stronger in the end, which is what I’m hoping for.
Q: Has the idea of the Paris Agreement been effective thus far?
A: I think first of all it is a great hope, because there is such a broad support behind it. I would never have dreamed of so many countries supporting it. Now almost every country in the world has delivered their national plans. It entered into force much earlier than anyone could expect it to, now it’s under sort of a transitional solution. This is another sign that the agreement has stronger support than almost any other international agreement. There are reasons for hope, but there still needs to be much more delivered, which is really the great challenge here. Nations must upgrade their emissions levels and, in a sense, support and push each other toward raising their ambitions. I would like a type of competition among countries where they try and push each other’s ambition levels higher to really take the lead in this race. I think it would be possible, though not the most likely right now. I think reality will require such ideas from us.
Q: Do you think the U.N. Conference of Parties (COPs) are effective overall? How could the COPs become a more effective tool in combating climate change?
A: There is a need for some reforms within the U.N. system, certainly. But they will take time and countries could come up with requirements for reforms that can’t be accepted by others, so I think it’s rather about releasing more positive forces in other channels as well as supplementing the main U.N. track with other supporting actions. A group of countries, could form a coalition to move ahead, regardless of what will happen with the Paris Agreement. Such an action is not going against the Paris Agreement, but is rather supporting it. NGOs could also push nations to upgrade national ambition levels since it’s easier to work on the local and national level than solely on the global level. I think that the local and the national commitments and engagements by people is enormously important.
Q: What is the role of the younger generations in today’s era of accelerated technology and climate change? How do millennials and the younger generations – what can we do, what’s our role?
A: It’s all about values. It’s extremely important that young people feel they can take the lead and express values like justice, community, and personal responsibility. We both have to work together, collectively in the community, but also there is a need for personal responsibility and certainly for greater justice. These values could be expressed by young people. Additionally, we have to build sustainability into the DNA of our own lives, and the global interconnected society. The values many young people have could really support and express sustainability, allowing them to be leaders of this new kind of lifestyle. Finally, I think younger generations must act with hope. There is a difference between being just superficially optimistic and to be hopeful, however. Hope is a much deeper thing and it’s also something where you start to act based on hope — in your local community or in a bigger shared community between different societies. Everyone should trust that acting on hope leads to something. Reality will start to change, and again, there’s a certain power in this. That power should be trusted. Young people must feel that and trust in hope.